In the world of community radio, there is probably no term more contentious than “professionalism.” Say the word and watch the conversation flare up. Why is the p-word so threatening? Probably because at places like community/college/LPFM radio stations, most community media people are volunteers. So when words like “professionalism” surface, folks imagine themselves being replaced by paid staff, or “professionals.”
Or, in other contexts, professionals see themselves being replaced by volunteers. Hence lots of apprehension and defensiveness.
So maybe professionalism is not the word that I’m looking for. In any event, here’s what I mean when I use it. Or, more precisely, here are four things that I as a radio listener want from community radio public affairs programmers when I use that word.
1. I want you to let me in on what you are talking about.
A couple of years ago Al Robles died. He was a beloved San Francisco based Filipino American poet who had been very active in the 1970s struggle to prevent the closure of that city’s International Hotel. The I-Hotel housed mostly Filipino immigrants. Keeping it open became a Bay Area cause. Robles was a huge voice in that battle.
After Robles’ passing, I heard two programs about him on two different Bay Area community radio stations. The hosts of both shows read poetry and broadcast songs in his honor. Neither explained who he was. Neither explained what the International Hotel struggle was about.
Both hosts were clearly in awe of Robles’ accomplishments and his legacy, so much so that it did not occur to either that some of the station’s listeners may never have heard of him. I am older, and I remember the I-Hotel fight. But these programs impressed me as classic examples of what I call Broadcasting To The Club. If you have to ask who Robles was, this attitude seems to say, you are not a member and need not apply.
I have lost track of the number of times I’ve listened to an interview on a community radio station in which the host didn’t even bother to identify the interviewee in the closing outro of the program. If you are a community broadcaster, please make me and everybody else a member of your club. Take the time to tell us about who and what you are talking. Don’t assume everybody knows.
It’s a little more work, but not that much.
2. I want you to listen to your guest.
This one is harder.
A long time ago, I took a seminar on doing radio interviews. The seminar leader told us this story, which I recount here as best I can recall.
“I was hosting a cable TV interview show,” he explained:
“and one day the guest of a live program I was doing called to say he might be late. I became terribly worried and distraught. When he finally arrived just slightly before the hour, I was so relieved. I rushed him into the live studio, sat him down, and started the program. He said something at first, but I was in such a hurry to get to my questions that I just nodded and went ahead.
A couple of hours after the program, my boss called and asked me to come into his office. He played a video tape of the beginning of the show, particularly the thing that the man had said that I ignored.
‘I’m terribly sorry I was late,’ the tape showed my guest explaining, ‘but my son has just died, and I’ve had to make arrangements.’
I looked at my boss. ‘I’m fired, right?’ I said. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘I’m sorry too’.”
This is probably the most disturbing example I’ve ever heard of a host ignoring his or her guest, but I often hear far less dramatic instances. These shows really comes off as dead air, so to speak. Please listen to your guest. Put down your list of questions and pay attention. Please react to what she is saying. When she says or refers to something that you think the audience doesn’t understand, clarify it, or ask your guest to clarify.
Show me that you are actually there. If you aren’t really there, why should I bother to listen?
3. I want you to interview people with whom you disagree.
I find nothing so boring as a community radio show in which the host only interviews people with whom he or she agrees. Conversely, I find the most interesting programs those in which the host clearly doesn’t agree with the guest. Sadly, there is an overabundance of the former type of program, and a scarcity of the latter.
Too many community media people see themselves as propagandists, anxious to “get the word out,” but uninterested in replicating over the airwaves what makes life so interesting—dialogue and uncertainty. Be brave. Have someone on your show whose ideas you oppose. Challenge them. Maybe you’ll prevail. Maybe not. But you’ll be a lot more interesting to hear.
4. I want you to act like you are part of a radio station.
Years ago I had a show at a community radio outlet. One day, as I was getting ready to do my program, the previous host was wrapping up an interview with a guest. “We could talk about this subject for hours,” he gushed. “Unfortunately the next show is coming up.” Unfortunately that was me.
Now I listen to community radio stations all over the US, UK, and Canada. Like the situation I just described, not a few sound like time sharing condo complexes. The host comes on, does her thing, and leaves. There’s no reference to anything else that’s going on at the station—the next show, the show after that. What’s going to be on tomorrow morning? Nothing. It’s kind of sad.
How about a little esprit de corps, folks? How about a sense that I’m listening to a whole bunch of great people making a radio station work, and not just your show?
Back to my earlier question—is this “professionalism” that I want? Well, these skills tend to come from people who do radio a lot. And most people who do radio a lot tend to get paid. But you don’t have to be a professional to try to do these things. So maybe the right word I’m looking for is “accessibility” or “inclusiveness.” You pick yours.
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