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Why Public Radio Isn't
(And What You Can Do About It)
(C) 1992 Whole Earth Review
(C) 1993 The Utne Reader
(C) 2002 Rachel Anne Goodman, All Rights Reserved

By Rachel Anne Goodman

          When was the last time you felt like you were the "public" in public radio? Seldom, you say? Now there's a new trend that may remove you for good. Once seen as immune to market speculation and rapid swings in format, public radio has gone commercial in its thinking. The programming will soon follow, and the biggest losers in this battle for dollars will be us, the listening audience.

          This article is an attempt to analyze that latest trends in public radio programming, and to reveal the conversations that are taking place behind closed doors. What is at stake is more than just hearing your favorite classical piece with the minor movements cleanly excised for "happier listening." We stand to lose our voice in the one medium that claims to be by and for the public.

          There are approximately 1,500 noncommercial stations in the US.  Some use the label "public", some "community", and some "educational." For the sake of this discussion, "public" will mean the 340 stations funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and interconnected to a central programming source by satellite. "Community" generally refers to stations as to a community group or college, with a strong local identity, that upholds public access as a guiding principal. While there are many different formats on the noncommercial dial, trends are afoot that affect everyone equally.

          It doesn't take a Sherlock Holmes to find signs of public radio's current direction. Just take a look at the audience descriptions in this year's Broadcasting Yearbook. For every one that says "ethnic/cultural" or "diverse," there are three that read, "target audience: 'upwardly mobile, educated youth,' 'upscale, affluent, societally conscious,' '25-50 urban professionals,' 'educated adults.'"

          Most stations make no apologies about the high income level of their target audience. They assume they will attract the wealthiest listeners by offering an inoffensive menu of classical music and news. A recent CPB-funded survey of 750 public stations found that classical-music formats dominated the field, occupying 34 percent of on-air hours. Jazz and news came in second and third. The survey found that public radio had less appeal for African Americans, Asians, and non-high school-educated folks. Station programming plans through 1995 show no indication of a change in that demographic.

One Station/One Format

          There is a new move toward single-format public radio stations.  WHYY in Philadelphia used to have news, classical, folk, blues, jazz, and local public-affairs programming.  One day the program director called in the on-air volunteers and told them their services would no longer be needed. The station went to an all-news format, relying heavily on satellite feeds from NPR and augmenting it with local news and talk.  The trend caught on at KPBS in San Diego, which went all news/talk in winter 1990.  "The whole point was to serve the community," insists Michael Flaster, program manager and architect of the switch.  "We didn't want to isolate the communities and say, 'this is your half-hour, and this is your half-hour."

          These stations are reporting a big increase in dollars and a surge in their ratings.  Most of the dozen or so all-news stations are in major cities, where there are lots of other radio choices.  But what happens when a small town's only non-commercial station follows this path?

Space Invaders: Satellite Takes Over

          Once a station gets a satellite dish, hundreds of high-quality programs become available at the flip of a switch.  Currently the average programming ratio is 60 percent local, 40 percent national, but the hours for satellite-fed shows are increasing, along with their placement in prime-time slots.  Program directors argue that highly produced programs like "Morning Edition" and "Talk of the Nation" draw more listeners and dollars.  They also cost so much that some stations are cutting other programs to pay for them.  Does that mean that all our local public stations will become mere repeaters for National Public Radio in Washington?  In the end, the expense of these programs may ensure that the local programming will remain.  But what exactly does local programming sound like?

Uneasy Listening

          Consultants from a Cleveland, Ohio affiliate are hard-selling public radio stations a new, $8,000 computer software package.  The program spits out playlists each day based on key words that are designed to inspire people to tune in.  For the morning it chooses "uplifting, inspirational" classical pieces.  The computer prints out popular selections which are composed in major keys, or if not, suggests omitting the movements in minor keys.  "Familiarity creates tune-in" is a favorite catchphrase of program directors.  That means you will hear warhorses trotted out in formation. The tried-and-true melodies of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto.  How about the theme from Swan Lake?  Or that second movement from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony?  Does this sound like the Classical Top Forty?  WMRA-FM, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, recently (ed. note: 1991) spent $18,000 of listener contributions (unbeknownst to the contributors) for classical marketing research to go with their new computer-run programming system.

