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NPR Should Look Beyond the Beltway

Pete Simon writes that it’s time for some serious adjustments within public radio

Even before the Juan Williams fiasco there were those of us in public radio circles who saw a hobbled system that has never recovered from funding termination threats posed by President Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman.

Since 1981, we have seen far too many public radio managers, acting out of this insecurity, hung up on the conformity of an audience-building mindset (following consultants and self-appointed experts, best typified by the moniker “guys in suits with charts”), at the expense of possessing a spirit of spontaneity, innovation and true passion for what should be a unique form of radio.

Pete Simon says public radio needs to draw upon — and assure the survival of — small-market, low-budgeted urban public stations. There is a place where this spirit can be rekindled, but it is far from large-market pressures and suffocating conformity.

For 30 years, the system has been in a slow glide. A mindset of complacency was illustrated recently when NPR and CPB both declined to get involved in any serious effort to lobby the FCC to expand the noncommercial/educational FM band to (at least) 87.7 MHz.

NPR and CPB apparently are happy with the status quo, in which all they can think of are new HD channels on existing public stations that they think will fill programming voids. Nice theory — if those HD channels are controlled by public entities other than ones controlling the main signals, entities not steeped in play-it-safe approaches to programming. Fat chance!

I’m reminded of the bankruptcy of this mindset whenever I hear the highly-compressed commercial sports talk (“The Ticket”) signal at 87.7 in Denver, bleeding over into the signal of Denver’s classical music station at 88.1 FM operated by Colorado Public Radio.

Through inaction, the slow-mo approach of NPR and CPB has killed chances to expand the NCE portion of the FM band. They just stick with what is safe on the programming side of things.

While on business travel over the past two years, I listened to large-market public stations in New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore/Washington, Norfolk and Richmond. In every locale, there was a sameness to the presentation of news and music.

In Philadelphia, WRTI, a station I listened to loyally 30 to 40 years ago before moving to Colorado, sounded alien to me even though it continues to play jazz. The station has gone through a massive “upgrade.” Gone are passionate and knowledgeable jazz announcers, replaced by uninspired people who sound as if they are reading from cue cards.

The best jazz station I’ve heard in this part of the country, in terms of content and presentation, is WESM(FM) at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Its remote locale has insulated them from major-market pressures and over-analysis that have crippled WRTI and many other “big-city” stations.

Break the mold

One solution: Draw upon and assure the survival of small-market and low-budgeted urban public stations.

Currently the KGNUs, WWOZs and small community stations have little or no money for adequate promotion of programming, training and developmental funding for producing unique radio programming.

Conservative larger-market stations have had their chance to do this; with a few exceptions (such as WNYC’s “The Take Away” and WHYY’s new community news reporting initiative) the big boys have not contributed anything new or innovative for listeners down the street or across the country. “Conventional wisdom” within the public radio community runs contrary to this observation.

Some large-market stations, still in an expansionist mode, see the pittance that small stations receive from CPB and simply are waiting for smaller ones nearby to fold so they can “gladly” enter into “partnerships” with them.

If played out, this scenario will be the death knell of a system screaming for ideas and a viable platform to develop programs, announcers, reporters and producers.

Obviously, a lot of struggling small-market stations are lucky to broadcast every day. Then there are hamlets in remote places that only need the right nurturing and money to make a national impact.

Talent pool

One such place is KVNF(FM), Paonia, Colo., a town with just 3,000 people nestled up against the West Elk Mountains and Wilderness Area.

Paonia’s population is made up of miners, old hippies, writers, artists and talented, insightful reporters who work at one of this country’s best environmental newspapers, High Country News. With an NPR station of more than 30 years in town, the possibilities for this potential talent pool of all ages are endless, given serious funding, for the development of radio programs and new voices with untried/unheard-of concepts for public radio.

As CPB goes through the congressional microscope again, it would be wise to evaluate where its limited funds for qualified stations are spent. Do they want to continue funding all stations (in part) by matching how much non-federal money each station raises each year? This formula works best for major-market stations, where the potential for community underwriting and potential listener support is high. Compare that to a place like Paonia and the 160,000 people that KVNF reaches across seven rural/frontier counties in western Colorado.

As it jumps through hoops with the new Congress over various issues, including the firing of commentator Williams, NPR would be wise to add to its roster of commentators someone from a town like Paonia, where it could start by seeking out one of the writers at High Country News.

I’m talking about people who are on par intellectually with major-market “experts.” In the Internet age of the 21st century, people speaking from such places should no longer be thought of by people at NPR as charming yet nothing more than “country bumpkins.” Is NPR ready to walk-their-talk about exploring ideas, diversity, etc.?

Let’s change things up a bit to help our National Public Radio networks expand the horizons of listeners, with fresh ideas and concepts developed away from the Potomac. A good place to start: NPR should broadcast one of its regular news programs for a week from KVNF. That would turn some heads — even those of NPR critics — inside and outside the Beltway.

The author has worked in public and community radio since 1974. He is an announcer on KUVO(FM) in Denver.