Sunday, February 4, 2007

Stroking the Public Radio Ego

Being the lone radio person in a group of newspaper fogies, I'm finding myself amused by at once the deference, but also sad, comments sent the way of public broadcasting.

On one hand, my print colleagues appreciate the artistic value of radio and audio; on the other, they lament the inability of public broadcasting to financially support as extensive a news network of reporters and editors as newspapers do.

The most public version of this discussion came out when McClatchy announced it would immediately sell the Pioneer Press in Saint Paul, after acquiring it in one of the biggest newspapers sales from Knight Ridder. The e-democracy folks in the Twin Cities, certain the Twin Cities was doomed to becoming a one paper town, floated the idea of the state's largest public broadcaster to purchase the paper. Minnesota Public Radio has a many multi-million dollar budget, buys and sells radio real estate with the help of low cost loans and good standing in credit: why not buy a paper?

As many pointed out in the posts following the idea, the nonprofit may be able to pull off a 12 million dollar acquisition (as it did with the purchase of St. Olaf's WCAL in Northfield), but HALF A BILLION? It's a lot to ask, even the wealthy, and well-endowed Minnesota Public Radio.

But there are other reasons why I wouldn't recommend public broadcasting's hand in the newspaper business. The Americans who do support public broadcasting want the national stuff: All Things Considered, Fresh Air with Terri Gross. Local news production, on the scale of Minnesota Public Radio, is almost unheard of at an NPR affiliate. The bulk of their budgets go to National Public Radio or Public Radio International to purchase programming, rather than investing in local programming.

To me, that lack of investment in local programming shows an unwillingness to try new things, which newspapers in their heyday were known for. That's the exception, not the rule in the small world of public broadcasting. They are so careful, so fearful of pissing off potential donors, current donors, foundations, they wouldn't touch it. Fo Shizzle.

That doesn't mean public broadcasting can't change. But it's an insular culture that doesn't like outsiders coming in, telling them how they can do better work. And so little of public broadcasting is devoted to actual journalism, that it would take an infusion of newspaper talent to turn the small reporting ships of NPR affiliates into the strong, shrill shrieks of Washington policymakers calling for an end to public broadcasting funds.

Don't get me wrong; I love my American public broadcasting. I give money. I defend it's mission. I'm grateful. But I'm also painfully aware of its shortcomings. It's like my parents. I love them, but I also know I can't get everything I need, or even want from them.


Wm said...

Are you, like me, jealous of the BBC?

SaveWCAL said...

You might be interested to know that the WCAL issue continues in the courts in 2008 -- four years after the "sale". You can find out more information about the WCAL story and SaveWCAL's efforts at