Why Scott Simon is wrong (5×8 – 5/5/11)

The real history of radio and why it matters, is getting kids excited in school a waste of time, catching up with the Kochs, the new reality in Bemidji, on Jackie Cooper, and pothole poetry.


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1) THE REAL HISTORY OF RADIO

NPR’s Scott Simon penned an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune today to explain why people should support public radio even if they hate it.


Still, the goal of public broadcasting isn’t just to serve the audience you have. It’s to be there for people all across the country who may listen, but can’t contribute; those who don’t listen, and those who’ve never heard NPR but are quite sure that they don’t like it.

Forty years ago, radio was trapped in a dispiriting ditch: Top 40 hits, ticky-tacky formats, shock-jocks and news bites that were as much like the pioneer radio reporting of Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid as a McRib is to prime rib.

NPR revived radio. It harnessed radio’s special immediacy, mobility and personality to tell stories from around the world. Broadcasters, not marketers, created NPR. They believed that if they did interesting, reliable and enjoyable shows, people would find them and value them. That’s kind of touching in these days when market research practically tracks your cholesterol count.

It’s true, of course, that there were too many stations playing the same music — especially on the FM band — in the ’70s and ’80s as public radio was getting its sea legs. The theme that NPR came riding to the rescue 40 years ago to save you from commercial radio’s clutches is a popular public radio theme. It’s also utter nonsense, a reflection of the hate-hate relationship between commercial broadcasters and public broadcasters over the years.

I’ve worked in both commercial and public radio, so I’ve got a little firsthand knowledge of both from back around the ’70s through the ’90s. Here’s my story that mirrors that of thousands of hard-working radio professionals: My father-in-law, who owned small local stations in Western Massachusetts and at one point headed the National Association of Broadcasters, was like many commercial broadcasters who Simon never met and has little appreciation for: the kind that served their local communities well; in many cases, better than their public radio station did. Why? Because that’s where they lived.

Public radio, by contrast, was nowhere in sight — or even on the air, frankly — back in 1986 when a freak storm blanketed the Berkshires, where I worked, and threatened its inhabitants (click that link). It wasn’t there at countless government meetings in small towns across America, it wasn’t there when some listener’s dog got lost, or the local fire truck went by and people wanted to know where it was going, it wasn’t there when a young kid was dying of leukemia and someone had to help raise money for his medical treatments. It wasn’t there to collect clothing to help a dozen people, homeless when their apartment house burned down, begin to pick up the pieces.

My commercial radio colleagues and I did all of those things. These stories were repeated at thousands of commercial radio stations all over the country in the ’70s through ’90s. If you’re my age, I bet you’ve got similar stories about radio stations in Minnesota. Maybe none of these stories and daily services to the community were as important as, say, a coup in Mozambique. And maybe none of them would make a good column in the Chicago Tribune. But local radio preserved communities, and it deserves respect from all of us in public radio, Simon included. Real radio is local. It requires a sense of community and a connection to one another. In turn, it helps maintain that connection.

Commercial radio in these markets didn’t die because they started playing Freebird; it died because local America died. Commercial radio’s business model depended on the local listener shopping at the local business, usually owned by a person who had the same connection to a town that the local broadcaster had. But people stopped shopping local and those businesses began to disappear in favor of the chain stores that now dominate the landscape. The local advertising dried up for the local media. And, soon, local media dried up, too. One after another, the local broadcaster sold out to larger chain broadcasters.

Why? Because people made a choice.

After 17 years in the commercial radio business, I moved to public radio in 1992 because my small-town stations were heading in the same direction. Eventually, we sold my station to a — wait for it — public radio network 40 miles away, which — for the record — hasn’t covered a selectman’s meeting in town since. The local programming is gone. That’s not public radio’s fault. It’s not the former owner’s fault. It’s not the programming’s fault. It’s the fault of the people in that community who didn’t know what they had until it was gone.

As we lost our connection to our local communities, and as chain radio, both public and private, took over, Washington — that’s where Simon works — became the common city around which our media lives rotated. How’s that worked out for us?

