Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tone Deaf Public Radio

I grew up in the Pittsburgh area, and had a radio on a lot of the time. From early childhood through adolescence and into young adulthood (when the police scanner got a hold of me), my memories seem filled with what was on the radio. This included a LOT of time spent listening to the public and community radio stations at the lower end of the FM dial.

When I wrote in February about the impending merger of WDUQ with the parent of WYEP, I expressed relief that the license and ownership of the station would remain in the hands a community non-profit, already well-established and conducting themselves in a very competent manner. I also said at the time, "WDUQ's popular jazz music programming will likely remain one of the benchmarks of the station's presence in the area".

Essential Public Media, the folks behind the operation of the "new" WDUQ, would probably say that this promise has been fulfilled. Unfortunately, following what appears to be the trend elsewhere, a lot of the programming that made WDUQ and other stations a special place is being relegated to HD radio and Internet streaming. The prime spectrum - the analog FM signal on 90.5 - is being turned into essentially a full-time network affiliate of National Public Radio, save for Saturday nights.

The management of WYEP made a very comprehensive and eloquent case for the transition, going so far as to have a PR firm write the announcement to make sure their message was articulated properly. How corporate of them.

While WYEP's management is correct in their claim that Pittsburgh is one of the last major media markets without a full-time NPR news and information outlet, how they're going about accomplishing the feat of putting one in place feels awkward. It's almost as if they are Clarice Starling and their audience is Hannibal Lecter; the 'ham-handed segue' won't do.

As was expected, those who love jazz on the radio are not pleased, and I don't blame them. For me, the best place to listen to jazz is in the car on a late night drive from one place or another, holding the hand of your loved one as you cruise down the road. Unless you want to retrofit your vehicle with an HD set or stream it through your smartphone, that quiet joy is lost, especially when the music is part of a local music scene that you can plug yourself into as well.

HD Radio and Internet streaming does not equate to universal access. Until it does, jazz in Pittsburgh should remain free and widely accessible over the analog public airwaves.

If the online outcry is any indication, there will be a lengthy period of discord over the manner in which the removal of jazz from these free public airwaves is being accomplished. Those who have been most vocal have said that a healthy compromise somewhere between the 100 hours of jazz being aired on 90.5 now, and the 6 that is currently planned for, would be fine with them. Their plea does not appear to be intractable, even in spite of an effort to boycott membership in both stations. Why does WYEP's silence in response seem that way?

I haven't been living here full-time for that long, but in WYEP's actions I see similarities in how public and community radio has evolved in Colorado, where I came from. Colorado Public Radio maintains a statewide network, broadcasting two stations across most of the state; one with classical music, the other with NPR news and information, much like WDUQ is slated to become. This constitutes a sort of "top layer" of public radio coverage. The secondary layer is made up of smaller, community-based stations with a lot of volunteers helping to run things. Stations such as KAFM and KVNF keep the "Community" in Community Radio.

That was the idea behind WYEP back in the early 70's. The spartan confines of 4 Cable Place in Oakland were alive with off-the-wall music and ideas. I also spent some time as a volunteer at WDUQ in my late teens. I remember the sense of professionalism and pride, especially on the part of other volunteers.

Nearly 40 years after its inception, the evolved form of those early years in Oakland is now poised to assume control of the region's pioneer in public radio. Many critics have pointed out WYEP's tagline, "Where the Music Matters", and have tried to level accusations that the station is behaving to the contrary in its dealings with WDUQ.

From the sound of the rhetoric, the management of WYEP has made up its mind, and is not inclined to listen to the pleas of jazz fans around the area to keep more of this music on analog FM. The deaf ear they appear to have turned to the complaints is not in keeping with a community media resource, and has fueled too much speculation along with the bad feelings.

Perhaps they just think that the spectrum is too valuable to continue to commit so much airtime to what they may perceive as a "niche" audience. If that's the case, their approach is antithetical to their origins. Perhaps they have truly forgotten from whence they came. Too bad.

In an attempt to gain additional perspective on this, I tried to contact Larry Berger of the Saturday Light Brigade, which began on WYEP in 1978 and left the station in 2003. The program is now broadcast on a network of college radio stations anchored by Carnegie-Mellon's WRCT, as well as online. Larry did not reply to my request for comment about his program's departure from WYEP, and I don't blame him. He and his staff are moving forward very well.

Aside from the loss of jazz programming on WDUQ, it's also unclear whether the new ownership will continue to operate the Radio Information Service for the visually impaired, which transmits on the subcarrier of 90.5. Those answering the phone at both WDUQ and WYEP today seemed unable to commit to the future of this service, which for those using it is much more essential than other forms of public media. Let's hope for a smooth transition and seamless continuation of this vital resource.

My experience in Colorado showed me that the business model for non-profit media is changing. Survival in this climate of economic and technological change has required some fundamental altering of the way these organizations think and operate, and that did not sit well with some that had been involved at KAFM for many years.

So now with WYEP, WDUQ, and WQED forming the 'top layer' of public radio in the Pittsburgh region, one wonders where the smaller innovators in public radio are, to continue to make radio accessible to the varied communities and neighborhoods that make this area what it is. The presence of robust college stations such as WRCT and WPTS will certainly help, as may the recent enactment of the Local Community Radio Act and the potential for Low Power FM station development in places like the Pittsburgh radio market.

Let's hope for more understanding and compromise as the transition approaches, and for new opportunities to innovate and serve to become available.

Have a good rest of the week.

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