Tuesday, June 5, 2007

WAMC: They answer to no one, so they can inform everyone

It's not easy running a public radio station. Money is hard to come by, and stations are always trying to scrape together cash for the big name shows (Car Talk is a riot, but it 'aint free). To get that cash, they need to risk alienating listeners with the dreaded on-air fundraisers. That usually means endless blathering and repeating their 800 phone number until both lips and ears go numb, trying to get the last few couple of bucks pledged before the commuters get home and turn off their car radios for the night. Meanwhile, listeners are hitting the radio's "seek" button to find NPR on some station whose not trying to pump the well for cash that week.

The constant struggle for cash eventually might have you hop into bed with corporations, who in turn may erode your ability to maintain editorial integrity. For example, WFCR in Springfield, MA has recently announced plans to join with media monster Clear Channel. This is a fairly alarming development. Clear Channel and their 1,200 station army has a history of controversy that ranges from "pay-to-play" music programming to censorship of anti-Bush commentary (Google it). Their move into public radio is disturbing to me. It's hard enough to get news that is "fair and balanced", even if it claims to be. I wish WFCR well, but a tie to Clear Channel is enough to make my radio dial run for the hills.

So here's a success story: Northeast Public Radio WAMC. Led by the seemingly inexhaustible Dr. Alan Chartock, WAMC features a bold, independent style and a diverse range of national and regional public programming. The heavy hitters in public radio are there: NPR News, Morning Edition, Fresh Air, etc. They also feature some excellent in-house shows, including The Media Project, an inside look at media coverage of current events, and Vox Pop, a daily call-in talk program with experts in just about any topic under the sun.

WAMC had tough times to, and were tempted by the dark side of public radio. In a story Chartock recalled during their current fundrive, at one point the struggling station was offered a new building and enhanced facilities... with a catch. They were never to utter the word "abortion" on the air. Chartock was enraged and walked out on the offer rather than have such restrictions. He lost a huge deal for WAMC, but preserved it's soul. Fortunately, they have a solid base of listeners who help support the station, and their radio signal on Mt. Greylock reaches parts of 7 states.

Though someone in San Diego may have little interest in the regional programming, their web site streams it's signal live to anyone with a decent Internet connection. This, in my opinion, is a gift to the world. In a world full of corporate news echo chambers, WAMC provides intelligent, insightful broadcasts that are not afraid to call it how they see it, while giving the other side of the issue a chance to respond.

They are truly a national treasure. Keep it up WAMC! My pledge is in the mail. Really.

Northeast Public Radio WAMC

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