Commentary & Opinion
10:36 am
Tue May 1, 2012

Alan Chartock: Brave New World

In the beginning, the country’s public radio stations decided they needed an organization to provide them with world and national news. Probably based on As It Happen from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, National Public Radio (NPR)’s All Things Considered was started.  If the member stations all kicked in, it was theorized, together they could afford a formidable news-gathering operation.  Today, WAMC alone pays the network more than $800,000 a year. That’s a lot of money.  It’s worth it, but it’s a tremendous burden considering all the other things we do here.

There’s a lot of new technology on the horizon. In addition to FM radios in cars, before long people will be installing internet radios. This has fascinating implications. If you want to listen to WAMC from here to California, for example, internet radio would make that possible.  But it also raises another, scarier scenario – the very future of the member stations. Right now, if you listen to any story on All Things Considered or Morning Edition, you will hear the reporters leading you to the NPR web page. You always hear them say, “If you want more on this story, go to NPR.org.” Think about it:  why would you need your regional station if you could get all your news from just one place?  But what about regional and local news, you ask?  What if I answered that NPR was already establishing small news organizations around the country that would report to them and not to the local stations? So theoretically, you enter your zip code into your internet radio and get your regional news or weather. 

In the end, we have all made WAMC. We don’t change our news standards when one party or another wins an election. We have had Governors and legislators come after us because they don’t like who we are or what we say. The courage that we have comes from you. If each of the hundreds of thousands of people who listened to WAMC would throw a few dollars into the kitty, we would never even have to do a fund drive.  The beauty of WAMC is that we do things no one else does. Where else will you get a Roundtable or Medical Monday or Vox Pop?

When you buy the Sunday New YorkTimes, they ask you for six bucks and when you give them the money, they hand you the Times. At WAMC, we give it all to you up front and then we ask that you kick something in. Most of you don’t need to be reminded about this but what you can do is ask others to pay their dues, just like you do.               

The changing technology will allow those who want to concentrate all the listening in just one or two places to prevail.  That’s called media consolidation.  The more news outlets there are, the more democracy. The more places we can all go for information, the better off we all are.  If NPR becomes the only public radio station in the country, as good as they are, we will all be the poorer for it. When you listen to Joe Donahue you will not only hear the best authors in the world, you will also get a regional perspective.

Soon we are going to have a Presidential election. The Republicans are on record as having said they want to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and, by extension, NPR and PBS. They are up front and forthright about this. They tried in Congress and if they win the Presidency and the Senate, it will be clear sailing for them. Then it will be up to us to save ourselves. We get about five percent of our money from the federal government. If we have to, we’ll make that up but there will be stations all over the country that are not so fortunate. This is going to be a very close Presidential election, make no mistake about it. This is not an endorsement or even a suggestion about which way to vote. It is a call to get ready for anything, technological or political, that might happen. 

Alan Chartock is President and CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio

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