The Economy Made Us Do It

          Most public radio stations will defend their narrow programming in terms of the current economy.  True, budget crunches on the state level are affecting the university funding that is the life-blood of these public stations.  While the economic arguments are real, they are also self-created.  Stations have become increasingly autocratic in their staffing and have enlarged their staffs to accommodate the increased paperwork.  They have replaced volunteers with paid announcers, citing the need for "oversight" of air sound.  The most popular programs tend to come from NPR or APR (American Public Radio) and are the most expensive.  A typical station can pay as much as $50,000 for "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition."  Although listener contributions are at an all-time high at most stations, the increasing cost of satellite programming keeps them struggling to balance their budgets.  A cycle is set in motion in which program directors measure a show by its profitability alone, forgetting that there may be other yardsticks by which to measure success.

The Consultants Made Us Do It

          Did all these program directors spontaneously decide to eliminate the "community element" from their stations?  Hardly.  A critical document came out of NPR in 1986 - the Audience-Building Task Force Report.  With the goal of doubling public radio's audience by the year 1990, it advised "professionalizing" the sound by eliminating programs where "each person selects program material on the basis of personal taste."  Commercial audience research from Hagen Media Research in Washington is also being circulated around NPR stations.  It reveals that "talent" (read: local human-being announcer) just isn't important to listeners.  The issue hinges on program directors having control over every aspect of programming, including what announcers will play and say.  This control is centralized through the Public Radio Program Directors Association, a group headed by consultant Craig Oliver (ed note: Mr. Oliver has moved on), who has pushed his single-format theory aggressively within the public radio system.  What is at stake when announcers are removed from artistic decisions?  Up until recently, most hosts were chosen on the basis of their speaking skills and their musical knowledge.  They had a personal passion about their music that we shared with them as listeners.  I've even been persuaded to listen to Swiss yodeling because the DJ introduced it so well. A DJ used to be a person you could call up and talk to.  Now the internal memos advise DJs to ignore requests if they don't fit the format.

Keeping Regional Identity

          In some parts of the country, you can tell where you are just by tuning across the dial.  You can still hear a Norwegian lilt in the Midwest, or a drawl in the Southeast.  In the rural South you might find obituaries read at 10 am and the swap-shop call-in program at noon.  One California station has a community bulletin board where you can find a vegetarian, lesbian roommate or a pet chihuahua; turn the dial, and the local city council is dueling it out over building a new mall.  There's a women's show discussing self-defense, and there's a Chicano show talking about immigration.  At WMMT in eastern Kentucky, you'll hear about the coal strikes, land-use battles and music that characterize life in the region.  The common vision of these community stations stems from understanding the uniqueness of the listeners they serve.  Local citizens actually have some say in what comes out of their radio.

          If you live in rural Maine, what's wrong with having some guy from St. Paul, Minnesota giving you the day's news and music?  The answers cut to the heart of what's bothering many folks today.  We may be a highly mobile society, but we still want to know where we live, and to feel connected to our neighbors.  When there are no local people doing shows of local or regional interest, the community is not represented to itself over the airwaves. During the L.A. riots, (ed note: 1991, Rodney King Verdict) some citizens who turned to public radio for information heard news feeds from CNN being reported from Atlanta.

          One public station I worked for told me I couldn't read a lost-dog announcement that was called in because it made us sound too "provincial." Soon after, they dropped the bluegrass programming because the rural audience it attracted "wasn't educated and upscale enough" and didn't "fit our mission statement."  This station serves a largely rural audience. Public-radio program directors have misread their core audience in much the same way presidential candidates have alienated voters.  As with election speeches, during fund raisers they claim to give listeners a voice in programming decisions which does not actually exist.  As in our two-party system, listeners must choose from a tiny menu of programs when they vote with their pledge dollars.  More "audience research" is being done these days to determine the needs of listeners.  However, the Arbitron rating service used by many stations measures the average number of people who listen to existing programs, not audience needs.