Look, I’m as big a public radio supporter as there is (even though you’ll never hear me on a membership drive) but working at those small stations, I learned something that Scott Simon never learned: If you want to sell your product, tell the world what you are, not what someone else isn’t. Also this tip: Don’t make things up. Especially if you’re in the news business.

Public Radio is simply the product of hard-working people who want to tell you what’s going on and tell you why it matters to you. It does great work and whether it continues to serve the nation’s communities is as dependent on the choices you make now as local radio’s future was dependent on the choices people made 20 years ago. It’s not any more complicated or high-falutin’ than that.

I happen to think public radio can stand on its own merits. It doesn’t need to belittle the commercial broadcasters who paved the way for its existence. I think it’s worth supporting, partly because I’ve seen firsthand what happens when you don’t. But, ultimately, it’s your choice.

2) IS THIS A WASTE OF TIME?

No matter what people try to do to inject a little life into a workplace or a school, there’s always someone to make sure that no good deed goes unpunished. A lot of teachers, educators, and volunteers got up early today to go teach people’s kids. The reward for those people who try to get kids excited about something — anything — is easier to attain once they learn to ignore the people who habitually question the effort.

Consider this event yesterday …

View more videos at: http://nbcwashington.com.

This was part of a nationwide simulcast the First Lady had to promote fitness for kids. Up in Harlem, meanwhile, the kids were performing the dance as part of the effort when Beyonce showed up…

A commenter on the Atlanta Journal web site article about the event invokes the tsk-tsk’ing that would make lesser people say, “you know what? To heck with it.”


Wonder how much school/educational time was done preparing for this instead of learning to read, write, science, history, mathematics. Seems like a waste of school classroom time to me.

It’s never a waste of time when someone gives a darn about kids.

3) CATCHING UP WITH THE KOCHS

The liberal guerrilla video group Brave New Foundation, last night released the first video of a campaign against the Koch Brothers, the money behind the Tea Party and other conservative efforts.

Says the New York Times:


The campaign is going right to where the Kochs live, literally. A Brave New Foundation crew filmed outside five of the Kochs’ multimillion-dollar homes: in Manhattan; Southampton, N.Y.; Aspen, Colo; Palm Beach, Fla.; and Wichita, Kan.

on Wednesday

More politics: Iron Ranger Aaron J. Brown analyzes the Minnesota redistricting plan’s effect on northern Minnesota.

4) THE NEW REALITY

What happens to people who are thrown out of work when a big plant closes and they go back to school to get a degree? They get offered jobs for $11 an hour. The last of the Ainsworth Lumber Company employees who went back to school when the company shut down in 2008, are graduating. They thought things would look a lot better than they look now, the Bemidji Pioneer reports today.

“Most of the Ainsworth workers are not as optimistic about getting a job as we were in 2009 when we started,” one person said. “We truly thought by the time the two years were up things would turn around. We should be so excited we are graduating, but instead we are scared to death.”

A workforce center official has the answer: Leave Bemidji.

5) THE KID

Jackie Cooper has died. He was a famous child actor who, among other things, dated Judy Garland when he was 13. Ever wonder why child actors often become screwed-up adults. Cooper was famous for his ability to cry on cue, but relayed the time he couldn’t. The director got the kid to believe a security guard had shot his dog.

“I could visualize my dog, bloody from that one awful shot,” Cooper wrote in an autobiography. “I began sobbing, so hysterically that it was almost too much for the scene. [Taurog] had to quiet me down by saying perhaps my dog had survived the shot, that if I hurried and calmed down a little and did the scene the way he wanted, we would go see if my dog was still alive.”

One other death of note: Claude Chouse has died. He was the last remaining person on the planet who fought in World War I.

Bonus: It’s not spring until Dale Connelly inspires poetry about potholes:


There was a pothole in Cloquet

That was always, somehow, in the way.

When your car took its pounding

The noise was astounding

And bolts were seen rolling away.

Dale is assembling pothole limericks and poetry today.

TODAY’S QUESTION

The Bush-era debate over so-called harsh interrogation techniques has flared anew with the death of Osama bin Laden. Both critics and defenders of methods like waterboarding claim that the successful effort to find Bin Laden vindicates their point of view. Today’s Question: How does the killing of Osama bin Laden affect your view of harsh interrogation techniques?

