The Transom Review

Volume 2/Issue 4

Ellen Rocco

June 1st, 2002 | (Edited by Sydney Lewis)
Ellen Rocco
Ellen Rocco

 

Intro by Jay Allison
March 26, 2002 – #1

She describes herself as cantankerous and that may be, but what’s the opposite of cantankerous – pliable, inoffensive, milquetoast. Which do you prefer? Which side of that scale should public broadcasting be on? It’s a key question these days. Three Tenors anyone?

There’s an email list for public radio professionals and whenever we find ourselves sliding toward ethically, artistically, or editorially questionable terrain, you can bet that the first voice raised will be Ellen’s.

We invited her here to raise her voice.

She agreed to bring along her staff from North Country. They’ll be hanging out to talk about what a public radio station does (and could do better) for the community it serves.

A while back, when we were birthing our new public radio service here on the Cape & Islands, we asked Ellen’s advice. Here’s what she said:

The description of the station you want to create is the description of the station we have devoted our lives to making. It is, of course, a work in progress: imperfect, turbulent at times, not turbulent enough at other times, more or less effective than we hoped, responsive, reflective and breathtaking at its best, insufficiently compelling at its worst.

We deal daily with the issue at the center of your letter: how to logically and movingly blend local voice with national voice. Serving a remote and enormous geographic region (two or three times the size of the entire state of Vermont), we know the NPR and PRI programs are essential. But who wants to be the WalMart (or Gap or Abercrombie Fitch) of the airwaves?

Please welcome North Country Public Radio. But first, Ellen’s statement of principles…

Ellen Rocco’s Manifesto

Ellen Rocco, “The Four Essentials of Radio”
March 26, 2002 – #2

North Country Public Radio Statement of Principles
(according to no one but a cranky old station manager in a Tennessee Williams landscape–except substitute frozen lakes for bayous and wood stoves for ceiling fans)

A Map
A Natural Disaster
A Sense of Humor and,..
People, on Both Sides of the Mic, Who Care About Each Other and the World Around Them

1. A Map: Sorry, I don’t buy into that “public radio neighborhood” namby-pamby thing. You know: wherever you live, wherever you travel, public radio should be familiar, sound the same, appeal to the same people. Excuse me, but are we talking public radio or McDonalds and Taco Bell on the strip in Anytown, USA? There are two things I want to say about this. One: no listener should ever have to ask, where the hell am I, if they’ve been listening to North Country Public Radio for an hour, even if it’s during Morning Edition and they like the fact that Bob Edwards’ delivery reminds them of a Holiday Inn room. Two: we will broadcast national news and other non-local programs until our listeners prefer to get those programs off their nifty satellite receivers, then, bye bye. Oh and one more thing here: listening to people in the system adopt the latest cant is kind of like watching birds flock and wheel as they get ready to migrate in the fall. I mean, c’mon, one year the starlings are all calling out “seamless, NPR repeater station” and then (oh that dirty rotten satellite) “local, we must be local.” Some of us never thought radio was anything but local. Even if you air some national programs. Which leads to the second essential.

2. A Natural Disaster: Okay, it can be one where no one dies. Have an ice storm or a flood or a terrorist attack in your community and suddenly you’ll understand that radio is utterly – perfectly – local. As soon as everyone realizes, say, the power’s out and it ain’t coming back and it’s the middle of winter, it’s clear that no one wants to hear yet another report on Congress failing to pass yet another campaign reform bill – unless there’s a rider that explains how to drain pipes before the thermometer dips to minus 10 or how to get an elderly neighbor to the shelter – and where is the shelter, anyway? With the electricity out, see who tunes in for emergency info (at the same time each hour so people can conserve batteries –Jackie Sauter’s simple and brilliant idea) or who calls in when you spend the evening on mic (because the generator really can’t keep much else going) asking for haiku and limericks. (Answer: everyone.) Then, when the power comes back on – a week, three weeks later–remember the connection that happened between the station and the community (not some generic neighborhood in publicradioland) – and think about that every time you go on mic. Every time. Radio reaches real people, in real places – and the signal comes from the same place.

3. A Sense of Humor: See, there is going to be a short paragraph.

4. People, on Both Sides of the Mic, Who Care About Each Other and the World Around Them: Everyone who works at the station is interesting, fun to be with, committed, talented, polite, witty, helpful, smart, curious, involved in the community etc. Same goes for everyone outside the station’s studios. If we’re not hopeful about ourselves and our neighbors/listeners, we’re in the wrong business. Hell, we’re in the wrong universe. And, the membrane between the two sides of the mic must be porous. Both on and off air, we’re connected with our community. Outreach. Lots and lots of outreach. Time consuming, staff intensive, absolutely essential. We work with schools, libraries and community organizations. We go to Rotary Clubs and college forums. We serve as media sponsor for dozens of cultural events each year. We hang our banners wherever there’s an audience and a hook; we stamp our logo on everyone’s literature. And, we invite people who live here to put their stamp on the station’s airwaves and website.

Summary

In case you couldn’t plow through everything above: North Country Public Radio is about people in a particular place.

Two Addenda

1. Everyone who works at North Country Public Radio has been invited to join this conversation. Trust me, they’re a mouthy opinionated fabulous bunch. I hope you’ll hear from old-timers like Jackie Sauter, our program director, who has done much to craft our sound over the years, and Martha Foley, our news director, whose department has won so many awards we have to build a new station just for plaque space. I also hope the next generation will weigh in, like Brian Mann, our Adirondack Bureau guy, who thinks recreation is something you do that puts your life at risk and provides great fodder for radio stories; or David Sommerstein, our St. Lawrence Valley reporter, who ended up in Kosovo last month for a LOCAL story. Oh wait a second, I forgot the grizzliest of our old-timers, Radio Bob, our engineer and bon mot specialist, who wrote our edgy station motto: it’s gonna get done soon, and everything’s gonna be alright. Oh wait another second – our ageless and timeless web team, Bill Haenel and Dale Hobson who invite you to visit our website ncpr.org. It’s virtual, it ain’t radio, but it is local. You bet.

2. We take risks.

Finally…

As station manager, my job is to do anything I can so that everyone else can have fun and do good stuff. (See, I left the most boring thing for the very end.)

A Conversation w/ Ellen Rocco & NCPB

Rocco Stays Off the Dime
Lester Graham – March 26, 2002 – #3
Correspondent, Great Lakes Radio Consortium

I wish more of public radio shared North Country Public Radio’s desire to serve a local audience well and think long and hard about the best ways to do that… even if it means violating someone’s idea about how public radio is “supposed to be.”

Ellen, everything I’ve read about you and heard about you tells me that you and your staff are serving your audience in a way that is dynamic and important… not the same mind-numbing, formulaic, resting on NPR’s laurels way to which so many stations have degenerated.

North Country Humor and Motherhood
Nannette – March 26, 2002 – #4

Could you say more about:
1)North Country: What is it? how did it start? and how has it changed?

2) The need for a sense of humor on/or off the air: Did you learn that the hard way or the easy way? Did your listeners teach you that? It seems that humor can backfire when it is misinterpreted… any stories?
3) Your job sounds a lot like motherhood.
Being People On The Radio
Martha Foley – March 27, 2002 – #5
North Country News Director

Nannette — I’m assuming you’re asking
what The North Country is. It’s the top shoulder of
New York State. The Adirondacks, St. Lawrence Valley
and Champlain Valley, and contiguous shreds of Canada
and Vermont. (And there are north countries in all the
northern states, I think.) But it’s hard to pin down.
A couple of years ago, we did a month-long series of
stories, commentaries, vox pop, interviews, call-ins
and musings called “Looking for the North Country,”
in which we tried to define the region geographically,
culturally, historically, demographically, etc. We found
a lot of different ideas of what, where and who the
North Country is. One that emerged — not at our suggestion
BTW — was that the limits of our signal now defines
the geography of the region. That was a startling idea,
and very gratifying.

But maybe you’re asking about
the station: North County Public Radio is a station
that’s grown from 3 people to about 20 over the last
30+ years. During that time, we transformed from a university-centered
station with one frequency and a very limited service
area, to a university-owned, community-focused station
with a huge coverage area (19 sets of call letters)
across the rural top of the state. www.ncpr.org
sense of humor: it’s natural, no? It’s not humor shows
and cracking jokes. I think it’s more a willingness
to be people on the radio, instead of radio-people.

I like your comment about the mother side of the
place. For what it’s worth, NCPR is also a recognized
as a woman-managed entity, and has been for many, many
years. More importantly, many of us (not just the women)
have been here for over 20 years. Getting back to the
connection to the community, I’m often asked why I didn’t
“move on” to some better job — the network, or a big
station. My answer has always been, and I think some
of my colleagues would agree, that I choose to live
here, and I am blessed to have a job that is fulfilling,
and that I’m good at. That our long time together has
produced growth and change, instead of fossilization,
is a tribute to management, staff, and the community.

Except The Monkey’s, Who Says It’s Bananas

Jackson Braider – March 27, 2002 – #6
How would you translate “community radio” a la NCPR to a big city? Everyone’s uncle proclaims the heart of radio *is* local, but how can we express that with, say, a 100,000-watt signal?
Beyond The Reach of CELL Phones??!!
Pamela McLean – March 28, 2002 – #7

I represent a community development project in rural Nigeria [Oke-Ogun, Oyo State, Nigeria].
Our vision includes a community radio station which will be part of an integrated information system, with things like email bureaux and access to the Internet. We represent a rural area which is presently beyond the reach of telephones and mostly beyond electricity supplies too. However there are impressive formal and informal community communication systems, and we are building on them.
Many of the potential listeners are illiterate and we plan to broadcast in the local language – Yoruba – so that no-one is excluded from the information system through lack of formal education.
It is wonderful to be able to dip into Transom’s level of information exchange among people with experience of local radio and learn from you before we have anything up and running.
Tate Mail
Ted and Rae Louise Tate – March 29, 2002 – #8

WE have been NCPR listeners and supporters for 20 years, ever since we came to the North Country. This station, and the people who run it, are the most important link in our region. Everything Ellen said about the ice storm is true, and repeated over the years. Not the disaster part – the community part. It’s great to meet station personnel in some public arena, and be able to have a person-to-person conversation, not celebrity to fan (although we are fans).
WE are pleased that national groups have recognized the quality of the local programming here. We’ve always known it.
In The Ether, We Use Rafts
Jay Allison – March 29, 2002 – #9

Martha, your comments about staying put resonate with me. [#5] Radio is so inherently disembodied, yet it serves as a link. The link can be one of affinity (the public radio “community” nationwide) or it can be a link of place. Finally, we all have to be somewhere. We don’t float in the ether. In the short life of our new stations here, I find it a real pleasure and an honor to serve my place — along with exercising my disembodied connection to the nation and beyond.
In that regard, I’d be interested in what the NCPR staff might say to Pamela who just appeared above — in another disembodied way — from Nigeria. What could they learn from North Country in developing their station? And vice versa?
Disembodied Geek Schmoozes
Dale Hobson – March 31, 2002 – #12

I’m one of the newest kids on the block at North Country Public Radio, only fifteen months old in radio years. My bailiwick is new media (geek, subspecies Web), and online outreach (schmoozer, disembodied).
Pamela’s project sounds fascinating, and way up there on the challenge-scale along with accomplishing world peace. While it’s difficult to translate from our experience in rural New York to the experience of rural Nigeria, I have a few thoughts about attitude and process that might be useful.
Jay touched on one notion above that struck me–radio as a disembodied voice. Most of the other media bathing our region feels like that, or worse, the voice of the alien mothership. Communities are defined by shared circumstance–you must be in the same boat. Radio can be the most intimate medium–the voice in your head, a tongue in the ear. That may be why people love headphones while TV goggles seem freakish.
Broadcasting in Yoruba seems essential but not sufficient to place your radio effort within the Yoruba community. From my scant understanding of that culture, it possesses a rich and living oral tradition. We may find that Yoruba speakers will teach us about radio, rather than the reverse.
In order to survive in a rural environment, a community radio station must be able to transform its obstacles into its assets. Illiteracy is a huge obstacle; its flip side, the oral tradition, is a fantastic asset. It means that there are already trusted and credible voices in the community that people will receive information from. Put them on air. For example, to introduce a program on improved methods for dry land farming, don’t use the voice of a European expert, use a local farmer who was a recognized success with the old methods. Use traditional health people to talk about health. Have the people who already distribute news in their region be the voice of the newscast.
The oral tradition also creates great audiences. Unlike us paper junkies, they are more likely to remember what they hear, and to be able to retransmit it with little distortion. This can multiply radio’s reach exponentially. A sort of low-tech viral marketing.
As for the technological circumstances of the Yoruba-speaking community, we have only experienced them personally for a few weeks during a time of natural disaster. But NCPR found innovative ways to use radio during that time.
During our natural disaster, people wanted the most basic communication services from us–they wanted to find out how so-and-so was doing, they wanted to let their kids know they were OK, the firewood was holding out and the baby was doing fine. Radio will probably be useful to the community in distributing mail, phone, e-mail and internet information out to areas that are not connected to passable roads or to power and phone lines.
Most of all, we find that our community lets us know who they are and what they want from our technology. To the extent we accommodate that, we belong. When we challenge or try to change that, we have to fight to make our case or risk finding ourselves on the outside. And sometimes–that’s the job.
Conversion Trend Bashing
chelsea merz – April 1, 2002 #13

Boston’s WBUR manages to convert all of its local programs into national shows and oftentimes it’s a huge loss to the city.
When the Connection went national it remained a great show but most of the listeners felt a loss—there went our ten hours a week. (For example: I was listening to The Connection at work and a caller was reading an excerpt from one of his short stories. I ran down the hall and there was my co-worker on the phone–reading his work. Had it not been for the Connection we would have never gotten to know each other in the context of writing, radio, literature, etc…
So what do you think about the trend of everything going national? Or rather aspiring to? Has NCPR ever tried anything like that?

