Grassroots radio eyes the future

by Melinda Tuhus, New Haven Independent

I arrive in Madison, Wisconsin, Thursday evening for the 11th annual Grassroots Radio Conference. I’m excited not only because it was my first GRC in 2002 that inspired me to quit my “day job” at an environmental organization and focus full-time on journalism – mostly radio journalism – but also because I went to college in Madison at the University of Wisconsin back in the heyday of the radical student movement in the late 1960s, and it’s wonderful to be back.

The GRC was founded by two visionary women – Marty Durlin and Cathy Melio – who worked at radio stations in Boulder, Colorado (KGNU) and on the coast of Maine (WERU), respectively. They were concerned about the corporatization of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, which up to 1995 had been the only organization representing community stations (as opposed to NPR stations). They felt the mostly volunteer-run, locally focused stations were not getting the respect or the support they deserved.

Most attendees don’t seem to have arrived yet, and I’m beat after 25 hours on the train and several more in the car from Chicago, so it’s off to bed for me.

It’s hot, hot, hot in Madison (just like all over the country). Fortunately, I’m staying with an old college friend in an air-conditioned condo, and the conference is self-contained in one air-conditioned building on the shore of beautiful Lake Mendota, where, from many of the meeting rooms, I can glimpse white sailboats on the blue water. I can’t wait to jump in the lake.

More people are arriving (there are about 140 registered) and choosing workshops from nine different tracks: Movement, Tech Talk, Staffing/Management, Outreach, Policy, Programming, Music, News and Fundraising.

Right now I’m sitting in this fascinating workshop called “Public Journalism: Philosophy and Ethics.” It’s being facilitated by Nathan Moore (above), one of the conference organizers from WORT radio here in Madison. His station runs an impressive 22 hours of locally produced news and public affairs programming each week. “We want to develop a community news ethic,” he says, “beyond the superficial ‘he said/she said’ of most corporate media reporting on controversial issues. Advocacy journalism has its place, but we want to forge something that’s fair so that people who disagree with us will still talk to us, while still avoiding the corporate model.” So, many of us who produce news for community radio – either locally or for nationally distributed programs – don’t want to be the left-wing version of Fox News. We want to provide both – or all – sides to a story, and let the listeners decide. But we definitely do want to air those voices and opinions that aren’t heard anywhere else – the voices of those who stand to be most affected by potential economic and political decisions. That’s what I love about grassroots radio.

Now Nathan’s presenting his ideas about the characteristics of pubic journalism: to foster longer attention spans; to explain systems and structures and processes, not just what’s apparent on the surface; to focus more on substance and less on tactics (including when reporting on election races); to foster dialogue; and to help the community build a sense of itself. Wow – I can’t think of anything further removed from the purpose of mainstream media than that last one.

People are figuratively jumping in on top of each other to throw in their two cents. Somebody quotes Bill Moyers, who said at a recent media conference, “Our job is not to support spin on the left or spin on the right, but to find out what’s really happening.”

Lisa Loving – is that her real name? She’s such a character, I’m not sure – is the evening news director at KBOO, a big community station in Portland, Oregon. “We let listeners hear both spins, and sort it out,” she says. I’m thinking that’s not the most desirable form of journalism, but it beats presenting only one side.

“We let anybody and everybody come on the air,” Nathan says, “including the Ku Klux Klan, to counteract our reputation as leftist.”

Well, the appearance of the Klan on WORT was 20 years ago, says Frank Emspak, another station stalwart, and he says he wouldn’t recommend it be repeated. Apparently it created a firestorm of protest.

There seems to be consensus that our stations’ valuable time should be pretty much reserved for those “under-represented” voices toward the left end of the spectrum, to complement our frequencies at the left end of the dial.

What’s the role of community journalists in presenting the views of activists on a controversial issue?

“To the mainstream media, ‘activist’ is a pejorative,” Frank says.

“We do issues, activism and politics. Issues, activism and politics,” Lisa says. At KBOO, “activist” is definitely not a pejorative.

* * * *

Conference organizers have wisely built in a half-hour between workshops, and 90 minutes for lunch, to allow for lots of networking and schmoozing, but it’s never enough. Sometimes I think the whole conference should be networking and schmoozing. Lee Elliott moved out of New Orleans to Wisconsin with his family just before Hurricane Katrina hit last August, but he’s still working hard to get a low-power FM station up and running in his former home town. Right now there’s not a single station in the New Orleans market that runs much progressive radio content. As someone who reported on the aftermath of Katrina for Free Speech Radio News (broadcasting on 80 stations around the country), I was frustrated that my stories didn’t run in the area where the people I interviewed could even hear them.

