Sizing Up Local Public Radio

My pal Jack Brighton is the assistant director for internet at my local public radio and TV station cluster, WILL. He’s single-handedly responsible for getting that station’s good local content onto the web for streaming and podcasting. Jack’s also keeping a blog on station and public broadcasting affairs, where’s he’s able to show a remarkable degree of candor.

I work with Jack on streaming media issues on the campus of the University of Illinois, which runs WILL. There’s very little campus-wide infrastructure or support, so each department or college is kind of on its own. Jack has really helped pull together the folks who do this work so we can share information and skills.

Jack is one of the strongest and sincerest supporters of the truly civic and public role of public broadcasting working in public radio. He sees making programming available on the internet as one facet of that role, but also is actively thinking and working on the information side, on things like metadata and making sure programming is as freely available as it is from WILL.

WILL has taken a lot of budget hits from the state of Illinois in the last year, which mirrors the cuts the university has taken. As I noted yesterday, the funding loss is forcing the station to lose some national programming from American Public Media.

One loss that is ostensibly being blamed on budget cuts is the cancellation of the only locally produced Jazz program on WILL’s FM station, the Jazz Corner. My good friend Mick Woolf, who is also the station manager of WEFT, has been doing the show for sixteen years, well before he became WEFT’s manager.

The show’s hours have been steadily cut back over the last few years. And, frankly, given how little money is actually spent to pay one host for a few hours a week, I really don’t buy the budget cut rationale. While I’ve admired WILL-AM‘s steadfast commitment to local programming and service, I’ve been less impressed with WILL-FM, even though the station over the years has tried to maintain having local hosts.

But that is going away, with locally programmed music giving way to nationally syndicated services. While money may be a reason, I find it tough to swallow, since national programming isn’t free.

No, I see it as a slow gravitation towards the dominant model of public broadcasting which mirrors the dominant model of commercial broadcasting. Go with nationally syndicated programming with brand names and a widely known approach. That was what the CPB and the public radio establishment were selling when I went to the CPB’s national program directors’ conference in 1997, and the drive has only gotten stronger since.

Yes, doing local isn’t necessarily cheap, but neither is doing national. The key is sticking to your guns and finding a way. But I’m not so into light classical, and so I never listened to WILL-FM much aside from Mick’s Jazz Corner anyway. So I guess I’m not in the market that WILL-FM’s program director is concerned about anyway.