Over the Rainbow

          The face of America is changing; unless public radio changes with it, it will continue to suffer from an elitist image and, eventually, diminishing resources.  On a national level, there are encouraging signs.  Peter Pennekamp, NPR's v.p. for cultural programming, says his department has just received a $400,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to explore and develop programming for multi cultural audiences.  Lynn Chadwick,  President of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, is pushing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to increase its service grants from $2 million to $5 million.  While opposing the plan to bring networks into rural areas, she is lobbying for support of local programming.  Responding to ethnic and regional needs, networks like "Radio Bilingual" in California, "The Native American Broadcasting Consortium," and "The Southern Regional Network" are filling the gap.  Still, when it comes to local control, in 1992 there are only 39 noncommercial stations owned by African Americans, and 13 owned by Hispanics groups.

Listeners Want to Be Heard

          A quiet battle is being waged by several citizens' groups across the country to gain some voice in their public stations' programming.  At the heart of the fight is not which format will prevail, but who decides and who is responsible.  One morning last year, the people of Grand Junction, Colorado woke up to find that their local public radio station, KPRN, had been taken over by its urban cousin, KCFR from Denver, which beamed its signal into town via satellite.  KPRN's board of directors, acting independently of the community advisory board, simply gave the station's license away to a new entity created to oversee both stations.  The community advisory board and other disgruntled citizens are now involved in litigation that they hope will return local control of the station.

          At KUNM in Albuquerque, New Mexico, citizens are fighting a similar battle.  Management replaces community volunteers with an all-jazz format right after soliciting money based on the original eclectic programming. The ex-volunteers filed three lawsuits, charging the station management with fraudulent trade practices, a breach in First Amendment laws, and limiting public access.  The University of New Mexico, which owns the license, has already spent a quarter of a million dollars on legal costs. Five years later, the citizens' group has settled for representation on an advisory board with decision making power over station policy.  The station management is presently attempting to reverse this agreement.  Claude Stephenson, one of the group of organizers, observes, "The management at public stations is not accountable to the public.  We are trying to create a situation where there are checks and balances on their authority over programming."  His wife, Zoe Econimu, is vice-chair of the embattled advisory board.  She suggests that if attempts at diplomacy fail, listeners should organize a campaign of withholding pledge dollars, boycotting underwriters, and attending advisory board meetings.

Public Radio for the Public

          Radio cannot be for the public unless it is also by the public.  If you live in an area where the public station still seems responsive to local needs, fight like hell to keep it that way.  Get involved as a volunteer, if they still allow such things.  Get together a community watchdog group and have regular listening sessions where the service is evaluated for its responsiveness to its audience.  Get on the community advisory board. Become a regular commentator, airing your (articulate) views on important local topics.  And support the station with your dollars when it does good.

          Write letters; be a responsible pest.  If all else fails, find an open frequency and start your own noncommercial station.  At this writing I know of a half-dozen new community stations preparing to go on the air with a local service.

          To quote community radio pioneer Lorenzo Milam, "A radio station should not be a hole in the Universe for making money, or feeding an ego, or running the world. A radio station should be a live place for live people to sing and dance and talk: to talk their talk and walk their walk and know that they (and the rest of us) are not irrevocably dead."

UPDATE: July, 2002

          Please Note: This article was written in 1992. Some of the factual references made are dated, due to the time that has passed since the research was undertaken which produced this piece. The trends are still in motion, and some stations have passed into memory. This is still a very good start on the subject, and the reader is encouraged to learn more about the subject.

          The hope of the author here is to promote dialog and healthy change. The research and this article was not meant to encourage reactionary tactics that hurt innocent individuals.

Some notes about the stations that are mentioned:

  • The Grand Junction, Colorado group now has it's own station: KAFM, and it is very successful.
  • KUNM has resolved it's problems and the University compromised on a democratic system of checks and balances.
  • WHYY is still "News and Information" and local talk show host Terry Gross went national in the early 1990's.
  • WMRA in Harrisonburg, VA is now all Classical, using the "Modal Music" format, started by KCFR in Denver and promoted by the management there. The manager of WMRA has now moved on to KUSC in Los Angeles, where the "experiment" continues.

© 2002 Rachel Anne Goodman
Coast Ridge Productions