But now it’s after lunch, and I’ve chosen Covering the Community as my next workshop (admittedly with an eye to the, since a lot of my radio work is more national in focus).

Lisa’s in this workshop too, and her presence dominates, but in a good, funny, informative, helpful way. (Women are holding our own here, partly, no doubt, stemming from the fact that the GRC’s co-founders – they prefer the term midwives – are both women.)

Lisa says that answering the question, “What does the community need?” is a good starting point for delivering local news. Of course, there are lots of answers to that question, many of which could boil down to a reporter’s view of, “What news am I interested in presenting?” But she comes up with a good example: the local impact of the war in Iraq. “This was the first investigative journalism piece KBOO has ever done,” she says proudly. It provided the Portland community with valuable information about the growing number of Pentagon contracts awarded to area businesses, and it also served as the vehicle for involving and training the volunteer news staff in investigative journalism techniques. (Everybody producing news at the station is a volunteer except the morning and evening news directors. Many stations have a few or even no paid staff, while a few giants, like WMNF in Tampa, have ten or more.)

It was a “juicy” story, Lisa says, “juicy” being her highest praise for community news. “Naked and glistening” are her two other favorite descriptors.

Another station – KFAI out of Minneapolis – also does impressive local reporting. News director Ann Alquist says, “Community stations don’t need to even try to do national or international news. Go local. Get out in the street. Get to know all the local sources, and use them for international reporting.” For example, Minneapolis has a large Somali immigrant population, and the recent ascension to power in Somalia of Islamic fundamentalists (not the warlords the U.S. had been supporting) is a hot current story.

Ann – who is young but with five years as news director carries an air of authority and, like Lisa, is very willing to share her constructive thoughts, opinions and experiences – mentions another big story in her listening area. It’s a very scary story. “Half the police force was called up for duty in Iraq and they’ll all be returning soon,” she says. Wild imaginings of a surge in post-traumatic stress-induced domestic violence, and of what might happen on a standard motor vehicle stop run through our heads.

This is all particularly interesting to me, since I’m working on my own radio series about the local impacts of the war.

* * * *

It’s Sunday morning, and a dozen of us have dragged ourselves to the conference center for a long discussion about a weekly, two-hour, 11-segment program that the Pacifica network is proposing, leading up to the November Congressional elections. Here’s Greg Guma, the executive director of Pacifica, which includes five stations (in Berkeley, Los Angeles, Houston, D.C. and New York) and about a hundred affiliates, including three in Connecticut.

“We want to create a referendum on the last six years of the Bush administration,” Greg says. “We want a civil debate on the left. It’s not a question of balance, but of fairness, yes. I want this to be different than anything else on the radio. I want it to include drama, satire, some history, mini-debates featuring people with different points of view.” For example, for a show on “stolen elections,” we could go back to previous elections, like the 1960 Democratic presidential primary in Chicago, when the Daley machine helped JFK pull off a victory.

Greg wants input from members of the GRC, while he also seeks input from many other sources. He’s hired Otis Maclay, formerly a staffer at KPFT in Houston, to spearhead the project.

Otis looks to be about 60 and says he’s been doing radio for 50 years. He tells me, “I love Between the Lines (a half-hour weekly public affairs show I help produce at WPKN in Bridgeport) but I could never find a time slot for it when I was at KPFT,” thus pointing up one of the problems with community radio, where everyone who has a timeslot is loath to give it up, making the introduction of new programming mightily challenging.

He’s vaguely bantam rooster-like, and at one point when he apparently feels he’s lost control of the discussion, he jumps up and shouts, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” But he’s dismissive of the idea of “stacking” – a procedure that emerged from affinity groups in the 1990s for making sure everyone who wants to speak gets a chance, on a first-come, first-speak basis. But Nathan Moore, who is probably half Otis’s age, and who is helping facilitate, manages to call out some names in order so everyone can have her or his say.

It’s going to be a challenging project in several ways: actually producing the content, with producers and reporters scattered all over the country; finding money to pay even a token amount for the segments; and getting enough stations to give up two hours of air time each week to create a sizable enough audience to make it all worthwhile – and hopefully have an impact. Its saving grace is that it’s a short-term project, until early November. “We’ll see after that,” Greg says. He hopes that if it’s successful – if listeners respond to it and think it’s important – Pacifica may be able to continue with some kind of ongoing national pubic affairs show.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey