Approaching the second anniversary of Sept. 11, one item remains at the top of every checklist for emergency readiness: The battery-operated radio, ever ready to transmit information in times of crisis. Whether we take our cues from the Department of Homeland Security or our next-door neighbor, the radio (we are told) is an indispensable safety device.
Ideally, radio is a great deal more. It is ubiquitous, timely, distinctive, dependable. At its best it presents the news in deeper context, rendering current events comprehensible and relevant. Radio provokes. It entertains. It offers comfort and companionship in difficult times.
But the reality is lamentably different. Recent consolidation has led to homogenized programming that in many communities leaves public radio as the only local voice.
Earlier this year the Columbia space shuttle provided a sobering example. As WNYC-FM New York reported in On the Media, a series we produce for National Public Radio, news of the tragedy was nonexistent on thousands of commercial radio stations nationwide. Instead, listeners heard the same old song: automated programming taken straight from the satellite. Some remote-run stations were able to switch to a centralized news feed for the breaking story. But many don't have that capacity, or don't use it.
The disappearance of radio news—or even live hosts who can read an emergency bulletin—started in the 1980s when stations were liberated from public service obligations. But the Telecommunications Act of 1996 changed everything. While there are benefits to consolidation, these huge national conglomerates have no incentive to invest in the production of local news or programs.
As listeners here is what we should demand:
- Commercial broadcasters must participate in creating an informed citizenry, whether or not the FCC requires them to. In a style that works for their specific format and audience, they should make a consistent commitment to news programming and to local concerns.
- Our federal government must recognize that consolidation has ill served the free exchange of information. As FCC Chairman Michael Powell himself has noted, "the public interest is about promoting diversity, localism, and competition." Citizens and Congress should hold to that wise objective. At the same time, since in-depth news will never be a priority for most commercial broadcasters, government should unstintingly invest in the essential public service performed by public radio.
- As for public radio, we have a greater responsibility than ever. We can and should be human, contextual and engaging—the antithesis to homogenize, automated broadcasting. We need to be even more deeply engaged in our communities, voice more divergent views, inspire reflection, stimulate civic action, and express the inexpressible through music, stories and the arts.
Across the country, the radio is on. In these anxious and politically charged times, let's make sure it is playing what the public needs to hear.