Thursday, July 17, 2008

Damn Right It's Flat Out There!

Many of you have heard about the erosion of the middle class in this country; the rich get richer and the ranks of the poor and working poor continue to grow. It's that way in the public radio universe, too.Yes, Jimmy James Jr., The Public Radio World Is Flat!

CPR – Colorado Potemkin Radio

Take news content as an example; where today public stations have to play smart with the limited number of people they have on staff who produce relevant news and information. The exception to this numbers game in Colorado is found at Colorado Public Radio (CPR), which has more than a dozen people working for its news department. Smaller stations throughout the state would do very well covering their worlds with just a handful of such people. How CPR management allocates its talent is another story.

NPR – The CNN of Radio

The public radio news system as a whole is wanting -- wanting new blood, new ideas, new paradigms for a whole new generation of un-served and under-served listeners.Like the nation's distribution of wealth, there is a top-heavy layer of bureaucracy at National Public Radio, (NPR) filled with sometimes self-important Senior News Producers, Editors, and Hosts, who are VERY comfortable. After them, the talent gap drops off the table or it isn't widely seen or heard. Aside from basic egomania and established people clamoring at the top, there are several reasons why public radio news has become so anemic. One of the reasons lies squarely at the doorstep of a public radio icon.

If you draw a line from the 1970's to today, you will see a steady decline in the number of mid-level producers at public radio stations. Over the years, they have been the people who worked tirelessly to produce local and regional news, interviews, and feature material -- some of which may make its way onto an NPR news program (although not nearly as often as 20 or 30 years ago). The decline in the number of people churning out such material started in 1983, when (then) NPR News Director Robert Siegel dramatically shifted the emphasis, with NPR's limited budget, toward the BBC for international news, while building up a roster of NPR staff who served as regional reporters, based in various U.S. cities across the land.

The NPR Acquisitions Unit – Cultivating Local Flavor and Regional Creativity

While this may have seemed to be a solid strategy, left in the dust was something known as the NPR Acquisitions Unit, which contained hard-working editors who worked tirelessly with mid-level producers from hundreds of public stations across the country. The results were mixed, but the less polished (and less expensive) reports gave shows like All Things Considered a unique flavor, capturing life from region to region. Compared to now, more reporters participated then -- some of them with a regional sound to their voices. They filed reports on topics from the serious to the sublime. NPR news programs contained a smörgåsbord of Americana, along with hard news events and issues. When the NPR Acquisitions Unit was watered down, in favor of building a more professional sound, something very basic and essential was gone; and fewer and fewer people embraced work as mid-level producers.

The other big shift which brought about the flattening of the public radio universe came in 1981, when the Reagan Administration's Budget Director David Stockman vowed to zero-out funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). This enormous shockwave felt throughout the system still resonates today. Every time you listen to something on public radio that rings of predictability and playing-it-safe, you can trace that tendency back to the shockwave. When David Stockman spoke his poison, too many public radio managers panicked. And they leaned heavily on self-appointed radio research gurus who preached playing it safe with focus group research as more than just a guiding tool. Risk-taking is forbidden in their culture. It is a mindset that, if Garrison Keillor were to attempt to start A Prairie Home Companion today, wouldn't get to first base.

Avant-garde Radio Theater

On a note other than news, 1981 also signaled the end of something else: good radio theater and widely distributed satire for radio. It was the year that the last two significant radio theater productions aired: the radio versions of Star Wars, and the unparalleled Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (which dwarfs the TV and movie versions of same). Both shows were in the pipeline before David Stockman spoke, and nothing has come from that side of good public radio since.

It's time for a rekindling. But even that may not be enough to win back the college-aged generation walking amongst us; already glued to their I-pods and who consider public ALL radio irrelevant – not just public radio. The public radio system as a whole has only itself to blame for so much complacency; and whether or not we can un-flatten this mess is anyone's guess.

An Essay by First Responder

1 comment:

BZK said...

Yours is one of the best radio blogs out there. Keep it up.