 

And Everybody Gets A Mug
Mark Kurtz – April 1, 2002 – #14

Martha said that NCPR has grown from 3 people to over 20 – she’s right in that it is over 20…but it is really thousands over 20. The effort on the part of the staff in getting input from its listeners has really put the “public” in our local public radio station. So, although I know Martha meant the number of “professional” staff when she gave the “over 20″ number, I would have to say that NCPR listeners are really a part of the staff also because of the opportunity given them to be a part of the station. We are taken seriously when we discuss things that may improve NCPR. Involvement on the part of the listeners is absolutely vital to PUBLIC radio – otherwise it becomes just another national station.
On Ephemeral Interaction, Connecting Heat, And Wrinkles
Ellen Rocco – April 2, 2002 – #15

Responding to questions, musings posted:
Rural vs. Urban [Jackson #6]

For years I insisted to the big boys in the system that there is a difference between serving a rural community vs. an urban one, that it’s not simply a matter of same issues on a smaller scale. In recent years, I think there’s been some acknowledgment that this is true. This is not to say that good radio isn’t good radio wherever it’s heard–characterized by compelling voices, honesty, surprises, humor, accessibility, etc. But there are different challenges in cities–much more competition from other media and other entertainment options, cost of doing business, anonymity of staff and listeners, compression of time (you still won’t find many people walking down Main Street in the North Country talking on a cell phone) and so forth. In rural communities, the big challenge is figuring out a way to connect isolated individuals and communities over large geographic areas…with very limited resources. On the other hand, radio tends to be much more important to rural dwellers. It’s easier to develop trust and connections when you know your listeners and they know you. (I have never gone grocery shopping or stopped for a cup of coffee in a diner without meeting or talking with listeners–sometimes simply recognized by my voice.)
Radio is about voices. Given the right voices, it’s what makes it a McCluhan-hot medium. For talk radio, competence is not sufficient. Intelligence is not sufficient. Connecting heat–solder–is essential. This is why I firmly believe Christopher Lydon should be re-installed as host of The Connection; John Hockenberry should be hosting Talk of the Nation; and, Ray Suarez would make a swell Morning Edition host. But I digress…
Oh, one other thing. When we’re teaching new announcers about pots and minidisc players and satellite recordings and audio files and all that stuff, we slip in two little principles that underpin everything we do: be yourself, and assume your listeners know more than you do. I believe in both of these admonishments wholeheartedly. After all, what do I know about setting a bone or fixing a tractor or teaching sixth-graders or running a floor-waxer or building a barn? I work in the virtual world. I’m a radio gal. Pretty ephemeral.
National vs. Local [Chelsea, #13]
This one we grapple with on a regular basis–in terms of balancing national voices with local voices. Our job is to link communities and individuals within our coverage area with each other–and with the rest of the world. As for the question Chelsea raised–keeping programs local or offering them for national distribution–I heartily agree with her that not every program should be nationally syndicated (though I must disagree with her about The Connection because then we wouldn’t have had Chris Lydon on our airwaves…he’s too good to keep for yourself). NCPR has distributed lots of programs over the years–feature stories, discrete documentaries, limited series and on-going series. We have also decided to NOT distribute at least two programs I can think of. In one instance, we believed the show would lose its character if it had to have the wrinkles smoothed out to dress it up for national distribution. In the other instance, part of the intent was to provide rural listeners–including high school kids–an opportunity to interact via call-in with world class authors–distributing it nationally would once again put our listeners at a disadvantage in terms of that interaction.
Inflating An Environment
Jackson Braider – April 3, 2002 – #16

I can’t quite let go of the possibility of “radio-as-community” thing. In the big city, radio-as-community seems to be based as much on cult of personality as anything else. And we in the big city tend to glom onto personalities a little too easily. After all, it’s easier to inflate a personality than remedy institutional inertia.
Any notion on how to create in an institutional setting an active, dynamic environment where ideas flow in and out would be greatly appreciated.
Uh-Oh, I Thought You Were Making the Salad
Ellen Rocco – April 3, 2002 – #17

Jackson, you’ve done it now! Oh boy. What you’re asking–“how to create an institutional setting” that is an “active, dynamic environment”–is a big one for everyone who works at NCPR. NCPR is recognized by the Feds as a woman-managed broadcast entity–not just because of me but because so many of our departments are led by women. (Unfortunately, we still live in a society where this is unusual.) “Woman-managed” can mean something very superficial–i.e., women hold managerial positions but they might just as well be white guys in suits–or it can mean something quite deep–i.e., an adjusted sense of priorities. The difference happens when managers–often women but by no means necessarily so–assume that everyone on staff is competent, talented, bright and capable of accomplishing wonderful things without someone breathing over their shoulder or second-guessing them; when managers invest in the workplace–yes, doing the best possible in terms of equipment and workspace–but most importantly by spending money on and providing development time for the people who populate the workplace. The difference happens when managers assume staff are responsible and honest and judge them by their ability to interact with each other and the community, and, of course, by work accomplished, so rather than tracking hours, we allow people to have real lives and families outside of the workplace. The difference happens when the underlying managerial assumption is that everyone on staff plays a role in short and long term decision making. We are not a collective, but we certainly come to important decisions collectively–some decisions involving the whole staff, some involving relevant subgroups. And, I don’t make high-impact decisions without input from lots of people. This is an organic process that’s evolved over years. One of the reasons it’s been successful is that we are very good at absorbing new staff into the process. Everyone is expected to own their work, to make decisions, to participate.
When I think about the past several years, and the coming decade, I know the focus of my work is to help a new generation of public radio professionals take over this station and shape it in a new way. How can we prepare a new generation without letting those people have real responsibility and creative license? The answer is we can’t. These days there’s a lot of talk around the system about how to get younger people into public radio…and keep them. This is a no-brainer. Hire ‘em and let ‘em do real stuff. What’s the mystery all about?
Final thought: I flinch at the word “institution.” I almost think it’s oxymoronic to think of a creative workplace as an “institution.” It’s so unflexible sounding. Think of NCPR as a kitchen where everyone’s working on a different dish–for the dinner we all sit down together.
Kidnap And Deprogram?
Jackson Braider – April 4, 2002 – #18

Let’s turn “institution” on its ear. For example, you speak of the coming decade and how you will help “a new generation of public radio professionals take over this station.” I could argue — but I really won’t — that what you are trying to instill is a kind of institutional memory. Not a rule book that says this is the way we do things around here (so get used to it), but something more like an institutional consciousness that does whatever consciousness does.
But surely an institution does not have to be antithetical to creativity. The problem is that such places tend to be.
So, how would you approach, say, “deinstitutionalizing” an institution?
Creating Radio Community With A C
Danielle Dreilinger – April 4, 2002 – #19

“Broadcasting in Yoruba seems essential but not sufficient to place your radio effort within the Yoruba community.” [from #12, paragraph 4]
An NCPR story alerted me to the fact that CKON [the Akwesasne Mohawk radio station along the NY/Canadian border] is now broadcasting Mohawk language lessons. I guess Mohawk is the language of the elders– dying out– and the community is trying to revive it. The rest of CKON’s programming is largely English-language pop music, but it still sounds distinctly different to me. Maybe because it has a “C” instead of a “W,” or because the ads are for local businesses. Every time I hear an announcer pronounce “Akwesasne” the Mohawk way I’m aware that I’m listening to a Mohawk station.
An interesting example of a radio station targeted to one community that creates community without using its traditional language.
The Giovannoni Diet
Mary McGrath – April 7, 2002 – #20

Ellen,
I’m interested in knowing what you think of the trend toward formatting in public radio and the effect of David Giovannoni’s research. Did you happen to read the letters to the editor after the Sunday New York Times did that big feature on him in the Arts and Leisure section? There were nearly a dozen letters over three weeks and the passion from the anti VALS crowd was stunning. Is it possible for public radio stations to create a mix of individual programming anymore or does it mean the difference between financial life and death if you don’t offer the standard NPR talk diet?
[Giovannoni research references provided by Steve Young in #45, paragraphs 5 and 7, and #47.]
Lost In The Workplace
Ellen Rocco – April 8, 2002 – #24

Jackson, I accept your notion of institutional memory. [#18] I believe that institutions calcify largely because of their size. However, large organizations have the advantage of all those staff members’ brains and creativity. The trick is to create a workplace where brains and creativity are welcomed and encouraged, rather than perceived as a pain in the ass. What comes to mind is parenting a young child: it takes a heck of a lot longer to make dinner or plant a garden or build a birdhouse if you let your young child participate, rather than just watch. Ah, but the kids know how to cook or garden or use tools if they’ve had a chance to use a whisk, a spade or a hammer. This seems incredibly obvious. Obvious stuff–including common sense–often gets lost in the workplace.
Danielle [#19], we have a long relationship with the folks at CKON. I think CKON is successful for a variety of reasons–they play mostly C&W, which is what people on the rez want, they do the Mohawk language thing, everyone knows everyone who’s on the air, and, most important, the station sounds like its audience–it’s a voice thing, again.
Mary McGrath’s question about research [#20]. Well, I think numbers are useful. I also think they are most useful after one has used some deep common sense, creativity, visceral thinking about what works and doesn’t. Then, use the numbers to refine, to tweak the on-air offerings and line up. The problem in the system is that some stations abjure ever even considering research and go strictly by the seat of their pants, while others just go by the statistics and don’t shape their broadcast based on community, quirkiness, etc. It takes more effort to work both. It makes a difference, though. Is it time to reshape the mission vs. money debate? Is there some other way we should be getting at the issue?
Greasing Out Of That Bland Box
Doug Nadvornick – April 8, 2002 – #25

I’m fortunate enough to work in a community public radio station [as news director of Spokane Public Radio] that has many of the same attributes that NCPR has: a fine boss who questions the current public radio wisdom; a small staff of reporters that does decent (and once in a while, darn good) work; a station with a signal that reaches far into rural areas; lovely, devoted, often opinionated, listeners.
One thing I’m struggling with here is has to do with carving an identity for a second station that we put on the air nearly three years ago. It’s a low-powered station whose license we inherited from a local community college. The new station has gained a small, but loyal following. We’re about three months away from boosting the signal so that it might have a chance at building a decent audience.
Now is the time to fly, to help build for this new station a unique feel, using a little of what Jay Allison preaches, a little of what NCPR does, a little of what we’ve done with KPBX and any other ideas I can steal. I think I’ve started us on that process, but my creative well is a little dry right now. Can you help me grease the pump?
I have the freedom to create anything I want (within reason). I guess I’m just looking for permission to step outside what has become a bland public radio box, and yet still adhere to some solid journalistic standards.
Can you offer me some ideas of programs that you’ve done that you’ve been particularly proud of, and which were well-received by listeners? Can you steer me to other places where small staffs like mine have done memorable work?
People Pay For Peppered Nuggets
helen woodward – April 8, 2002 – #26

