This week, ethical breaches at the New York Times’ radio offerings came to a head. The lessons of how content and errors in judgment related to it can impact a station’s visibility in the community are matters worthy of reflection.
On Jan. 11, the Public Radio Program Directors association sent a letter to the New York Times, raising concerns from nearly 30 stations about ethical failures involving many parties. One of the Times’ recognized names, Michael Barbaro, host of “The Daily,” is at the center of the scandal.
The Times lays out the criticisms, which include Barbaro allegedly pressuring reporters around coverage and failure to disclose his romantic relationship with Lisa Tobin, the executive producer of the now discredited “Caliphate” podcast. Andy Mills, implicated in past controversies at WNYC, is also among the names raised amid these issues.
At least one station, Houston Public Media, has dropped “The Daily,” which became a syndicated radio offering last year. Tobin, Mills and Barbaro have yet to issue their own statements, though the Times has noted Barbaro regrets some of his actions.
The signatories of PRPD’s letter take a very clear position on programming that should be instructive to every station. “[M]illions of Americans rely on our news organizations every day as one of their most trusted sources of information and we are accountable for all the programming that we provide to them,” they write. “That trust, and our responsibility in upholding that trust, is the very foundation on which we operate; it is the most important and sacred bond that ties us together. When that trust is called into question, we must respond. We must make our very best decisions about the programming we deliver and ensure it meets the high standards that our listeners expect and demand from us, while also staying committed to the standards by which our newsrooms operate.”
In brief, when programming does not live up to the trust listeners put in it, such stumbles put the station in a position where its credibility and trust as a whole are put into question. In economically challenging times, no station can really afford to have audiences feel like the outlet can’t be trusted with its programming, because that cascades into every relationship including giving.
For many years, community radio stations took a laissez faire approach to programming, believing that individual statements of paid and volunteer producers on air were up to them. Sometimes this could result in creative radio, such as the freeform radio movement of the 1970s and 1980s. At other times, it could result in broadcasting random opinion and conspiracy theories. In the last 10 years or so, however, more stations realized what larger outlets did before — the listener generally believes that the medium is responsible for what it puts on the air.
Today, it is common for community radio to ensure producers get training about what language is legally and ethically permissible. Plenty of stations still adhere to an open-ended approach that relies on producers to handle the airwaves well. Yet no station is immune from weighing out the interests of an individual producer and the station’s status in the city.
Community radio has come a long way in appreciating the art of radio requires an audience to make it magical. Trust is key to such a bond.