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September 11 and the radio revolution

NPR’s Ombudsman has a new post promising “massive 9/11 anniversary coverage” this weekend. It mentions a listener who has protested the network’s use of the phrase “terror attacks.”

“Terror did not attack us on September 11th, terrorists did,” she wrote to NPR.

Terror does not have hands with which to use box cutters. Terrorists do. Terror is a feeling. Terrorists are human beings who make choices to kill innocent people. The phrase “terror attacks” takes the responsibility off the men who committed premeditated murder and puts it on a feeling. Please, use the phrase “terrorist attacks” to describe what happened that day.

NPR’s Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos thinks this is a valid criticism. “Do you think the phrase ‘terror attack’ diffuses personal responsibility into a generalized feeling?” he asks. “Are we sliding into a form of political correctness, or language that is so neutral that it smacks of the inability to look a terrorist in the eye and call her what she is?”

With all due respect to NPR, one comes away from this exchange sensing an inclination to replace big difficult questions with little manageable ones. That’s understandable. The problem with anniversary journalism is that there isn’t any meaningful reason for revisiting the moment in question, save that we’ve decided that birthdays have meaning.

But since the media event is upon us, I thought I’d tackle two big questions for a spell. What did September 11, 2001 mean for the United States of America, and what does it mean for radio?


There’s no question in my mind that the vicious Al Qaeda criminals who killed thousands of innocent people on September 11, 2001 (including a member of my family) helped push  this country into a long period of paralysis and decline. The United States responded to the attacks with two wars. The Afghanistan war made superficial sense at the time. The Iraq war made no sense. Both failed.

Worse than failing, they subsumed our nation into a unilateral “war on terror” that never really identified its target. Instead, it distracted us from the precarious health of the United States itself, verging on economic collapse after years of massive and unmonitored corruption in its financial sector. When that corruption took its devastating toll in 2008, the country briefly rallied around a new president, then sank into a morass of ideological posturing and paranoia.

Consolidation and change

Within this ten year context, the media landscape dramatically changed. By 2001 the Clear Channel consolidation was in full swing—the network gobbling up about nine percent of the nation’s radio stations, and far more of its aggregate advertising revenue. Conventional local deejays disappeared, replaced by digitized national ones, skilled in the art of sounding like they lived next door.

Meanwhile, the Pandora Music Genome project had just begun to take off in 2001. It was followed by a variety of online radio experiments that allowed users an unprecedented degree of individual choice in online music listening and production.

The consequence was a marvelous period of online creativity: podcasts, Live365-casts, and radio aggregation applications galore. But the locally based radio station that struggled to bring everyone into a real time dialogue about the nation’s future became lost in the upheaval—its project seen as almost irrelevant. Attacks on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting further threatened its prospects, especially in rural areas.

It would be naive to imagine that open public dialogue is the only solution to our national dilemma, but it is part of the solution. Today, I experience as a precious national commodity every public, college, community, and commercial radio program that attempts to bring different people together into a civil real-time discussion.

Authentic radio is live. It is local. It is about the real time sharing of music, talk, and ideas. Although I write with admiration and excitement about the latest technological developments in online radio and audio, they will mean little for us as a people if they only encourage users to listen to or produce music and talk in fragmented cubicles or tribes, cut off from others or other groups by digital space and time.

We have had enough of that in this country. We need more real radio. We need public and market based strategies that bring real radio to our ears. This is my hope on the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001.

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