WCAI and WNAN have many similarities with NCPR, less rural, but not urban certainly, small bunch of dedicated radio folk and volunteers, but more nautical and very young.
Ellen, this comment way back in your manifesto: “no listener should ever have to ask, where the hell am I, if they’ve been listening to North Country Public Radio for an hour…”
And Doug’s comment above: “Now is the time to fly, to help build for this new station a unique feel…but my creative well is a little dry right now. Can you help me grease the pump?” got me thinking about our little station here on Cape Cod that Jay Allison set about starting up a few years ago, and a means to address both issues.
Prior to start up, Jay wrote to an assortment of visionary radio types asking for advice, about among other things, how to retain a local flavor between national shows; the wealth of ideas that came back evolved into sonic ids (a rather inexact name but it’s stuck), stand alone 30, 60 or 90 second pieces featuring local people, or sounds that are particular to this area, e.g. lobster pots being winched aboard. Importantly, they all feature the station ID in various forms. Hence the listener always knows where they are.
These little nuggets of local life are peppered throughout the broadcast day and night, maybe one or 2 an hour in amongst all the promos/national programming etc. They depict any aspect of life here, and that is the key criteria, they must reflect some sense of this place; they are at times poetic, folkloric, funny, informative, historical, and intriguing.
The scope is immense, people say the most profound (and frankly, at times, weird!) things whether about their childhood on Nantucket, or their occupation, (who would have thought that the worst part of one particular hairdressers job was the clients hair that gets into her navel?) or their life in general.
In addition to the handful of us addicted to protools and sonic ID making at APM and CAI and NAN, our listeners LOVE them….. during fund drives they come up again and again as one of the main reasons for giving, and that’s not a bad thing either.
Jay Sprouts
Jackson Braider – April 8, 2002 – #28

Doug [#25]:
To amplify Helen Woodward’s point [#26] — and to indicate some of the dangers of the form. The beauty of CAI/NAN’s spots is the sound of the voices, telling stories. There is an entire generation of gifted interviewers and listeners that have sprouted at the station, Athena-like from — I dunno — Jay’s head.
I suspect in the next few years we’ll hear of this genre — “Often imitated, rarely matched.” The sonic IDs on CAI/NAN have worked because they have made literally hundreds of them; sure, some were scotched, but sheer force of numbers plays in their favor. And my guess is that there are many people out there collecting them — so there’s a variety of sensibility and sound.
The example of the genre at at least one big-city station in the Boston area has not been as successful, though listeners have in the main responded well. CAI/NAN has garnered close to a thousand, the city station has, maybe, 100 culled over half a year, and of these 100, there are, perhaps, six distinctive categories with maybe eight different voices. Limited variety, limited repertoire, limited depth.
That is why numbers matter. If you don’t know where you are, collecting lots and lots of material for sonic IDs will tell you far better than any map.
Harvesting Sonics
Jackson Braider – April 9, 2002 – #29

I keep thinking about Pamela’s query [#7] about community-building through radio in Nigeria. The closest we come here (in Boston) is carrying the BBC in various ways. I’d be interested in the issues of dialects, religious sects, etc. that describe your intended area of coverage.
If there are various communities in your listenership — communities of language, communities of religion — is it possible to identify their common points? Sonic IDs playing upon harvest methods, cooking techniques, etc., may do more than a thousand NGO’s to overcome regional prejudice.
Hope For Fireaters
Ellen Rocco – April 9, 2002 – #30

Gee, that’s an idea I think NCPR ought to steal. And, I guess I disagree with those of you from Boston who fear there is no homogenous “voice” of the community in a city the size/diversity of Boston. Isn’t that very diversity the essential character of the place you want to communicate with these sonic bites? The North Country, while rural and isolated, is by no means inhabited ONLY by people whose families have lived here for generations. I was born and raised in Manhattan. Our staff is about 50/50 local versus “big city transplant.” Thirty years after leaving NYC, the question I’m most frequently asked when I meet people for the first time is, “what made you move to the North Country?” The answer to that question alone could form the basis for a series of sonics: “I was born here, left, came back, and ain’t leaving ever again” (slight North Country accent); “I used to drive truck, went into the city a few times” (heavy North Country accent); “Price of land drew me here 30 years ago…best decision I ever made” (NYC accent); etc. These are actual words I’ve heard through the years. Or any other of a gazillion topics I can think of. We’ve done modular and 1/2 hour series on North Country culture, voices etc. Sonics seems like a great way to extend our airwaves to people who don’t necessarily do anything that would typically get them into a formal “series” about the region. I like it.
Stud Services, Live Chickens And A Weekend In Ottawa
Martha Foley – April 9, 2002 – #31

In an earlier post [#5], I mentioned a series we did called “Looking for the North Country,” which was an exploration of where “the North Country” is and what, if anything, makes it an identifiable place. To promote the series, which continued for a month, I started asking people months in advance those two basic questions, where and what is this place, and chopped their answers into 30 second or so collages which we then used as ongoing promos. It was really fun and sounds like a variation on the sonics. I agree that a thousand of them is better than a hundred.
And here’s a story about community building and fundraising: until this year, NCPR spent a lot of energy and argument on “special” premiums for our fall fundraiser. I think I’m right to say that this very Ellen Rocco was the first listener (this was before she was an employee) to offer to give something extra for a contribution. It was maple syrup. We progressed through firewood, stud services, live chickens, crafts, garden produce, gourmet meals, weekends in Ottawa and loads of manure. Hundreds of different things, so that the fundraiser became like a virtual market place representing listeners and contributors from around the region. This has some pitfalls of course. (When last I looked we still had a garbage bag full of beanie babies in a closet.)We scrapped the premiums after Sept. 11, and they may not survive another year, but we got to know people, and they got to know us and each other. It’s been a part of the whole.
Voicing The Earth
Doug Nadvornick – April 12, 2002 – #33

This “sonic” idea is an intriguing one. I remember, three years ago, a listener (a very persistent listener) called to suggest I do a special program for Earth Day. We used something like this “sonic” approach; we went to people all around our listening area and asked them about their links to Mother Earth. We visited a contract logger and did a sound piece with him. We solicited poetry. We visited a farmer and talked about using chemical pesticides. We had children. We had music. It was all listeners (and our receptionist, who voiced the program for us). It was a glorious program that was praised by many listeners. (And judges in several awards’ contests, I might add).
I can see how we might use this approach to do all kinds of programs. Thanks for the inspiration.
19 Sets Of Call Letters…Harumph
Abner Serd – April 14, 2002 – #35

So, what’s the difference between “community radio” and “regional radio?”
I’m asking on account of I keep reading all these glowing comments about North Country Public Radio being a community radio station, and I keep scrolling back to Ellen’s comment about “19 sets of call letters …”
… and I’m sitting here in Prescott Arizona, which is a college town, a retirement community, a cow town, and the county seat, and yet the nearest public radio station is over 100 miles away.
… and in most parts of town, you can listen to two public radio stations: KNAU out of Flagstaff, and KJZZ out of Phoenix. And they’re both very good regional radio stations, and they both have their share of Prescott-area listeners, but I would not call them community radio stations. Hell, KNAU is so busy trying to cover all of Northern Arizona that I doubt they even cover Flagstaff as well as they could.
… and this sticks in my mind, on account of I personally started agitating for a community radio station in Prescott back in 1990. And ten years later, along came the FCC with its “Report and Order 99-25,” authorizing the licensing of Low Power FM radio stations, and holy flushin’ toilets, you shoulda heard the earth shake with all the established radio stations, public and commercial, all joining forces in an attempt to kill or permanently disable LPFM. And I try my best to understand their side of the story, which seems to be that these tiny little 100-watt stations would step on the signals of the existing stations, and take away listeners and possibly drive these stations out of business, on account of some of them with their 100,000 watts of power and their six or twelve or nineteen sets of call letters are just barely hanging on as it is.
… and then I come around to Transom, which seems like a fine place and a great example of Public Radio trying to do better, and I read about North Country Public Radio, which everybody seems to agree is community radio at its best, and I scratch my head and try to imagine how many days it would take me to walk across the length and breadth of NCPR’s listening area, and how much variety there must be from one town to the next, and I go to NCPR’s website and find out they’re still expanding, and nothing at all against regional radio but goodness gracious, if radio is local, why in blue blazes does it have to get bigger and bigger?
Tied By Water
Jay Allison – April 14, 2002 – #36

Abner’s question is good. I’ll be interested to hear how you feel about it at North Country. We have some of the same issues here on the Cape & Islands. We’re a regional service. We cover islands, each one as discrete a physical community as you can be, and each one not like the others. But we’re all tied by water, and we at the radio station feel that’s good enough to warrant a handshake. We see our ability to bring together the region with a common signal as a great strength.
That said, I personally would welcome the addition of a few Low Power FMs in the area, each one tending to smaller communities. There’s one trying to get started on Martha’s Vineyard and we’re very supportive — lending advice, resources, etc. If they can get off the ground, we can find ways to work together, I’m sure of it. That seems the best outcome. Very small, very local signals all cooperating with a larger regional service, which, in turn, collaborates with other regions and the nation.
Adirondackers Always Carry Umbrellas
Dale Hobson – April 15, 2002 – #37

Abner’s question is good. We have been a little sloppy in defining what we mean by a community. NCPR covers a large geographical area; but when I think of a region, I think of a mix of urban and rural areas that share proximity and little else. Our listening area ranges from small-town to unpopulated.
There are distinct communities and subregions in our area–St. Lawrence Valley residents have some concerns that Adirondackers are less likely to share. Providing useful weather coverage can be a nightmare. Despite that, there has also been a semi-defined place called the North Country, capital N, capital C, that has existed much longer than North Country Public Radio. Is it a community? I have always felt so, and have never found much dissent among residents in proclaiming its existence.
Filling In The Air Holes
Ellen Rocco – April 15, 2002 – #38

Abner’s point [#35] is an important one. I think Dale has gone a long ways toward defining the sense of community that North Country Public Radio works with. A few additional thoughts…NCPR did NOT oppose Low Power FM. If we had a concern about LPFM it was that the FCC, bizarrely, was proceeding to some extent without the normal technical checks in place–specifically, some kind of insurance that if new stations sign on their signals not wipe out an existing public service.
On the other hand, I absolutely believe we must move on LPFM and get those very local stations up and running. To underscore Dale’s point: regional IS community in this neck of the woods. There are many local commercial stations that serve single towns. We don’t even try to compete with them. We don’t do obituaries or drunk driving stories or anything that is strictly local–unless it has a broad community impact. For example, our news department might cover the school board meeting in Canton, not as the local commercial station does (reporting on every agenda item) but to give a clear example of say, land tax inequities vis-a-vis school funding–an issue that affects everyone in our listening area. It does mean something to people in other little towns to hear a Canton voice–because we are all part of the North Country. LPFM would give every little town complete school board coverage…or whatever. We can never do that. I think the LPFM “fight” turned into exactly that–a fight–leaving little room for people/stations that were less rigid about their position on the issue than the big boys duking it out.
One last point, re: Abner’s post. There is a very real financial issue for indigent rural regions like the North Country. Years ago, when we first began expanding beyond Canton, we did the math: no way to support local stations across the region. Just not enough people or money. As for continued expansion, I’d say it’s more like filling in the holes–we’ve drawn the boundaries of our signal coverage, now we’re just filling in a few blank areas where terrain blocks our signal.
Elvis at Eight
Jackson Braider – April 15, 2002 – #39

A question for Abner: you describe Prescott, Arizona as: “a college town, a retirement community, a cow town, and the county seat.”
It seems to me from the outside that you are dealing with four distinct communities there. Do you attempt to reconcile these groups, or do you simply broadcast away? Is there a Sinatra hour at 5 on Saturday and the Dead Hour at midnight, with school activities, local soirees, and the like in between?
Your point about regional vs. community radio is very important, but as the population of Prescott shows, you don’t need a very big place to provide home for diverse interests. How do you address the needs of the people of Prescott while still maintaining the “identity” of your station?
We have defined “community” here in a geographical sort of way, but we haven’t even begun to explore the various communities of “interest” that frequently intersect within our cities, towns, and villages — not to mention our “listening areas”.
Okay, Elvis Every Third Thursday, Sometimes At Eight
Abner Serd – April 17, 2002 – #40

When I think of noncommercial community radio, I think of a station I once heard in Telluride, Colorado (KOTO), and another in Provincetown, Massachusetts (WOMR?).
I haven’t heard any of these stations in years. But what I remember is, none of them tried to be everything to everybody all the time. (Their programming also depended not so much on what the listener wanted to hear as what the volunteer wanted to play, but that’s another subject.) So yes, absolutely, there are communities within communities, and I don’t see anything wrong with an eclectic menu of programs, and to hell with prefabricated station identities.
…And Land In Tahiti
Jackson Braider – April 17, 2002 – #41

