by Jerry Markatos
Veteran radio producer Larry Josephson's featured talk at last year's NC Public Radio Conference in Wilmington was forceful and earnest. He stated that the heart and soul of public radio is its public service function, and to the extent that it becomes a business, its integrity and its value to the listener are diminished. The tone of this year's conference, hosted in Chapel Hill by WUNC radio, was about as far as you can get from that perspective. WUNC (91.5) is the most financially successful station in the state. That position has been reached, as was demonstrated during the conference, by leaving no decision untouched by the management's top-to-bottom development mentality.
In 10 or 12 years of attending NC Public Radio Conferences, I have been impressed with all it takes to keep a public radio station alive and well, in all respects. The hard work and sacrifice often involved with serving the public interest has brought out the best in many of the public radio folks I've had the privilege to meet. It's worth attending, and it's helped me to see the kind of choices made every day by our public radio stations. As we tune around the dial, we hear the results of those decisions on the air. WUNC succeeds in presenting seamless products that blur the edges, for example, between NPR morning news material, locally produced material, and the advertisers. The local host delivers virtually all of the "underwriting credits" and introduces the many segments. Most people will say, "I heard so-and-so on NPR," even if it was locally produced.
There are ethics discussions during these conferences, and I've discovered that some stations have intentional policies, in which efforts are made to sharpen the lines between content and ads, or between programming and the money side. When the voice delivering the news and the voice reading the ads is different, a subtle but important point is made. It's an interesting distinction, and its absence was clear during a session this year on legislative coverage. WUNC program director Sheila Rue was describing how NPR reporter Adam Hochberg, who formerly worked for a consortium of NC stations, had refused to interview the governor for an endorsement of WUNC's fundraiser. Rue wants such interviews to be required as part of the contract with the yet-to-be-chosen replacement for Hochberg. Knowing that WFDD's (88.5) News Director Paul Brown (in Winston-Salem) has discussed such issues at other conferences, I phoned him to ask about the issue of blurring lines between reporting and fundraising. He said WFDD would never air such an interview and would be opposed to such a requirement. "There is no need to compromise the integrity of news and information for fundraising. If development or fundraising operations drive news programming... if the line between the two is lost, there is nothing left."
For listeners who understand the importance of independent voices, the crowded radio dial presents a mixed bag of choices. WNCU (90.7) has a great deal of potential and with the help of volunteers is still in the process of defining itself. For a refreshing contrast to the money-driven side, here's a line from the webpage of WFSS (91.9), an excellent station at Fayetteville State University that does a great job of embracing the diversity of its community: "More than a radio station, WFSS is a community resource and a civic asset which adds to our quality of life in a way that can't be measured in rating points." Once you hear Susan Franzblau's program, The Women's Center, or the twice-a-week broadcast of the analysis available on Alternative Radio, it's clear that their management knows that the heart and soul of public radio is public service!
Incidentally, North Carolinian Carl Kassell was honored by this year's conference for his many years of news work at NPR. His unassuming manner and down-to-earth style were an enjoyable aspect of his talk. A few years ago, WFDD's Howard Skillington interviewed Kassell right after the Persian Gulf War, and asked him about the much-criticized media coverage of the war. With characteristic candor, Kassell said, "They told us what they wanted the public to hear, and we repeated it."
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