WHAT WE’RE DOING

We’re in a pledge drive. Some of these programs are rebroadcasts. The originals can be found online.

Midmorning (9-11 a.m.) – First hour: New York Times columnist David Brooks has long been fascinated with the inner workings of the human mind. He joins us to discuss his new book, “The Social Animal,” which explores the interactions of the conscious and subconscious and the role of each in shaping our lives. (Rebroadcast)

Second hour: Amy Chua explains the meaning of being a tiger mom, and what she’s learned from the backlash. (Rebroadcast)

Midday (11 a.m. – 1 p.m.) – Both hours:Seven award-winning reports from Minnesota Public Radio News reporters.

12:30 p.m. – Live coverage of President Obama at the World Trade Center site. PBS’ Newshour is also providing video coverage.

Talk of the Nation (1-3 p.m.) – First hour: Tens of thousands of U.S. troops have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military takes care of its own — with networks of medical care and support. Still, the husbands and wives of those service members often become long-term care givers, and sometimes they fall through the cracks.

Second hour: Fifty years ago, hundreds of men and women, black and white, boarded public buses and took the civil rights movement deep into the heart of the segregated

south.

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) - There’s a new arcade-type game popping up in Twin Cities bars. It’s a spin-off of the game where you use a joystick to move a mechanical claw in hopes of plucking a stuffed animal. But in these tanks, there are about a dozen live lobsters. If you catch one, the bar will cook it up for you. “The Lobster Zone” has been a hit at Tiffany Sports Bar and Shamrock’s in St. Paul, even though it’s been controversial in other states. Laura Yuen will try her luck.

MPR’s Tim Post reports that students who began graduate school two years ago were able to escape the tough job market. Many were confident that after their two years in school the market would improve. But now grad students are heading back into a job market that hasn’t improved much. They have an extra degree but they’ve also added to their student loan debt.

NPR will report on rediscovering a lost voice from rural Appalachian history. Brother Claude Ely was a Pentacostal preacher who could play guitar and hold a tune. When his powerful voice sang praise to the Lord, it was if the heavens were opening up. And Brother Claude influenced secular singers who came after him, singers like Elvis Presley and Ray Charles.

  • John O.

    On Fridays or Saturdays where I grew up, the exploits of the local high school football team or basketball team (especially away games) had everyone’s radio dial set to 1450 AM from the nursing homes to the local taverns.

    One of the local insurance agents had a good radio voice (he also bought a trainload of advertising, of course) and called the games with the Sports Director from the station (who did the PxP).

    There were no cable channels or satellite dishes in that era. If you lived in the really rural areas, radio was your best bet to listen to the Brewers or the Packers. Or you went to one of the local taverns that had one of those antennas that went up 80 feet or so to get a decent TV signal.

  • Bob Collins

    My radio station was a “daytimer.” In the winter, we’d have to power down at sunset — around 4:15. But we also covered a very good girl’s high school basketball team.

    We had authority to broadcast at night — at 3.9 watts. So we did.

    We’d send our broadcast team on the road for a game that would start at 7. Our signal went about a half-mile.

    One night I looked out the window of the station and across the street — in the KMart parking lot — a group of people in cars had gathered. They had driven their to listen to the game.

    I got a million of ‘em.

  • matt

    I am a public radio/public television lover and have been for years. Never sent a dime of support because of the public subsidy. As soon as that ends I will pay for the valuable service. Similarly, but clearly less effective, I have never sent a dime to a commercial radio/tv station as they derive their subsidy through limited licenses handed out by the govt. I have contributed to online radio.

    In the end subsidies no matter the form equates to the govt picking winners and I disapprove. Rush Limbaugh and the Republican party benefit far more from govt support than Scott Simon and Garrison ever have.

  • http://connermccall.com Conner

    I remember listening to the local station growing up. I didn’t get it at the time, but now I do. They used to announce the school menus at all the county schools every morning. Such a ridiculous thing. Wish I had known how great it was when I was growing up, maybe I could have helped save it.

  • Vivian

    Move your body-

    now that is a morning rouser!

  • Bob Collins

    Ah, yes, the school lunch menus. We did those, too. Of course that was back when the kids had one choice. (g)

  • Bob Collins

    //hey derive their subsidy through limited licenses handed out by the govt.