An argument could be made that simply by letting volunteers take to the air, one is already giving voice to the community(ies) — they are people from the area who care enough to give up their time for the station.
I wonder about the Prescott community and your station because I am involved in an institution and institutions tend to lose touch with the people who live around them. So, to ask my original question another way, do you create or present any programming specifically to meet the needs, beliefs, etc. of the various groups who happen to be in your broadcast range?
Bubbling Cauldrons On Low Boil
beedge – April 18, 2002 – #42

Barrett Golding
i am amazed by Ellen’s…

Four Essentials of Radio:
A Map
A Natural Disaster
A Sense of Humor and,..
People, on Both Sides of the Mic, Who Care About Each Other and the World Around Them
everyone who has anything to do w/ radio. please go re-read her first post.
it encapsulates everything i love about the radio stations i love. radio as barber shop, as city hall, as corner market, as coffee shop, as concert hall, as confidante, as drinking buddy, as next-door neighbor.
having had some interaction w/ Ellen over the years, i think the reason NCPR can so successfully blend basic NPR services with the best of local and indie offerings is not cuz it’s “women-managed” as much as well-managed.
the manager understands what mathematicians call “dynamical systems,” aka, Chaos. radio stations are bubbling cauldrons of technical and creative talent, of over-eager passionate volunteers, and seasoned reasoned professionals. it takes a master chef to keep these ingredients simmering together in one pot, but not over-heating.
I’ll Bring A Mic, You Do The Rest
Abner Serd – April 18, 2002 – #44

[in response to #41] Ah. Well. To make a long story short, I don’t have a station. I did my best to spark interest in applying for an LPFM license at my own institution – my employer and alma mater, Prescott College – but I abandoned my efforts when it became clear to me that nobody else was passionate enough about the project to invest any time in helping to make it happen. People liked the idea. Everybody wanted to have his own show when the thing was built. Until then, everybody had other things to do. As for me, I figured out that I couldn’t single-handedly build a community radio station.
Five other groups in Prescott did manage to file applications for the one usable frequency we were left with after the third-channel protection kicked back in. Last I heard, several of them were hoping to share the use of that frequency. I guess that’s one way to ensure that a range of communities-within-communities will be served. But since the licensing process seems to have virtually ground to a halt, it’ll be a long time before we hear the results.
Keeping The Rust Off
Steve Young – April 19, 2002 – #45

I’m currently Broadcast Director (combined program director and news director) at the station Jay Allison and WGBH founded on Cape Cod. I’ve always had great respect for Ellen and NCPR.
I was struck by this paragraph in Ellen’s opening manifesto: “(L)istening to people in the system adopt the latest cant is kind of like watching birds flock and wheel as they get ready to migrate in the fall. I mean, c’mon, one year the starlings are all calling out “seamless, NPR repeater station” and then (oh that dirty rotten satellite) “local, we must be local.” Some of us never thought radio was anything but local.”
Well put. But when it comes to local news, one can’t blame PDs for being conflicted on this issue, just as one can’t blame birds for flocking and wheeling and flying south for the winter. The fact is, stations have to look at the issue of local news with the same mixture of idealism and realism we bring to all our programming decisions – and most do. I agree with Ellen that the standard pro and con arguments that she skewers above are shallow and misleading. But I also think she too easily asserts that, in essence, we should be local because we ARE local, at least when it comes to news. As hard as it is for this old reporter to say it, the fact is many stations thrive without providing their listeners much –if any — local news. There’s also very little evidence that listeners care or even notice if the station provides in-depth local news. Reporters are extremely expensive and the good ones are rare and getting rarer. None of these factors alone should be decisive in the “should we or shouldn’t we” debate. But each clearly needs to be part of the discussion.
I think a better way to frame the issue is to consider two competing concepts: relevance and importance. Ellen argues that local news is vital if a station wants to be relevant to its listeners and its community. David Giovannoni in his various papers and speeches over the years emphasizes “the importance of importance.” In a nutshell, he believes that most local news is simply not important enough to NPR listeners to merit their support. He also famously defines the NPR “community” as a “virtual” community of listeners and believes that geography is irrelevant. An NPR listener on Cape Cod is the same as an NPR listener in Canton is the same as an NPR listener in Sacramento.
In my own thinking, I’ve drawn upon these concepts and my own experience to develop the following tentative conclusions:
1) It’s possible for a small market public radio station to become a primary source of local news for its listeners but it’s extremely difficult, expensive and risky. Most importantly, its value to listeners is often questionable. We need to ask ourselves the following difficult questions:
— Is our area a “breaking news” location? If we create a daily hole in our schedule do we have enough news to fill it up? This is a quality AND importance issue.
— Who’s our competition? According to the first Local News Project, 53% of core NPR listeners get their local news elsewhere. Giovannoni says that our listeners have the perception that they can get local news from other sources, whereas they can only get NPR from us.
— Are we making a difference? Are we being heard? According to the Local News Project II (just getting under way), 70% of core listeners are unaware of our local news efforts. That’s a staggeringly sobering figure, if true. Considering the cost of producing daily local news, one could phrase this statement this way: “70% of our listeners are not listening to what we spend 75% of our programming budget on.” And that leads finally to:
— Can we afford it? I’ve done some back-of-the-envelope figuring about reporter costs and it’s not pretty. Conservatively, it ranges from $100 -150 per produced minute for the most productive (and most underpaid) reporters. That doesn’t include overhead or production equipment (it does include benefits). By contrast, in program fees and board op salaries it costs my station about 50 cents per minute for 24/7 network programming. Okay, we all know that local news is very expensive. But also consider this: I know of at least two statewide public radio stations that have more reporters on staff than that state’s entire AP bureau, which of course serves every newspaper, radio station and TV station in the state. Does that make sense?
2) The safer route is for the station to concentrate its money and energy on becoming an excellent secondary source (feature series, call-in shows, commentaries, partnerships with other news organizations) and occasional primary source (more on that shortly). And it’s extremely important for the station to promote its efforts both on the air and in the community.
— This approach allows us to choose the focus, the timing and the topics and not be driven by the grind of daily breaking news – or the lack of it.
— This approach is also more likely to meet Giovannoni’s “importance” test. If we’re in touch with our community and believe an issue or series of issues are worth a week’s worth of features, commentaries and call-in shows, our audience will likely agree.
— This approach allows us to better control costs. Our call-in show costs about $8 per on-air minute, for example, and we can pay our freelancers for features on a “per minute” basis.
— “Packaging” our efforts and promoting them aggressively, going after (and hopefully winning) awards, getting out into the community every day and recording people (which we do for our Sonic Ids which air 20-30 times a day) and promoting ourselves unashamedly, all help to foster the perception that we’re doing relevant and important things all the time. Showing up at a DA’s press conference with ten other reporters apparently does not.
3) It’s important to develop a minimal infrastructure to handle true news emergencies.
— As Ellen points out so eloquently, this is the ultimate “relevance ” test. Even if you don’t put much stock in daily newscasts, your reporters and on-air people need to build their Rolodexes for weather emergencies or natural (or otherwise) disasters.
— It’s a good idea to get your reporters (if you have any) and on-air people out covering an occasional breaking news story, even if it doesn’t rise to disaster level. It keeps the rust off and does provide a pleasing addition to rip and read.
— NPR needs to rely on us for breaking stories in our area as well as the occasional feature. It’s very hard to do either if you’re a stranger to your community or you have reporters who don’t practice their craft.
There’s nobody who’s a bigger booster of local news on public radio than I am. It’s my career, after all. But we have to do it wisely or else we’re not adequately serving anyone, least of all our listeners.
Eyes Cross, Ears Wax, Brains Drain
Jackson Braider – April 22, 2002 – #46

The kind of stuff Steve Young talks about here is, in one sense, the kind of thing that makes your eyes cross — and it’s certainly not the kind of thing we want to think about when it comes to public radio. The difference between 50 cents and $125 per minute of national vs. local news is tough to ignore.
For example, Steve notes that 53% of NPR listeners get their local news from other sources. Which means, in turn, that 47% of NPR listeners get their local news from their NPR station. It would be interesting to know if that figure is static or is it “trending” somewhere. And it doesn’t take into account the fact that much of the local NPR news, at least in Boston, is gleaned from our local papers.
So we start arriving at the idea of being a “secondary source” — but secondary to whom or to what? The problem with all the David Giovannoni stuff to my mind is that it is so absolutely BIG PICTURE. He sounds radical, though what he seems to promote is a highly centralized corporate structure. Maybe he’s thinking out of the box because he can’t fit in it in the first place.
One thing I’d love to know: who does David Giovannoni work for? Do any of his theories bear any theoretical relationship to the Denver Project?
The Black Arts
Steve Young – April 23, 2002 – #47

I admit I was reluctant to post my thoughts on local news in here because it would divert the discussion from celebration of “localness,” particularly of Sonics which my station, through Jay, originated and which I’m extremely proud of (we just won a regional Murrow award for them). But here we are. A couple of points: a few years ago a fellow (public radio) news director told me that he wanted his listeners to always hear about news that broke in his area first on his station. That’s a noble goal and a traditionally “commercial” one (“get it first and get it right!”) but I’ve come to believe that it’s unrealistic, particularly for small market stations. Being a “secondary” source at its best can simply mean being deeper rather than wider. Also, the reason why it’s important for public radio people to look at the numbers, no matter how distasteful it may be to do so, is because numbers increasingly matter in the world of public radio. Fifteen years ago Giovannoni (and others like him) began teaching public radio executives the black arts of market and audience research. In light of massive cuts in government funding, many believe he saved public radio. Others believe he ruined it forever. At any rate, what was heretical then is mainstream today.
Finally, that’s a good question about the 53% figure, whether it represents an increase or a decrease. Don’t know the answer.
Exploring The Story
Ellen Rocco – April 23, 2002 – #48

For those of you following this discussion who are not based at a station, Steve has very eloquently summarized the issues many of us grapple with constantly.
First–and again–the issue of community. Steve raised the notion of communities of interest, including the NPR community, which exist across geographies. I have no argument with this notion. However, in practical terms for NCPR, I cannot worry about or serve people across the country–or the globe, for that matter–who are part of the “NPR community” or the “rural community” or any of the other communities of interest that connect with our local audience. I can only worry about the North Country. This is the community we serve. If others tune us in, welcome. If others find our website interesting and useful, terrific. However, those others are not our primary audience. People who ACTUALLY live and work in the North Country, in our listening area, are who we work for. When reporters cover a story, they cover it first for our local audience and only secondarily for broader audiences. We always encourage our reporters to extend their stories to the nation (and the world), but NCPR listeners come first. Most of the time, stories emanating from the North Country are not earthshaking (forgive the pun)–we encourage reporters to share stories with the larger public radio community because that sharing outward is also a service to the North Country. Anyone who lives in a rural area knows that it’s a BIG DEAL when listeners hear “their” local reporter delivering a story or feature on the national news programs, that it makes people feel their lives and their concerns are important.
Okay, now the issue of cost. Yes, local news is certainly a major expense — about 13% of our annual operating budget. Is that too much? NPR programming is about comparable as a portion of our budget. Is the total audience for regional news vs. NPR news comparable? No. For one thing, our NPR fees buy us many more hours of programming than we can produce for the same amount. We also air the NPR newsmagazines during prime time. Nonetheless, local news holds its own pretty well. As part of a CPB-funded NFCB (National Federation of Community Broadcasters) survey we are participating in, we are learning a lot about how and why and when our listeners tune in. I base my statement about local news audiences on these survey results. However, the question remains, if local news does not “perform” as well as NPR news, are we justified in spending 13% of our annual budget on this service? I believe we are. This is where I think stations so often get lost. You see the raw numbers and freak out–worrying that your station is “underperforming.” Or, you see the numbers and refuse to pay them any attention because your “instincts” tell you that “people like” what you do. At NCPR, we take what we consider a balanced approach between audience research numbers (and the money generated by larger audiences) and community service (mission). Make no mistake: local or regional news departments are mission driven. If money is the goal, there are probably more efficient ways to make–and save–money. But, put enough money into local news, do a good job, and the payoff will go beyond membership and underwriting dollars. It is service. It serves our core audience. It serves our community by contributing so richly to our sense of this place.
Now, should every rural or small community station have a news department? I don’t know. I think Steve’s suggestion–to have some kind of minimal staff capability in place–is a good one for ANY radio station. Without that minimal capability, a radio station throws away a key strength of our medium–immediacy and localness. I do know that whatever level of service a station chooses to provide, it must do that service really well and reliably. Steve is right about depth being essential to public radio news coverage. I believe this is as true at the national level as at the local level. When NPR news is lauded it is usually for the depth of its coverage, not for beating out CNN on the breaking international stories. We don’t have to go head to head with CNN. That’s redundant. When NPR is criticized (at least by our listeners), it is for the failure to take a story deeply enough. The expectation of public radio is that it will explore a story meaningfully, surprisingly and with a full range of voices–regardless of whether it emanates from NPR or NCPR.
Screwed Up Board Shifts And Enterprise Reporting
Andrea de Leon – April 25, 2002 – #50

I’m joining the discussion late….
I got my start at NCPR, and it is still my favorite radio station. Hands down. I was screwing up board shifts back when NCPR still hired work study students to baby-sit the opera and spin records late into the night. Those days are gone at NCPR, I believe, but it was a wonderful training opportunity. For all those starting out in radio, or hoping to, I urge you to look for a place like NCPR. The station was small enough, and the staff was patient enough, to give me a real understanding of how the technology worked, how the finances worked, and how to make stories in a land without news conferences and piles of press releases. In the year I worked full time at the station, there wasn’t a single news conference called in the listening area. Talk about enterprise reporting. Back then the place was held together with extra-long extension cords and the same never-say-die dedication to serving the local audience that you’ve been hearing about.
This isn’t to say that you can’t get a great start with an entry-level job at a big station, or even a network. But in my opinion, nothing could top a small station with critical listeners, supportive mentors, and strong editorial standards. As an NPR editor, I work with lots of station and free lance reporters. It is always clear who’s used to working at a place with high standards for content.

