After helping out with the Sigma Delta Chi awards contest in spring 2004, I was asked to judge the Nebraska Associated Press radio news contest entries.
When I opened the package of CDs, I noticed that every entry came from Nebraska Public Radio.
It validated what Bonnie Bressers wrote in the May 2004 Quill.
Commercial radio news almost has vanished in Omaha and Lincoln.
Many cities face the same predicament.
I flashed back to one of the sessions at the 1999 SPJ National Convention in Indianapolis, when local broadcast executive Jeff Smulyan, then president and now chief executive officer of Emmis Communications, spoke on a panel with two public radio veterans.
The session: “The Radio Journalist: An Endangered Species.”
“There will always be some news stations,” Smulyan said. “But we have lots of research indicating most audiences don’t have a great interest in news.”
Ken Barcus, then the Midwest Bureau Chief for NPR, said that NPR’s research showed just the opposite.
People turn away from commercial radio and turn on NPR for local news.
“The marketplace determines what’s available,” Smulyan responded. “NPR is a wonderful niche for about 1 percent to 2 percent of the population. But that’s not large enough to be commercially viable.
“I’ve seen 100 surveys. They all say, ‘I want to hear music. Don’t give me a lot of information.’ I think it’s the ultimate indictment of our society, but it’s reality.”
As the session’s dialogue continued, I couldn’t help but wonder who produced the right research.
Perhaps the best answer came a year later with the release of the Radio Television News Directors Foundation 2000 American Radio News Audience Survey.
It showed radio listeners still consumed 2.5 times more news on music stations than on all-news stations.
The report stated: “News is an expected part of radio listening.”
In fact, the survey results showed that news is second only to music as the main reason for choosing a radio station.
The 2004 report on the State of the News Media by the Project for Excellence in Journalism called radio “journalism’s forgotten child.”
“There is little academic research into radio, either as journalism or the medium as a whole,” the report stated.
Meanwhile, back at that SPJ convention, a radio reporter from NPR’s biggest affiliate, WNYC Radio in New York City, jumped in to say, “Our research shows public radio is the future of radio. When WMRC expanded its local news, listenership grew from 800,000 to over 1 million.”
Smulyan’s response: “I would love to see greater depth in commercial news. But what we do on the commercial side is market driven. America gets the (television and radio) it deserves.”
Another public radio veteran in the audience agreed that it was expecting a lot of commercial radio to lead the marketplace.
He recalled the days when the Federal Communications Commission used to obligate licensees to do local news, and there were many good commercial radio news operations.
When the rules changed, he expected those that did a poor job to drop news.
But he was surprised when — within just about two years — almost all of the radio news jobs dried up, even at stations doing a good job at it.
“Should we return to more regulation?” he wondered.
Wrestling with the idea of taking news responsibilities seriously is not a recent issue.
Willard Bleyer mentioned it in the introduction to his 1918 book “The Profession of Journalism.”
Bleyer was the founder of the journalism school at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin.
In 1905, he taught UW’s first journalism class.
During that era, radio barely existed, and television remained a vague idea.
The Internet was inconceivable.
Bleyer wrote: “The future of democratic government in this country depends upon the character of its newspapers.” Bleyer suggested that while a poorly trained doctor could not kill more than 100 patients or an incompetent lawyer could lose only a client’s money or freedom, an incompetent journalist endangered democracy for an entire nation by providing inaccurate information and false impressions.
“I’m in a unique occupation,” said one radio news director I know, upon accepting a news award a few years ago. “It’s the only one protected by the Constitution.”
But it’s not protected from short-sighted consultants and bottom-line fixated executives.
Like a lot of news directors these days, my friend found himself facing a news cutback as his station put most of its eggs in a music basket. He was able to find a way to keep his job.
When I faced a similar confrontation, I was not.
Among the challenges I faced were morning-drive news times slashed, and delivery and writing instructions from marketing- oriented consultants with no experience with real news.
The prime objective was to pump up the ratings, which was especially curious because my station was a noncommercial, “inspirational” format station.
As a journalist employed by a radio station owned by a Christian college, I always felt the Old Testament prophet Hosea understood the news concept when he wrote, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”
That wasn’t so different from what Willard Bleyer wrote 2,600 years later.
Gordon Govier is a 30-year radio news veteran and president of the Madison, Wis., Professional Chapter of SPJ.