The New York Times has a nice feature story on the latest wave of Low Power FM radio stations sweeping the country, thanks to the Federal Communications Commission’s licensing spree of 2014 through this year. Authored by Brett Sokol, it surveys LPFMs from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. The piece even quotes little old me saying something. To wit:
“There’s still a need for local news and information, which many public radio stations have abandoned,” [I] said. “There’s a lot of stations that just go on automatic pilot and play NPR and satellite downloads. That’s Low Power FM’s ace in the hole.”
This comment sparked a quick email visitation by none other than Michael Oreskes, Senior Vice President of News at NPR, his missive cc’ed to three other NPR staffers. Oreskes wrote to me that he was “fascinated” by my comment “suggesting that public radio stations have retreated from local journalism.”
Here is the lion’s share of his:
”My impression as a relatively recent arrival to the system is precisely the opposite.
The system is sprawling, of course, and I’m sure we can find examples of anything we’d like to highlight. Stations, as you cite in your quote, that remain automated, for example and don’t add much.
But having traveled the country now for a year and a half visiting public radio stations, I find an exceptional determination to expand local journalism and a commitment to serving the information needs of their communities. Have you been to St Louis lately (where the public radio station merged with the local news website to strengthen both news gathering and distribution)? Or Michigan (where Michigan Public Radio did a first class job on the flint water crisis) Or Marfa, Texas?
I was a presenter this week at the RTDNA dinner. I handed an Edward R Murrow award to a reporter from Marfa public radio. Yes, that’s Marfa in west Texas. A town of 1,819. The reporter won for exposing exploitation in the Juarez Valley. That’s community journalism at its finest.
Indeed, public radio was a huge presence at the RTDNA dinner and among the award winners. Awards are only one measure of a news organizations community commitment, of course. But they do suggest where resources are going. You are the researcher. So what if you looked at the rtdna award list this year versus, say, ten years ago? I’d bet you’d find a much greater local public radio presence. There are 2000 journalists in public radio. At a time when other local news media are cutting back, the list of available jobs at local radio stations is long.”
“Not withstanding my lengthy comment, I’m not writing to complain,” Oreskes’ email concluded. “I’m writing to understand why you see something very different from what I’m seeing.”
Fair enough. But before we launch into a debate fueled by anecdotal evidence, or, even less convincingly, by citing the awards that an industry gives itself, let’s begin with an assessment of public radio localism offered within the last ten years. Speaking of “information needs of their communities,” I refer to the Knight Commission’s report titled “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age”:
“Like private media, public broadcasting in the United States has a mixed history of providing local news and information. On the one hand, a 2007 Roper opinion poll found that nearly half of all Americans trust the Public Broadcasting Service ‘a great deal,’ higher than the numbers rating commercial television and newspapers. On the other hand, with some notable exceptions, public broadcasting in America has been widely criticized as being insufficiently local or diverse. Public stations do not have a strong record of spearheading local investigative journalism, and most public radio broadcasters have little or no local news reporting staff. Finally, again with some promising exceptions, local public stations have failed to embrace digital innovations as a way to better connect with their communities.”
This report was released in 2009. Oreskes might call it outdated. Here’s the problem. Most people don’t “look” at public radio, either for RTDNA awards or classified ads for reporters. They listen to public radio stations. And when I listen, what I hear, overwhelmingly, is nationally distributed programming. Even at the best public radio stations, I experience local programming about local issues as a pleasant surprise.
Since Oreskes cites Marfa Public Radio, let’s examine its Monday lineup. Although the morning schedule offers several in-studio topic discussion programs, there’s only one show for the entire day that promises local talk about local issues: West Texas Talk. That show is scheduled for 6:30 to 7:00 pm, the dregs-of-drive-time dinner hour, when almost nobody I know listens to the radio, and everybody is busy making supper and getting ready for Netflix shows. The rest of the day serves up syndicated content: Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, and a couple of nationally distributed music programs.
Name me a public radio station where I can expect to hear local information at any time of the day the way I typically hear the usual syndicated content or generic talk programming. Bottom line: local reporting and coverage are the exception that proves the rule at most public radio stations, even the very best ones.
Given the direction this response is going, it may surprise Oreskes and his cc’ed NPR colleagues to learn that I think this is understandable. I was a volunteer programmer in the 1980s for the news department at listener supported station KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California. There I produced endless features about local issues. I saw how extremely labor intensive local coverage is to produce, and the huge challenge of framing that coverage in ways that drew in the station’s audience as effectively as do hot-button national and global stories. United States public radio has never developed an effective national strategy for encouraging and supporting local information radio service. Instead, taken as a whole, the policy has boiled down to “Let Them Eat Car Talk”—incentives that encouraged stations to dump local programming initiatives and pick up distributed fare.
Low Power FM is supposed to fill that gap. But as I told Brett Sokol of The New York Times, that mission will continue to resemble a San Francisco style uphill climb. First, opposition to LPFM has done the service great damage. NPR and commercial radio fiercely fought its expansion in the 2000s, delaying the development of several thousand stations through valuable years when more Americans still listened to FM. Second, although the government has opened up an LPFM platform, there’s no real national strategy for public broadcasting to help these fledgling operations get started and make it through their first hungry years. I’m already seeing LPFM projects flounder as it becomes clear that startup support for them just doesn’t exist in these difficult times.
In the end, localism may be Low Power FM’s “ace in the hole,” but the service doesn’t have a lot of wager money to bring to the table. That’s going to be a big problem for the foreseeable future.
All these difficult issues aside, I must say that I loved Sokol’s article. During my interview he and I talked with great enthusiasm about that “Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn / Global Service Center for Quitting Chinese Communist Party” (aka Falun Gong) Mandarin language LPFM mentioned in his piece, soon to launch in Brooklyn. Here at Radio Survivor we’ve been following many of the stations he surveyed, such as San Francisco Community Radio. I do wish that NPR wasn’t so very tender about the localism question, and saw Low Power FM as a potential partner rather than a slight to its predominance. I also look forward to some day in the future when we have a White House and Congress that both view public radio as an asset, rather than an ideological threat.
But Michael Oreskes and I have said enough, I think. Your feedback, pushback, or any other kind of back is always welcome in the comment section below.
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