 

Youth In The Woods?
Jackson Braider – May 6, 2002 – #52

Youth-type-Radio speaks a lot about place. Is there anything like this going on in, quite literally, your neck of the woods?
Um, Just A Coupla Questions….
Jay Allison – May 6, 2002 – #53

Ellen and Co… Before your tenure is up, I want to ask about your approach to 1) the web, and 2) fundraising. I’m interested in ways you may be going with or against the flow in those areas.
1) the Web. What do you feel a public radio station’s web role should be? Is it an extension of service? But so much service is possible! Where do you draw the line? I found this on your site, for instance:
“By sharing our stories, our art, music and opinions. By talking about where we live and where we have been and what we love and hate. UpNorth Communities will attempt to make the radio a two-way proposition. We have many ideas for discussion groups, salons, interest areas, etc. Please use the form to your right to give us yours. This is a do-it-yourself Internet project.”
How’s this going? Do your listeners give you feedback on your site and what they want from you? Do they listen to a lot of archived audio, or do you find that they bookmark you for steady reference the way they’d punch in your frequency on their radios? Do they want to build a community with the station at the heart of it? What do you want listeners/visitors to do?
2) Fundraising. What’s your practice and philosophy? What works, what doesn’t? How do you keep coming back and asking them same thing year after year without driving people crazy? How do you set limits on underwriting time? Do you have a broad base of small contributions and/or a deep base of major donors?
Whew Is Right
Ellen Rocco – May 9, 2002 – #54

I finally got around to the youth radio pieces on transom. Definitely stuck-in-the-driveway/parking lot listening. Very open, fresh voices–I actually found them hopeful, in spite of the hard start each of these young people had.
We invested a lot of time, money and people (the money was mostly for the right people) in the development of our website (ncpr.org). It’s been up and running in its current form for barely a year. Some things we’re redesigning because they didn’t work quite as well as we had hoped, e.g., the various on-going discussion groups (though we have a good short term response for discussions of issues with an immediacy or urgency or compelling connection to on air pieces). Some elements of the site, I think are quite wonderful–like the North Country gallery which showcases the visual and musical work of area artists. The news page draws a lot of traffic–both regional stories and world material from NPR, PRI and others. Bill and Dale, our web guys, say our commitment to audio is relatively risk-taking and innovative for this neck of the woods. In a sense, we built the site as much for the future as for the present–perhaps, even more for the future. We also built it for the future in the sense that we believe it is bound to be the medium of choice (or is already) for people who are young right now (or aren’t even born yet). Gradually, we are adding more and more features that are created by people in our community. This is the direction we’d like to move in. So, yes, something like the youth radio project is definitely of interest to us.
We just began distributing a one-screen weekly e-newsletter, The Listening Post. Dale Hobson, our web outreach guy, is the editor. It’s short, sweet and very nicely written.
Let me sum up about the website this way: it’s not yet nearly what it’s going to be–tons of potential–but, already, I don’t know how we communicated and served our community without the dimension the website adds.
We got a grant from Verizon Foundation to establish a teen website–help connect isolated rural kids. We’re working with area high school students this spring and summer to design and manage that space. We’ll keep you posted.
Okay, fundraising. We have wonderful underwriting support and our listeners are stunningly generous. We have a major donors program (Sweethearts of the Radio)–membership gifts of $500 or more used to challenge other listeners to give. We probably do as well as the best in our system in comparable communities. Perhaps noteworthy: we initiated an endowment fund some years ago. Our plan is to use endowment interest to support all the extras we do, not the basic operation. Extras include: website, satellite news bureau in the Adirondacks, and outreach projects (buying books for schools and libraries in conjunction with a call-in series featuring writers).
Our on-air fundraising evolved very gradually over about 20 years and we have recently made some relatively revolutionary decisions. For years, a fall and spring fundraiser (with some kind of very low-key messages during the summer to attract support from seasonal listeners). Fall: six days, lots of donated “special” premiums ranging from loads of manure for the garden to weekend stays at fancy hotels in Ottawa or the Adirondacks. Spring: four days, with just a few premiums–perhaps a magazine subscription or cookbook. (Yes, yes, of course there was always a station coffee mug and t-shirt and tote.) For the past five years, Kathleen Fitzgerald, our membership director, tried to convince us (me, especially) to get rid of the premiums. September 11 did it for me. In a delayed fall drive, and again this spring, we realized we’re at a new place. Down to the message, creative production of fundraising breaks and, as always, a sense of humor, warmth and fun. We have always subscribed to the notion that it’s essential to sound like you’re having fun–that makes people want to be a part of the process. Whining is, of course, never ever never permitted.
Whew. Gotta run.

About Ellen Rocco

I was born and raised in NYC. Manhattan. Red diaper baby. Attended my first (in my memory) peace march at about 10, sponsored by SANE. Went on to many more marches and demonstrations including the “I have a dream” march on Washington in ’63, Selma a couple of years later, actions in Harlem while I was a student at CCNY, and countless anti-war activities during the Vietnam era. I received a BA in Political Science in 1967. During college and in the years immediately after, I worked with the Academy of American Poets, overseeing the young poets in the schools program; I bartended; I helped organize a museum tour for artist Peter Max; and I put in about 10 months as a caseworker for the NYC Department of Social Services. Somewhere in there I went to Europe for a year and felt embarrassed to be an American. That’s how it was then.

I moved to the North Country, on the border between NYS and Ontario, north of the Adirondacks in the St. Lawrence Valley, in 1971. I bought an old farm. I worked as a bartender, waitress, legal assistant, substitute teacher, and project manager for a senior citizens/low income block grant. At the same time, I was president of a regional safe/alternative energy organization and active in the women’s rights movement.

In 1980, I was hired as North Country Public Radio’s first development director; promoted to station manager in 1985. During my tenure-and with the work of the world’s most amazing staff-we have expanded our service to reach one-quarter of NYS, much of western Vermont, and portions of Ontario and Quebec through a network of 20 repeaters. Over the last 15 years, we have committed station resources to local news and production departments. Of this, I am most proud. Likewise, the creation of an extraordinary Website – just last year. ncpr.org.

I’ve worked on a lot of production projects over the years-some for broadcast only, most with outreach components as well. I served on the Board of the NY Council for the Humanities, on media panels for the NYS Council on the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, and occasionally on panels or advisory groups formed by CPB or NPR.

Community stuff: I’ve served on the boards of regional environmental, arts and social issues organizations (e.g., Planned Parenthood, Upstate People for Safe Energy Technology, Adirondack Center for Writing). I just completed (oh, praise be, praise be) a six-year tour of duty as school board member in my son’s district.


55 Comments on “Ellen Rocco”

  • Jay Allison says:
    Ellen Rocco (and the Staff of North Country Public Radio)

    She describes herself as cantankerous and that may be, but what’s the opposite of cantankerous – pliable, inoffensive, milquetoast. Which do you prefer? Which side of that scale should public broadcasting be on? It’s a key question these days. Three Tenors anyone?

    There’s an email list for public radio professionals and whenever we find ourselves sliding toward ethically, artistically, or editorially questionable terrain, you can bet that the first voice raised will be Ellen’s.

    We invited her here to raise her voice.

    She agreed to bring along her staff from North Country. They’ll be hanging out to talk about what a public radio station does (and could do better) for the community it serves.

    A while back, when we were birthing our new public radio service here on the Cape & Islands, we asked Ellen’s advice. Here’s what she said:

    >The description of the station you want to create is the description of the station we have devoted our lives to making. It is, of course, a work in progress: imperfect, turbulent at times, not turbulent enough at other times, more or less effective than we hoped, responsive, reflective and breathtaking at its best, insufficiently compelling at its worst.

    >We deal daily with the issue at the center of your letter: how to logically and movingly blend local voice with national voice. Serving a remote and enormous geographic region (two or three times the size of the entire state of Vermont), we know the NPR and PRI programs are essential. But who wants to be the WalMart (or Gap or Abercrombie Fitch) of the airwaves?

    Please welcome North Country Public Radio. But first, Ellen’s statement of principles…

  • Ellen Rocco says:
    North Country Public Radio Statement of Principles

    The Four Essentials of Radio

    (according to no one but a cranky old station manager in a Tennessee Williams landscape–except substitute frozen lakes for bayous and wood stoves for ceiling fans)

    A Map
    A Natural Disaster
    A Sense of Humor and,..
    People, on Both Sides of the Mic, Who Care About Each Other and the World Around Them

    1. A Map: Sorry, I don’t buy into that "public radio neighborhood" namby-pamby thing. You know: wherever you live, wherever you travel, public radio should be familiar, sound the same, appeal to the same people. Excuse me, but are we talking public radio or McDonalds and Taco Bell on the strip in Anytown, USA? There are two things I want to say about this. One: no listener should ever have to ask, where the hell am I, if they’ve been listening to North Country Public Radio for an hour, even if it’s during Morning Edition and they like the fact that Bob Edwards’ delivery reminds them of a Holiday Inn room. Two: we will broadcast national news and other non-local programs until our listeners prefer to get those programs off their nifty satellite receivers, then, bye bye. Oh and one more thing here: listening to people in the system adopt the latest cant is kind of like watching birds flock and wheel as they get ready to migrate in the fall. I mean, c’mon, one year the starlings are all calling out "seamless, NPR repeater station" and then (oh that dirty rotten satellite) "local, we must be local." Some of us never thought radio was anything but local. Even if you air some national programs. Which leads to the second essential.

    2. A Natural Disaster: Okay, it can be one where no one dies. Have an ice storm or a flood or a terrorist attack in your community and suddenly you’ll understand that radio is utterly – perfectly – local. As soon as everyone realizes, say, the power’s out and it ain’t coming back and it’s the middle of winter, it’s clear that no one wants to hear yet another report on Congress failing to pass yet another campaign reform bill – unless there’s a rider that explains how to drain pipes before the thermometer dips to minus 10 or how to get an elderly neighbor to the shelter – and where is the shelter, anyway? With the electricity out, see who tunes in for emergency info (at the same time each hour so people can conserve batteries –Jackie Sauter’s simple and brilliant idea) or who calls in when you spend the evening on mic (because the generator really can’t keep much else going) asking for haiku and limericks. (Answer: everyone.) Then, when the power comes back on – a week, three weeks later–remember the connection that happened between the station and the community (not some generic neighborhood in publicradioland) – and think about that every time you go on mic. Every time. Radio reaches real people, in real places – and the signal comes from the same place.

    3. A Sense of Humor: See, there is going to be a short paragraph.

    4. People, on Both Sides of the Mic, Who Care About Each Other and the World Around Them: Everyone who works at the station is interesting, fun to be with, committed, talented, polite, witty, helpful, smart, curious, involved in the community etc. Same goes for everyone outside the station’s studios. If we’re not hopeful about ourselves and our neighbors/listeners, we’re in the wrong business. Hell, we’re in the wrong universe. And, the membrane between the two sides of the mic must be porous. Both on and off air, we’re connected with our community. Outreach. Lots and lots of outreach. Time consuming, staff intensive, absolutely essential. We work with schools, libraries and community organizations. We go to Rotary Clubs and college forums. We serve as media sponsor for dozens of cultural events each year. We hang our banners wherever there’s an audience and a hook; we stamp our logo on everyone’s literature. And, we invite people who live here to put their stamp on the station’s airwaves and website.

