Smoldering Fires, Bright Lights

Here at the beginning of a new year it’s a bit of a tradition for both individuals and groups to look back on the past year and look forward to the year ahead. Here at Keeping the Public in Public Radio, the contributors and editors don’t want to be left out, so we’re going to take a look now at where we have been for the past year as well as what we see ahead for us. The smoldering fires of the past, the bright lights of the future . . .

And, of course, at the beginning of 2010 this site did not exist. There were instead smaller groups scattered around the country, around the globe. Most of these groups were born of outrage, and of frustration. The common thread between them seemed to be the degeneration of the trust and bond between public radio stations and their longtime supporters. Supporters who had believed in the basic premise of public broadcasting, and believed in the spiels heard so often during the pledge drives. The basic premise being that public stations existed to serve the under-served, and the spiel being that the public stations belonged to you, the paying members. The ones whose pledge dollars went towards the type of programming that you just couldn’t get anywhere else. I believed that when I heard it here in Austin, Texas, & Jeff Boudreau believed it when he heard it up in Boston, Mass. Gwen Fortune believed it down in Gainesville, Florida, and Dru Druzianich believed it way up Seattle,Washington. All over the country we were finding these little groups, mainly thru Facebook, all formed around the outrage that came when station managers suddenly turned their collective backs on their paying members. Serving the public was no longer on the agenda; instead they pursued the Golden Fleece of Arbitron numbers, and of corporate underwriters, both of which should have been anathema to public broadcasters.

Our group here in Austin was originally formed after a major programming change at KUT-FM, as well as what we still fervently believe was the shoddy treatment of three longtime and much-beloved deejays. Our 1,800 members worked together as a group to try and restore sanity and integrity to KUT, but in the long run money and hubris won out and we were left wondering where to turn next. So at a meeting last January it was decided to reach out to these groups around the country, to try and join our experiences and our energies towards shining a light on the practices being adopted by station managers nationwide. And thanks to the advent of social networking sites such as Facebook, and Internet tools such as Google Search, we were able to contact a few true believers in the basic concept of public broadcasting and the creation of this site first started being discussed.

Our earliest, and I would say the most stalwart of our original contacts, was Jeff Boudreau in Boston. He brought amazing energy and knowledge to our group, and without him I do not believe we would have ever gotten off the ground. And this is just one of his projects for saving public broadcasting and promoting folk music throughout the Northeast region, indeed around the country. A quick look at the links he has provided under the “About” heading here at our site gives just a glimmer of his projects.

We also contacted a dismayed classical music lover down in Gainesville, Florida — Gwen Fortune. Or at least I first thought it was just plain ol’ Gwen. But after corresponding with the wonderful Gwen I came to realize that she was actually Professor Gwendolyn Fortune, an educator and author, as well as a classically trained soprano recitalist. Her newest book, Weaving the Journey, is now out. Gwen has provided us with many wonderful insights over the past few months, radio matters being just one of her many passions. I strongly recommend looking into her work, visiting her website, or maybe finding her on Facebook. I always look forward to my next message from her.

We also contacted Jamie Peters in Tennessee & Dru Druzianich in Seattle, and without their help we would never have been able to get a national group going. But finally, with all of these individuals across the country pulling together, we were able to get this site up and working. And as of today we have had almost 25,000 hits on the site, a figure that most of us would never have dreamed possible back when we first reached out. That is a figure that directly relates to all of the input and effort from everyone involved, something that I believe each of us can take personal pride in.

But of course the unspoken sadness & frustration behind all this work was the realization that we had not been able to make any meaningful progress on our original, local issues. To the best of my knowledge, not a single station that these groups were originally formed around have ever made any concessions to these most passionate of supporters. And those are the smoldering fires that I referred to at the start of this, the still-warm remembrances of what started this ball rolling, the issues that brought us all together to begin with. And it is my hope that even though we are looking at the larger picture now, that none of us forget those local issues at the core of everything. Public broadcasting was always intended as a local medium, no matter how hard NPR may push the other direction.