    Let me explain to you how that “subsidy” works in real life. When we were competing for an 80/90 (google it) license in Great Barrington, we had to hire engineers and plenty of Washington FCC lawyer help. We had to hire people to do site surveys that would show the signal pattern of the tower and transmitter. Oh and we had to buy property (or rent it) and pay someone to build a tower. And a transmitter too.

    Then we had to buy out the six competitors for that license, none of whom had any interest in actually operating a radio station in the community — and none of whom actually lived within a rocket launch of the community, but they were in it to make money on the buyout, being paid to go away.

    The “limited license” of course is a technical situation. There has to be some coordination of what frequency and at what power a radio station can operate.

    All the time, of course, I hear this assertion that broadcasters got their licenses “for free.” I wish that had been the case. That “subsidy” bankrupted us.

  • http://bakkenphoto.blogspot.com Noelle

    Re: #1 – this was a great piece, Bob. Thank you.

  • Christin

    I grew up on a farm in South Dakota in the 80’s and remember the local radio station quite well. My dad ran a farm machinery business and would call in to the station and discuss the weather, 4H, and whatever else was going on every morning. There was a time when a very strong tornado came through the area (lifting combines and moving them across lots, tearing the roof off of builldings, etc) and my dad was out running around the yard while talking on the phone with that radio station. The tornado episode was terrifying at the time, but now I look back and smile at the thought. The station was at the heart of the community.

  • Jim Shapiro

    I remember listening attentively to wcco as a kid on winter mornings after a blizzard. Hoping and praying that classes at Nativity School in St. Paul would be canceled. Rejoicing if they were, and resignedly trudging off on the mile walk ( uphill both ways) if they weren’t.

  • Matt

    Hi Bob,

    No doubt it does come at a cost, but once the entry fee is paid then the subsidy is the very valuable market restriction.

    As for the technical requirements I say phooey on that. There is plenty of open spectrum on the FM AM bands that goes unused for fear of interference which is code for restricting access to protect a few businesses. Then we get into the silliness of license requirements and public interest. It is no different than paying protection money to the mob to make sure you are the only numbers racket in the neighborhood. If I am wrong then the radio industry will calmly accept death at the hands of internet delivery and the open market. Local TV has not rolled over in the cable era…I can’t imagine radio doing it.

  • http://newhomeeconomics.wordpress.com Jennifer

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks for sharing the Koch Bros. video. Now I’m off to find a list of products to boycott… but really at this point you pretty much have to boycott any “product” don’t you? The list of what’s OK is significantly shorter than the list of what’s not.

    -Jennifer (@gradientgirl)

  • CHS

    Bob,

    Thanks for the personal insight on the radio debate. That and the comments really made me think about what local radio is and was. I grew up in a small town with a local radio station. In high school they even let us come in and do a radio show of our own. They did the school lunch menus, all the local events, our high school sports games, the list goes on. I honestly am not sure the fate of the station(s) these days but do now realize how much is lost when those disappear. I still go back frequently, but the character of the town has changed. A Starbucks came, and a Home Depot put the lumber yard out of business. It started with WalMart 20 years ago. In any case, times change, sometimes better sometimes not.

    Oh, and that’s quite the rockin ‘stache Bob… nicely done. :)

  • http://norwegianity.wordpress.com Mark Gisleson

    Love your comments about radio. Give me a call after they fire you and I’ll be glad to help you with your resume, pro bono.

  • bob collins

    Re: the ‘stache

    My Robert Goulet years were good years.

  • Ben Chorn

    Wow. Anyone else notice Beyonce’s footwear while she was dancing? Now that’s talent

  • David Wilford

    I like public radio, but the only radio station that carries the local news for where I live (St. Croix County) is WEVR-FM out of Stillwater, every day at 7am and 5pm. I could do without the national news that comes straight from the Republican’s Mighty Wurlitzer, but the local news coverage is thankfully non-partisan.

  • Vivian

    @Ben

    30 year old ankles can do those kinds of things.

  • http://cantusonline.org Mary L

    Wonderful commentary about Simon’s piece, Bob. There’s room in the world for all kinds of things, including radio.