    Summary

    In case you couldn’t plow through everything above: North Country Public Radio is about people in a particular place.

    Two Addenda

    1. Everyone who works at North Country Public Radio has been invited to join this conversation. Trust me, they’re a mouthy opinionated fabulous bunch. I hope you’ll hear from old-timers like Jackie Sauter, our program director, who has done much to craft our sound over the years, and Martha Foley, our news director, whose department has won so many awards we have to build a new station just for plaque space. I also hope the next generation will weigh in, like Brian Mann, our Adirondack Bureau guy, who thinks recreation is something you do that puts your life at risk and provides great fodder for radio stories; or David Sommerstein, our St. Lawrence Valley reporter, who ended up in Kosovo last month for a LOCAL story. Oh wait a second, I forgot the grizzliest of our old-timers, Radio Bob, our engineer and bon mot specialist, who wrote our edgy station motto: it’s gonna get done soon, and everything’s gonna be alright. Oh wait another second – our ageless and timeless web team, Bill Haenel and Dale Hobson who invite you to visit our website ncpr.org. It’s virtual, it ain’t radio, but it is local. You bet.

    2. We take risks.

    Finally…

    As station manager, my job is to do anything I can so that everyone else can have fun and do good stuff. (See, I left the most boring thing for the very end.)

  • Lester Graham says:
    Correspondent, Great Lakes Radio Consortium

    I’ve long been a fan of your News Director, Martha Foley, but I’ve also come to appreciate your talented bureau reporters, Mr. Mann and Mr. Sommerstein as I’ve had occasion to hear their work.

    I wish more of public radio shared North Country Public Radio’s desire to serve a local audience well and think long and hard about the best ways to do that… even if it means violating someone’s idea about how public radio is "supposed to be."

    Ellen, everything I’ve read about you and heard about you tells me that you and your staff are serving your audience in a way that is dynamic and important… not the same mind-numbing, formulaic, resting on NPR’s laurels way to which so many stations have degenerated.

    Keep up the good work and continue to serve and challenge your listeners and the community at large in New York’s North Country.

    Lester

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg says:

    Could you say more about
    1)North Country: What is it? how did it start? and how has it changed? -maybe a link would do
    2) The need for a sense of humor on /or off the air: Did you learn that the hard way or the easy way? Did your listeners teach you that? It seems that humor can backfire when it is misinterpreted… any stories?
    3) Your job sounds alot like motherhood.

  • Martha Foley says:
    North Country

    Nanette — I’m assuming you’re asking what The North Country is. It’s the top shoulder of New York State. The Adirondacks, St. Lawrence Valley and Champlain Valley, and contiguous shreds of Canada and Vermont. (And there are north countries in all the northen states, I think.) But it’s hard to pin down. A couple of years ago, we did a month-long series of stories, commentaries,vox pop, interviews, call-ins and musings called "Looking for the North Country," in which we tried to defne the region geographically, culturally, historically, demographically, etc. It was a pretty engaging project, and we found a lot of different ideas of what, where and wh the North Country is. One that emerged — not at our suggestion BTW — was that the limits of our signal now defines the geographyof ther region. That was a startling idea, and very gratifying. I’m sorry that the series was produced before we had our news database up and running, so it’s not in the archives yet.

    But maybe you’re asking about the station: North County Public Radio is a station that’s grown from 3 people to about 20 over the last 30+ years. During that time, we transformed from a university-centered station withone frequency and a very limited service area, to a university-owned, community-focused station with a huge coverage area (19 sets of call letters) across the rural top of the state. http://www.ncpr.org

    sense of humor: it’s natural, no? It’s not humor shows and cracking jokes. I think it’s more a willingness to be people on the radio, instead of radio-people.

    I like your comment about the mother side of the place. For what it’s worth, NCPR is also a recognized as a woman-managed entity, and has been for many, many years. More importantly, many of us (not just the women) have been here for over 20 years. Getting back to the connection to the community, I’m often asked why I didn’t "move on" to some better job — the network, or a big station. My answer has always been, and I think some of my colleagues would agree, that I choose to live here, and I am blessed to have a job that is fulfilling, and that I’m good at. That our long time together has produced growth and change, instead of fossilization, is a tribute to management, staff, and the community.

  • Jackson Braider says:
    North Country indeed!

    I’ve heard you guys from time to time — I remember particularly a story about a closing paper mill, the last big employer in the town (was it Glens Falls or closer to the border?) — when stories went national.

    I can’t help but admire what I’ve read here so far. And seeing as how you’re all smart and you’re all talking, let me put a challenge to you:

    How would you translate "community radio" a la NCPR to a big city? Everyone’s uncle proclaims the heart of radio *is* local, but how can we express that with, say, a 100,000-watt signal?

    I don’t want you (or the unruly Transomites — no, not a good word, sounds like luggage) to answer such questions now, but I hope that they (both the questions and the luggage bearers) will be a part of the overall conversation in the course of the next month or so.

  • Pamela McLean says:
    various roles – including web research and networking – on behalf of a community development project in Oke-Ogun, Oyo State, Nigeria

    Thanks to all contributors here.

    I represent a community development project in rural Nigeria.

    Our vision includes a community radio station which will be part of an integrated information system, with things like email bureaux and access to the Internet. We represent a rural area which is presently beyond the reach of telephones and mostly beyond electricity supplies too. However there are impressive formal and informal community communication systems, and we are building on them.

    Many of the potential listeners are illiterate and we plan to broadcast in the local language – Yoruba – so that no-one is excluded from the information system through lack of formal education.

    It is wonderful to be able to dip into Transom’s level of information exchange among people with experience of local radio and learn from you before we have anything up and running.

    From Pam McLean (By way of explanation of my very un-African name – I am based in the UK and unlike the members of the team in Nigeria I have easy access to the internet and therefore do internet research etc for the project.)

  • Ted and Rae Louise Tate says:
    Appreciation

    WE have been NCPR listeners and supporters for 20 years, ever since we came to the North Country. This station, and the people who run it, are the most important link in our region. Everything Ellen said about the ice storm is true, and repeated over the years. Not the disaster part – the community part. It’s great to meet station personnel in some public arena, and be able to have a person-to-person conversation, not celebrity to fan (although we are fans).

    WE are pleased that national groups have recognized the quality of the local programming here. We’ve always known it. And BTW the mill that was the last major employer was in _Newton_ Falls, and thanks for thinking of us.

    It’s great to be able to call in to Readers and Writers on the Air and talk to people like Frank McCourt and Russell Banks, and…….

    Whenever it is important to find out what is going on in any part of the world, and especially in this remote portion, we tune in to NCPR.

  • Jay Allison says:
    Place

    Martha, your comments about staying put resonate with me. Radio is so inherently disembodied, yet it serves as a link. The link can be one of affinity (the public radio "community" nationwide) or it can be a link of place. Finally, we all have to be somewhere. We don’t float in the etther. In the short life of our new stations here, I find it a real pleasure and an honor to serve my place — along with exercising my disembodied connection to the nation and beyond.

    In that regard, I’d be interested in what the NCPR staff might say to Pamela who just appeared above — in another disembodied way — from Nigeria. What could they learn from North Country in developing their station? And vice versa?

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg says:
    The ultimate community radio show?

    This story on The World today, March 29, is about a 24-hr show (station?) in Bangkok with one million listeners per hour
    http://www.theworld.org/today.htm

    Bangkok Radio Report (6:52)
    Audio

    How’s this for a program idea? Ya see, J.B., we’ve got this idea for a radio show about a place where everyone helps each other. Where complete strangers offer food and money to those in need. Where honesty and kindness overcome greed and belligerence. Well, that pitch might not fly in Hollywood, but it’s actually the premise of the most popular radio program in Bangkok. What’s more, it’s a reality show, starring Thais in trouble and other Thais willing to help them out. And they’re not just playing real people on the radio. They are real! The World’s Orlando de Guzman reports from the Thai capital.

  • Jackson Braider says:
    A wonderful idea…

    Call it The Exchange.

    Here’s a danger: the Bangkok program reminds me a bit of "Queen for a Day" — I fear that that’s how we’d play it over here. Would we be able to tell "personal stories" of "real people" without humiliating them and ourselves?

    I’d be interested in the selection process — there are going to be time constraints, issues of propriety, things that weak-kneed folks like me might feel queasy at. So-and-so is in need of a heart transplant, for example, but the HMO has rejected the claim because it’s an experimental treatment.

    Do you know what I mean?

    Still, a good place to start.

  • Dale Hobson says:
    Community is Defined by Circumstance

    I’m one of the newest kids on the block at North Country Public Radio, only fifteen months old in radio years. My bailiwick is new media (geek, subspecies Web), and online outreach (schmoozer, disembodied).

    Pamela’s project sounds fascinating, and way up there on the challenge-scale along with accomplishing world peace. While it’s difficult to translate from our experience in rural New York to the experience of rural Nigeria, I have a few thoughts about attitude and process that might be useful.

    Jay touched on one notion above that struck me–radio as a disembodied voice. Most of the other media bathing our region feels like that, or worse, the voice of the alien mothership. Communities are defined by shared circumstance–you must be in the same boat. Radio can be the most intimate medium–the voice in your head, a tongue in the ear. That may be why people love headphones while TV goggles seem freakish.

    Broadcasting in Yoruba seems essential but not sufficient to place your radio effort within the Yoruba community. From my scant understanding of that culture, it posseses a rich and living oral tradition. We may find that Yoruba speakers will teach us about radio, rather than the reverse.

    In order to survive in a rural environment, a community radio station must be able to transform its obstacles into its assets. Illiteracy is a huge obstacle; its flip side, the oral tradition, is a fantastic asset. It means that there are already trusted and credible voices in the community that people will receive information from. Put them on air. For example, to introduce a program on improved methods for dry land farming, don’t use the voice of a European expert, use a local farmer who was a recognized success with the old methods. Use traditional health people to talk about health. Have the people who already distibute news in their region be the voice of the newscast.

    The oral tradition also creates great audiences. Unlike us paper junkies, they are more likely to remember what they hear, and to be able to retransmit it with little distortion. This can multiply radio’s reach exponentially. A sort of low-tech viral marketing.

    As for the technological circumstances of the Yoruba-speaking community, we have only experienced them personally for a few weeks during a time of natural disaster. But NCPR found innovative ways to use radio during that time. Ellen mentioned earlier the notion of timing important information so people could maximize battery life, or limited hours of electric distribution. You may want to consider distributing electricity-free radios as part of your service. Several crank-power models are available, as are solar-powered units.

    During our natural disaster, people wanted the most basic communication services from us–they wanted to find out how so-and-so was doing, they wanted to let their kids know they were OK, the firewood was holding out and the baby was doing fine. Radio will probably be useful to the community in distributing mail, phone, e-mail and internet information out to areas that are not connected to passable roads or to power and phone lines.

    Most of all, we find that our community lets us know who they are and what they want from our technology. To the extent we accomodate that, we belong. When we challenge or try to change that, we have to fight to make our case or risk finding ourselves on the outside. And sometimes–thatÕs the job.

  • chelsea merz says:
    local radio

    Boston’s WBUR manages to convert all of its local programs into national shows and oftentimes it’s a huge loss to the city.

    When the Connection went national it remained a great show but most of the listeners felt a loss—there went our ten hours a week. (For example:I was listening to The Connection at work and a caller was reading an excerpt from one of his short stories. I ran down the hall and there was my co-worker on the phone–reading his work. Had it not been for the Connection we would have never gotten to know each other in the context of writing, radio, literature, etc…

    So what do you think about the trend of everything going national? Or rather aspiring to? Has NCPR ever tried anything like that?

