Happening:

The importance of public radio

It highlights diverse voices. It values unbiased information over clicks and ad dollars. And it’s under threat.
Ar 170219797
David Holub/DGO
Ar 170219797
David Holub/DGO
Ep 170219797
David Holub/DGO; images via Shutterstock
Ep 170219797
David Holub/DGO; images via Shutterstock

“American taxpayers do not want their hard-earned dollars funding superfluous government programs ...,” said Colorado Congressman Doug Lamborn. The superfluous program in question is public media – a budget line Lamborn has repeatedly tried to cut.

“Congressman Lamborn has introduced similar legislation twice before,” Mark Duggan, programming and news director for KSUT Four Corners Public Radio, said via email. “It failed both times because of fairly widespread support for public broadcasting in Congress, especially among rural Republican lawmakers in the West. This year’s version arrives in a different political climate, needless to say. And Lamborn’s efforts come even as the Trump Administration will reportedly eliminate funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities in its new budget.”

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) receives $445 million in federal funding. That is 0.01 percent of the $3.899 trillion federal budget. Put simply, Lamborn must think that $1.35 per person a year is too much money to spend on keeping an informed citizenry. “The Congressional coalition may be able to stave off funding threats for a bit,” said Duggan. “And the funding is already allocated for the next two years. But the threats will continue, and they could be successful soon. Now is the time for public broadcasting to start thinking more creatively about how to raise money and develop content.”

Dependable, in-depth reportingIn this new age of alternative facts, it is more important than ever to have organizations dedicated to unbiased reporting. A democracy needs accurate information to survive. Public radio’s mission is to create a more informed public. “I believe public media is a trusted voice, a trusted news resource. That is the role that we should play and continue to play as the media landscape becomes more and more splintered with social media,” said Jeff Pope, executive director of KSJD in Cortez. “When you can get your news – any kind of news that you want to have, anywhere you want it, in only one opinion, depending on what source we choose, it is my hope that public media helps people hear other voices. I think we still have a place. In fact, I think we have a place more than ever. People turn to public media and say, ‘I can trust you. You don’t have an angle and you’re working hard not to.’”

America is a society that values entertainment. This has led our news organizations to turn toward sensationalism. Hype, brevity, and conflict sell. They get the adrenaline up. They’re easy to digest. They’re easy to report. Public radio reaches for something more than sensationalism. It reaches for narratives that connect and educate on a deeper level. Diverse content is the center of public radio and this diversity keeps the public from hearing a “single story,” meaning repeatedly being told one narrative about people or place. It is incomplete information that can lead to creating stereotypes rather than understanding. For example, if every night the news only covers young black men committing crimes, the person watching may internalize that all young black men commit crimes. “The consequence of the single story is that it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar,” said Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her viral Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.”

The danger of a single story isn’t just what is played on the radio but who puts those stories on the radio. “I believe there’s intention in public media around the diversity of story,” said Pope. “Some of that begins with getting storytellers who look different than yesterday’s generation of public media people: Storytellers, story-getters, interviewers, and others. Public Media’s hiring. It’s being intentional about diversity on boards of directors.”

Public service over profitsWhereas much of mainstream media has a bottom line of clicks, commercials, and commerce, public radio is on a mission of public service. Durango community radio station KDUR prides itself on the fact that anyone a can apply to become a DJ and they “don’t tell DJs what to play,” said Jon Lynch, director of KDUR programming. “The only caveat I give at DJ application meetings is ‘If I can hear it on another radio station in Durango, I don’t want to hear it on KDUR.’” This open attitude brings next level ideas and a sonic, storytelling edge to smaller communities. The only thing public radio is interested in selling you is a wider view of the world.

Lamborn has said that he thinks public media can survive without federal funding. Well, sort of. Large swaths of smaller stations would die or be eaten by larger news groups. If NPR and CPB lost federal funding, “you would see cuts ranging 5 percent in large stations to 30 percent in smaller stations,” Pope said. “I can’t imagine that that wouldn’t impact each station in its own way and in a significant way ... I think you’re talking staff cuts. I think you’re talking about some stations just going away.” A show like “Fresh Air” will not have the same feel or purpose with six minutes of commercials for every half hour. The point of “Fresh Air” would no longer be to introduce citizens to compelling interviews but to introduce citizens to advertisements that keep those (shortened) compelling interviews on the air. It becomes a sell-to-stay-alive culture. Instead of getting to hear about phenomenal unknowns or lesser-knowns, Terry Gross only gets to interview celebrities who will curate the largest crowd lined up for commercials.

Everyone deserves a voiceMuch of today’s media-scape is about talking heads projecting opinions as truths. The level of yelling and rude dialogue is worrisome, but the decline of the press is borrowed worry so long as outlets like public media exist. Public radio searches for deep truth told from varied points of view. Its near 40 million listeners prove that the public still craves a respectful give and take of highly-vetted information.

Let’s dissect that big audience for a moment. Sometimes, a local audience is more important than a national audience. NPR has more than 900 affiliate stations nationwide. Then there’s community, college, and other independent radio stations. All of these independent stations are able to focus on local populations and local issues that get ignored by larger news outlets.

“Every month, more than 170 million Americans use public media – over the air, online, or in person,” Pope said. “And in rural America, where there are fewer choices of media – because the broadband infrastructure is weaker than in urban environments – people depend on public media even more.” Public media focuses on the values of the community rather than the wants of advertisers. Public media ends up becoming an electronic town hall where everyone can have a voice.

George Orwell surmised that the corrosion of language is a step toward the corruption of democracy. In “1984” it was the Ministry of Truth destroying records and re-writing history. In 2017, it is the debasement of fact that is damaging democracy. America doesn’t have to live in a “post-truth” society so long as there are content creators, like public media, who endeavor to supply citizens with reliable stories that temper a republic rather than tear it apart.

David Holub/DGO

David Holub/DGO; images via Shutterstock