But if those are the smoldering fires, then how about the bright lights? With all the frustrations each of us has had to deal with the past year or so, it could be easy enough to miss them, but I can find them when I try. And one is here right at my feet — this wonderful site that we have all managed to grow and nurture. Knowledge has always been power, and the shared knowledge that we gather here makes each of us stronger moving forward. Money & clout may be what the station managers have going for them; we have belief in our ideals and our commitment to them. There are any number of “wear ’em down slowly” analogies I could cite here, but I think we all already know that this is going to be a long struggle. But a long struggle is not a lost cause, so I am sure we will persevere. Already this site has garnered more attention & visitors than I ever imagined. If the station managers choose to ignore the unhappiness we have uncovered here, it will be at their own peril. We are not the “disgruntled few” they would like to make us out to be.

And I feel that is best reflected at our sister site of the same name over on Facebook. As of this writing we are almost 700 members strong there, a number which is not stagnant but continues to tick upward as the word gets around, slowly but surely. As bright lights go, the Facebook site positively glows, as I am constantly amazed at the scope of the comments and input we receive there. It far exceeds anything envisioned when I first became involved with this endeavor. As wonderful as the 1,800 members here at the Austin group were, I honestly believe that the members and visitors to the Facebook site do more to shine a light on public radio issues than anything we could have ever accomplished alone. Which, of course, was just the idea. . . .

Another of my bright lights has been the recent posts, both here and on Facebook, concerning the proposed sales of college radio stations across the country. At one time these type of events would have been been carried out quickly and with little or no input from the students whose assets were being sold off. But due (IMHO) to the publicity generated by groups such as ours, the concerned students at these colleges banded together and formed their own Facebook groups and fought the good fight to have their voices heard. Vanderbilt University in Nashville being one and Rice University in Houston another. At Rice the students put up one hell of a fight, but things are not looking promising. But this site’s “Radio Jim” Ellinger worked closely with that student group and helped to get internal documents released via the Freedom of Information Act, which at least gave some honest insight into the process. I see a bright light there in how we were able to not only communicate the issue nationally, but also to reach out locally to provide assistance.

Looking further down the road, I see some possible bright lights on the horizon as well — one of which comes from the current brouhaha over possible cuts in funding to public broadcasting, much of it brought about by the firing of pundit Juan Williams after what were deemed racist remarks on a Fox News program. This week NPR decided to throw a bone to the right-wing noise machine by firing senior VP Ellen Weiss. Normally Republicans threatening to cut public broadcasting funds would set my teeth on edge, but strange times make for strange bedfellows. And I am seeing the publicity on this as a way of bringing increased public scrutiny to the concept of public radio, and I think we will be ready to help inform on that front.

And even further down the road we may be looking into how we may use some of these issues when our respective stations’ licenses come up for renewal with the FCC. KUT in Austin’s license comes up for renewal in August 2013, and there is already talk of filing a formal petition for denial of the renewal application due to commercialization and failure to serve the public interest. We will be looking more into that as the date draws nearer, as this could be another avenue to approach our collective issues from. This and other ideas are constantly being brought to our attention by the readers at this site, and they show the determination of the many not to give in to the few.

And for me, that is my look at what I see as the smoldering fires of the past as well as the bright lights of the future. I am hoping that others may contribute their own thoughts on these; the beginning of a new year is always a great time to contemplate such things and then approach them all with renewed energies. We always appreciate hearing from any & all, so please let us know how we are doing!

But before I sign off there is another person I need to acknowledge for the creation of this site, not to mention it’s ongoing existence. And that would be our webmaster, Craig Hattersley. It was my conversation with Craig last January that produced the first steps on this journey, and he has been involved every step of the way since. And when it came time to make things happen, he was the one who grabbed the bull by the horns. This entire site was envisioned, designed, set up, and maintained by Craig. The daily posts that you see, those are direct from Craig and his unwavering commitment to this cause. We first went on line last April, and to the best of my knowledge he has come up with a new post seven days a week since then without fail. Any and all who enjoy this site or have found something of interest here owe Craig some thanks. He’s a low-key “below the radar ” kinda guy, but I want to shine the spotlight on him here just for once. Thanks a million, Craig, and a big hats off to you!

—Rev Jim

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One Response

  1. For one, I was thrilled to learn of this site. I only approached NPR from the aspect of the huge taxpayer ripoff of their involvement with iBiquity/HD Radio, but had no idea of the other behind-the-scenes dealings of NPR. I wouln’t be surprised that this site may have had something to do with the recent Congresssional attempt to defund NPR. My hope is that you continue this site well into the future, as I believe your efforts are making a difference. I get a number of referrals from this site, especially out of Wash., D.C.

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