  • Mark Kurtz says:
    defining NCPR

    Martha said that NCPR has grown from 3 people to over 20 – she’s right in that it is over 20…but it is really thousands over 20. The effort on the part of the staff in getting input from its listeners has really put the "public" in our local public radio station. So, although I know Martha meant the number of "professional" staff when she gave the "over 20" number, I would have to say that NCPR listeners are really a part of the staff also because of the opportunity given them to be a part of the station. We are taken seriously when we discuss things that may improve NCPR. Involvement on the part of the listeners is absolutely vital to PUBLIC radio – otherwise it becomes just another national station. (Don’t get me wrong – I love listening to the NPR shows in addition to the local programming)

  • Ellen Rocco says:
    rural vs. urban — local vs. national

    Responding to questions, musings posted by Jackson and Chelsea…

    Rural vs. urban
    For years I insisted to the big boys in the system that there is a difference between serving a rural community vs. an urban one, that it’s not simply a matter of same issues on a smaller scale. In recent years, I think there’s been some acknowledgement that this is true. This is not to say that good radio isn’t good radio wherever it’s heard–characterized by compelling voices, honesty, surprises, humor, accessibility etc. But there are different challenges in cities–much more competition from other media and other entertainment options, cost of doing business, anonymity of staff and listeners, compression of time (you still won’t find many people walking down Main Street in the North Country talking on a cell phone) and so forth. In rural communities, the big challenge is figuring out a way to connect isolated individuals and communities over large geographic areas…with very limited resources. On the other hand, radio tends to be much more important to rural dwellers. It’s easier to develop trust and connections when you know your listeners and they know you. (I have never gone grocery shopping or stopped for a cup of coffee in a diner without meeting or talking with listeners–sometimes simply recognized by my voice.)

    Radio is about voices. Given the right voices, it’s what makes it a McCluhan-hot medium. For talk radio, competence is not sufficient. Intelligence is not sufficient. Connecting heat–solder–is essential. This is why I firmly believe Christopher Lydon should be re-installed as host of The Connection; John Hockenberry should be hosting Talk of the Nation; and, Ray Suarez would make a swell Morning Edition host. But I digress…

    Oh, one other thing. When we’re teaching new announcers about pots and minidisc players and satellite recordings and audio files and all that stuff, we slip in two little principles that underpin everything we do: be yourself, and assume your listeners know more than you do. I believe in both of these admonishments wholeheartedly. After all, what do I know about setting a bone or fixing a tractor or teaching sixth-graders or running a floor-waxer or building a barn? I work in the virtual world. I’m a radio gal. Pretty ephemeral.

    National vs. Local
    This one we grapple with on a regular basis–in terms of balancing national voices with local voices. Our job is to link communities and individuals within our coverage area with each other–and with the rest of the world. As for the question Chelsea raised–keeping programs local or offering them for national distribution–I heartily agree with her that not every program should be nationally syndicated (though I must disagree with her about The Connection because then we wouldn’t have had Chris Lydon on our airwaves…he’s too good to keep for yourself). NCPR has distributed lots of programs over the years–feature stories, discrete documentaries, limited series and on-going series. We have also decided to NOT distribute at least two programs I can think of. In one instance, we believed the show would lose its character if it had to have the wrinkles smoothed out to dress it up for national distribution. In the other instance, part of the intent was to provide rural listeners–including high school kids–an opportunity to interact via call-in with world class authors–distributing it nationally would once again put our listeners at a disadvantage in terms of that interaction.

    Before I end this post: thanks to the NCPR listeners who have posted such nice things about the station. It is an honor and privilege to serve you.

  • Jackson Braider says:
    "Assume your listeners know more than you do…"

    Ellen: I like that notion very much. No doubt that applies to the people we interview and just talk with generally as well.

    But like the dog chewing on my slipper right now, I can’t quite let go of the possibility of "radio-as-community" thing. In the big city, radio-as-community seems to be based as much on cult of personality as anything else. And we in the big city tend to glom onto personalities a little too easily — to my mind, at least. After all, it’s easier to inflate a personality than remedy institutional inertia.

    So, while I agree with you that there are big differences between rural vs. urban radio needs and uses, I think that urban radio, even on a scale of 100,000 watts, can still learn from the rural experience about community.

    Perhaps before we here in the Athens of Eastern Massachusetts (thanks for that line, Peter Sagal!) attempt to build community through radio, we need to build the sense of community *within* the station, making it a place where everybody involved feels *involved*. That certainly seems to be the case at NCPR — and that sense of involvement clearly reaches out into your community of listeners.

    Any notion on how to create in an institutional setting an active, dynamic environment where ideas flow in and out would be greatly appreciated.

  • Ellen Rocco says:
    can of worms now open

    Jackson, you’ve done it now! Oh boy. What you’re asking–"how to create an institutional setting" that is an "active, dynamic environment"–is a big one for everyone who works at NCPR. I suspect you’ll hear from other staff. NCPR is recognized by the Feds as a woman-managed broadcast entity–not just because of me but because so many of our departments are led by women. (Unfortunately, we still live in a society where this is unusual.) "Woman-managed" can mean something very superficial–i.e., women hold managerial positions but they might just as well be white guys in suits–or it can mean something quite deep–i.e., an adjusted sense of priorities. The difference happens when managers–often women but by no means necessarily so–assume that everyone on staff is competent, talented, bright and capable of accomplishing wonderful things without someone breathing over their shoulder or second-guessing them; when managers invest in the workplace–yes, doing the best possible in terms of equipment and workspace–but most importantly by spending money on and providing development time for the people who populate the workplace. The difference happens when managers assume staff are responsible and honest and judge them by their ability to interact with each other and the community, and, of course, by work accomplished, so rather than tracking hours, we allow people to have real lives and families outside of the workplace. The difference happens when the underlying managerial assumption is that everyone on staff plays a role in short and long term decision making. We are not a collective, but we certainly come to important decisions collectively–some decisions involving the whole staff, some involving relevant subgroups. And, I don’t make high-impact decisions without input from lots of people. This is an organic process that’s evolved over years. One of the reasons it’s been successful is that we are very good at absorbing new staff into the process. Everyone is expected to own their work, to make decisions, to participate.

    When I think about the past several years, and the coming decade, I know the focus of my work is to help a new generation of public radio professionals take over this station and shape it in a new way. How can we prepare a new generation without letting those people have real responsibility and creative license? The answer is we can’t. These days there’s a lot of talk around the system about how to get younger people into public radio…and keep them. This is a no-brainer. Hire ‘em and let ‘em do real stuff. What’s the mystery all about?

    Final thought: I flinch at the word "institution." I almost think it’s oxymoronic to think of a creative workplace as an "institution." It’s so unflexible sounding. Think of NCPR as a kitchen where everyone’s working on a different dish–for the dinner we all sit down to together. (I warned you I might go over the top on this subject!)

  • Jackson Braider says:
    On the matter of "institutions"

    Sorry to make you flinch. I used the word merely to indicate the size of the place in which I work, but I know that it can have, well, other connotations.

    But let’s turn "institution" on its ear. For example, you speak of the coming decade and how you will help "a new generation of public radio professionals take over this station." I could argue — but I really won’t — that what you are trying to instill is a kind of institutional memory. Not a rule book that says this is the way we do things around here (so get used to it), but something more like an institutional consciousness that does whatever consciousness does.

    Not a bad thing, to my mind.

    But surely an institution does not have to be antithetical to creativity. The problem is that such places tend to be.

    So, how would you approach, say, "deinstitutionalizing" an institution?

  • Danielle Dreilinger says:
    Language/community

    I live in "the Athens of Eastern Mass" but am a recent, frequent visitor to the North Country– as well as a serious public radio buff. Boy do I appreciate all those NCPR transmitters down the three-hour drive through the Adirondacks.

    "Broadcasting in Yoruba seems essential but not sufficient to place your radio effort within the Yoruba community."

    I’m thinking about CKON, the Akwesasne Mohawk radio station along the NY/Canadian border. From my limited listening experience (so correct me if I’m wrong)…

    An NCPR story alerted me to the fact that CKON is now broadcasting Mohawk language lessons. I guess Mohawk is the language of the elders– dying out– and the community is trying to revive it. The rest of CKON’s programming is largely English-language pop music, but it still sounds distinctly different to me. Maybe because it has a "C" instead of a "W," or because the ads are for local businesses. Every time I hear an announcer pronounce "Akwesasne" the Mohawk way I’m aware that I’m listening to a Mohawk station. (My left-wing 8th-grade English teacher said "Ak’-wee-saz"-nee.")

    CKON does seem to be more unconventional in its programming than your average Clear Channel station– "Free-Form Friday" is its big day.

    An interesting example of a radio station targeted to one community that creates community without using its traditional language.
    – Danielle

  • Mary McGrath says:

    Ellen,
    I’m interested in knowing what you think of the trend toward formatting in public radio and the effect of David Giovannoni’s research. Did you happen to read the letters to the editor after the Sunday New York Times did that big feature on him in the Arts and Leisure section? There were nearly a dozen letters over three weeks and the passion from the anti VALS crowd was stunning. Is it possible for public radio stations to create a mix of individual programming anymore or does it mean the difference between financial life and death if you don’t offer the standard NPR talk diet?

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg says:
    you’re on the air

    Please clarify vocabulary like Giovannoni’s research and VALS for us wider audience types
    thanks

  • Jay Allison says:
    Audience Research Analysis

    You can learn more about David and his work at his website: http://aranet.com/

    There was a New York Times profile of him a while back which prompted many letters to the Editor. You could search the NYTimes site.

  • Sydney Lewis says:
    please tell some stories

    I’ve not yet heard North Country radio, but this discussion makes me want to hear it. I’m hoping your people will tell us non-North Country types more about the process of developing such a strong identity. Nuts and bolts stories about pivotal choices in programming. It’s so easy for any station to go "south" so-to-speak. Did your listener ship take years and years to build, or was there an instant greedy audience soaking North Country up? Have you had to fight off forces trying to change the station’s nature? And please, would David Sommerstein talk about his "local" Kosovo story.

  • Ellen Rocco says:
    replies to questions

    Sorry about the delay in responding…I was in D.C. at a meeting about rural radio stations’ needs…(answer: money)

    Okay, Jackson, I accept your notion of institutional memory. I believe that institutions calcify largely because of their size. However, large organizations have the advantage of all those staff members’ brains and creativity. The trick is to create a workplace where brains and creativity are welcomed and encouraged, rather than perceived as a pain in the ass. What comes to mind is parenting a young child: it takes a heck of a lot longer to make dinner or plant a garden or build a birdhouse if you let your young child participate, rather than just watch. Ah, but the kids know how to cook or garden or use tools if they’ve had a chance to use a whisk, a spade or a hammer. This seems incredibly obvious. Obvious stuff–including common sense–often gets lost in the workplace.

    Danielle, we have a long relationship with the folks at CKON. Radio Bob, our engineer, has helped them out on many occasions. David Sommerstein (when he wasn’t in Kosovo) did a great story on the teaching of Mohawk over the air. I think CKON is successful for a variety of reasons–they play mostly C&W, which is what people on the rez want, they do the Mohawk language thing, everyone knows everyone who’s on the air, and, most important, the station sounds like its audience–it’s a voice thing, again.

    Mary, thanks for joining this conversation. (For those of you who may not know, Mary McGrath was the producer of The Connection when Chris Lydon was the host, and she continues to collaborate with Chris on broadcast projects…she is one of the top 5 radio producers in the country, in my not so humble opinion.) Now, your question about research. Pretty tricky, girl. So you want me to dive into the mission vs. money in two or three short paragraphs, eh? Well, I think numbers are useful. I also think they are most useful after one has used some deep common sense, creativity, visceral thinking about what works and doesn’t. Then, use the numbers to refine, to tweak the on-air offerings and line up. The problem in the system is that some stations abjure ever even considering research and go strictly by the seat of their pants, while others just go by the statistics and don’t shape their broadcast based on community, quirkiness, etc. It takes more effort to work both. It makes a difference, though.
    I want to hear from others following this conversation–is it time to reshape the mission vs. money debate? is there some other way we should be getting at the issue?

    Sydney…I’ve got to step away for a bit. I’ll respond to your post a bit later.

    Ellen

  • Doug Nadvornick says:
    a little free consultation?

    Ellen, Martha, (hi, Martha!), Jay, et. al.

    Doug Nadvornick from faraway Spokane, Washington (a city of about 200,000 about 300 miles east of Seattle).

    I’m fortunate enough to work in a community public radio station that has many of the same attributes that NCPR has: a fine boss who questions the current public radio wisdom; a small staff of reporters that does decent (and once in a while, darn good) work; a station with a signal that reaches far into rural areas; lovely, devoted, often opinionated, listeners.

    One thing I’m struggling with here is has to do with carving an identity for a second station that we put on the air nearly three years ago. It’s a low-powered station whose license we inherited from a local community college. I’ve programmed it to include more international news than I think our mainline station (KPBX) has. I’ve even done some specially-produced local programming for it. The new station has gained a small, but loyal following. We’re about three months away from boosting the signal so that it might have a chance at building a decent audience.

    Now is the time to fly, to help build for this new station a unique feel, using a little of what Jay Allison preaches, a little of what NCPR does, a little of what we’ve done with KPBX and any other ideas I can steal. I think I’ve started us on that process, but my creative well is a little dry right now. Can you help me grease the pump?

