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.
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 …