    I have the freedom to create anything I want (within reason). I have a very talented young producer who wants to help me build something special here. I guess I’m just looking for permission to step outside what has become a bland public radio box, and yet still adhere to some solid journalistic standards.

    Can you offer me some ideas of programs that you’ve done that you’ve been particularly proud of, and which were well-received by listeners? Can you steer me to other places where small staffs like mine have done memorable work?

    Thanks in advance,

    Doug Nadvornick
    News Director
    Spokane Public Radio

  • helen woodward says:
    here’s some grease….

    Thanks All at NCPR for an interesting discussion. It is great to get a sense of the team behind your station. WCAI and WNAN have many similarities with NCPR, less rural, but not urban certainly, small bunch of dedicated radio folk and volunteers, but more nautical and very young.

    Ellen, this comment way back in your manifesto:
    "no listener should ever have to ask, where the hell am I, if they’ve been listening to North Country Public Radio for an hour, "

    And Doug’s comment above:
    " Now is the time to fly, to help build for this new station a unique feel, using a little of what Jay Allison preaches, a little of what NCPR does, a little of what we’ve done with KPBX and any other ideas I can steal. I think I’ve started us on that process, but my creative well is a little dry right now. Can you help me grease the pump? "

    got me thinking about our little station here on Cape Cod that Jay set about starting up a few years ago, and a means to address both issues.

    Prior to start up, Jay wrote to an assortment of visionary radio types asking for advice, about among other things, how to retain a local flavour between national shows; the wealth of ideas that came back evolved into sonic ids (a rather inexact name but it’s stuck), stand alone 30, 60 or 90 second pieces featuring local people, or sounds that are particular to this area, eg. lobster pots being winched aboard. Importantly, they all feature the station ID in various forms depending on time constraints. Hence the listener always knows where they are . Well almost anyway, we have been misheard as the ÒCayman Island NPR StationÓ or Òthe Capon Islands NPR stationsÓ! instead of Òthe Cape and Islands NPR stationsÓ, but nothing is perfect.

    Anyway back to the sonics: These little nuggets of local life are peppered throughout the broadcast day and night, maybe one or 2 an hour in amongst all the promos/national programming etc. They depict any aspect of life here, and that is the key criteria, they must reflect some sense of this place; they are at times poetic, folkloric, funny, informative, historical, and intriguing among other things.

    The scope is immense, people say the most profound (and frankly, at times,weird!) things whether about their childhood on nantucket (how they learnt to hang laundryÉ.. ÒItÕs a lost artÓ), or their occupation, (who would have thought that the worst part of one particular hairdressers job was the clients hair that gets into her navel?) or their life in general.

    There are some at this link that can be listened to, although we have in total about 500 now of varying lengths so these are just the tip (and and old tip at that) of the iceberg

    http://www.atlantic.org/projects/cainan/sonic_id.html

    and also a link to the Current article about sonics that might be useful should this approach seem relevant to you in Spokane Doug.

    http://www.current.org/cape&islands/cape0109sonic.html
    here you can read a much more eloquent description of this project (written by Jay).

    In ending this ramble, I should say that in addition to the handful of us addicted to protools and sonic ID making at APM and CAI and NAN, our listeners LOVE them….. during fund drives they come up again and again as one of the main reasons for giving, and that’s not a bad thing either.

  • chelsea merz says:
    fundraising: local vs. loco

    WBUR –for fund raising purposes–is having a talentLESS show–featuring lots of NPR celebrities. Last week a woman pledged $5,000.00 if she could be assured that she could sit at Scott Simon’s table and WBUR consented. This is weird and seems to have nothing to do with radio–particularly local radio–and a lot to do with celebrity, etc… Nonetheless it worked and BUR got a hefty donation.

    Inversely, last fall at CAI/NAN’s fund raiser, Dave Masch, a local who calls in great stories and has made a few sonic ID’s, was at the fund raiser and out-of-the-blue offered to cook a lobster dinner for ten, bring all the food, etc…if someone pledged $1,000.00 to the station. Well no one called but it was a lovely idea and representative of community and radio converging…. Well, I’m not sure what my point is but what do you think about the
    national-radio- celebrity-factor and it’s presence in fund raisers as only a few stations in the country get the opportunity to arrange a dinner with Scott Simon and a loyal listener?

  • Jackson Braider says:
    re Sonic IDs

    Doug:

    To amplify Helen Woodward’s point — and to indicate some of the dangers of the form. The beauty of CAI/NAN’s spots is the sound of the voices. If I remember correctly, these stations had a unique challenge: to overcome prejudices and reservations that the Cape and the Islands held for each other. The voices, telling stories about (was it?) johnny cakes, making fresh scallops for breakfast, and moving gradually to rap. There is an entire generation of gifted interviewers and listeners that have sprouted at the station, Athena-like from — I dunno — Jay’s head.

    I suspect in the next few years we’ll hear of this genre — "Often imitated, rarely matched." The sonic IDs on CAI/NAN have worked because they have made literally hundreds of them; sure, some were scotched, but sheer force of numbers plays in their favor. And my guess is that there are many people out there collecting them — so there’s a variety of sensibility and sound.

    The example of the genre at at least one big-city station in the Boston area (the other one sells seats at the high table) has not been as successful, though listeners have in the main responded well. CAI/NAN has garnered close to a thousand, the city station has, maybe, 100 culled over half a year, and of these 100, there are, perhaps, six distinctive categories with maybe eight different voices. Limited variety, limited repertoire, limited depth.

    More to the point, few of them convey any sense of "here-ness". My dream, being in Boston, is to collect 100 people saying "Park the car in Harvard Yard," sprinkling some natives in with the voices of Europe, Africa, South America and Asia. Because that is what Boston is now. Just try ordering a "tonic" or a "frappe" and see how many fish eyes you get. "Here-ness" in Boston is the Big Dig, the dog tracks, and God knows what else.

    I also have an idea that Boston has many poets, many of whom have written specifically about the city. We are losing our accent up here, but the so-called outsiders can bring us a fresh perspective.

    And we still haven’t mentioned what we should be doing with the other 90,000 watts of our signal.

    And that is why numbers matter. If you don’t know where you are, collecting lots and lots of material for sonic IDs will tell you far better than any map.

    Is that fair, Helen?

    As for you, Ellen, you guys already know where you are…

  • Jackson Braider says:
    And here’s another two cents. In Canadian money, that’d be…

    What an incredible range of stuff is going on here! No wonder Ellen flees to Washington! How else can one possibly keep track of the multiple voices, issues, ideas?

    I keep thinking about Pamela’s query (item #7) about community-building through radio in Nigeria. The closest we come here (in Boston) is carrying the BBC in various ways. I’d be interested in the issues of dialects, religious sects, etc. that describe your intended area of coverage. We suffer in the US from a distorted sense of scale — back east, one can drive through 6 states in a single day, but lolligag for an entire day in the midwest before you can buy a beer.

    If there are various communities in your listenership — communities of language, communities of religion — is it possible to identify their common points? Sonic IDs playing upon harvest methods, cooking techniques, etc., may do more than a thousand NGO’s to overome regional prejudice.

  • Ellen Rocco says:
    sonic-ism

    Gee, that’s an idea I think NCPR ought to steal. And, I guess I disagree with those of you from Boston who fear there is no homogenous "voice" of the community in a city the size/diversity of Boston. Isn’t that very diversity the essential character of the place you want to communicate with these sonic bites? The North Country, while rural and isolated, is by no means inhabited ONLY by people whose families have lived here for generations. I was born and raised in Manhattan. Our staff is about 50/50 local versus "big city transplant." Thirty years after leaving NYC, the question I’m most frequently asked when I meet people for the first time is, "what made you move to the North Country?" The answer to that question alone could form the basis for a series of sonics: "I was born here, left, came back, and ain’t leaving ever again" (slight North Country accent); "I used to drive truck, went into the city a few times" (heavy North Country accent); "Price of land drew me here 30 years ago…best decision I ever made" (NYC accent); etc. These are actual words I’ve heard through the years. Or any other of a gazillion topics I can think of. We’ve done modular and 1/2 hour series on North Country culture, voices etc. Sonics seems like a great way to extend our airwaves to people who don’t necessarily do anything that would typically get them into a formal "series" about the region. I like it. NOw, I gotta see if the people who make programs around here are interested (Joel, Martha, Brian, Todd, Jody, David…are you there?).

  • Martha Foley says:
    sheesh…and sonics

    Gee, you spend a couple days doing news and look what happens. So many things to think about.

    First — David is out of town so I’ll respond breifly on his "local" Kosovo stories. (which are at http://www.ncpr.org with pix and everything) First question for us was whether or not to accept a junket on the Army’s ticket. NPR would not, and was not interested in any stories out of his trip. But we would never be able to send a reporter overseas like that, and the Ft. Drum soldiers who are in Kosovo keeping the peace for six months are an important part of our community. We wanted to see what they are up to over there — how they live, what they do, what they don’t do — and tell our listeners about it. Obviously, we knew David wasn’t going to be doing a muckraking story about foreign and/or military policy. The trip was an opportunity to tell the human interest side of the Tenth Mt. Division’s deployment. There were interesting questions having to do with training for killing, but being assigned to sidewalk diplomacy. Also boredom, the posh American base plunked down in the war ravaged landscape and so on. We stated very clearly that David’s trip was paid for by the Army, and approached the stories with open-minded skepticism. David can weigh in tomorrow.

    In an earlier post I mentioned a series we did called "Looking for the North Country," which was an exploration of where "the North Country" is and what, if anything, makes it an identifiable place. To promote the series, which continued for a month, I started asking people months in advance those two basic questions, where and what is this place, and chopped their answers into 30 second or so collages which we then used as ongoing promos. It was really fun and sounds like a variation on the sonics. I agree that a thousand of them is better than a hundred.

    And here’s a story about community building and fundraising: until this year, NCPR spent a lot of energy and argument on "special" premiums for our fall fundraiser. I think I’m right to say that this very Ellen Rocco was the first listener (this was before she was an employee) to offer to give something extra for a contribution. It was maple syrup. We progressed through firewood, stud services, live chickens, crafts, garden produce, gourmet meals, weekends in Ottawa and loads of manure. Hundreds of different things, so that the fundraiser became like a virtual market place representing listeners and contributors from around the region. This has some pitfalls of course.( When last I looked we still had a garbage bag full of beanie babaies in a closet.)We scrapped the premiums after Sept. 11, and they may not survive another year, but we got to know people, and they got to know us and each other. It’s been a part of the whole.

    Someone else can address other ways our empire has oozed across the landscape…

  • helen woodward says:
    Salty Sea Dogs r us

    "Sonics seems like a great way to extend our airwaves to people who don’t necessarily do anything that would typically get them into a formal "series" about the region"

    ie. the vast majority of your listeners, and the only truly universal characteristic of all our sonic stars is that they were born here, moved here to work or vacationed here. and the latter group often end up becoming the former.

    some represent characteristically Cape Coddy professions like fishermen of all species (of fish), blue/cran-berry growers etc and others are just regular people with regular professions… yoga teachers/video store clerks/restaurant workers etc but all represent some aspect of here.

  • Doug Nadvornick says:
    Earth Day sonic

    This "sonic" idea is an intriguing one. I remember, three years ago, a listener (a very persistent listener) called to suggest I do a special program for Earth Day. We used something like this "sonic" approach; we went to people all around our listening area and asked them about their links to Mother Earth. We visited a contract logger and did a sound piece with him. We solicited poetry. We visited a farmer and talked about using chemical pesticides. We had children. We had music. It was all listeners (and our receptionist, who voiced the program for us). It was a glorious program that was praised by many listeners. (And judges in several awards’ contests, I might add).

    I can see how we might use this approach to do all kinds of programs. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Doug Nadvornick

  • Jackson Braider says:
    The Sonic is for them, not for us

    That is, if there is an "us" and a "them". Sonics allow people in our listening area to speak to their cohabitants through us, even when they don’t listen to our air. NCPR clearly is community radio — and somewhere, we need to get back to how NCPR does that, though that’s figured here to some degree.

    Perhaps "big city" radio is a canard — if we think "big" enough, we won’t have to wonder what’s going on in our own backyard. Maybe, as a gadzillion watt station, we have hundreds of backyards — and tens of repeaters can be every bit as powerful as one really big transmitter.

    Utica, I well know, is not Albany.

    My sense is this: how do we make the individual listener feel that he/she matters?

  • Abner Serd says:
    I waited two weeks before posting this …

    So … umm … what’s the difference between "community radio" and "regional radio?"

    You see, I’m asking on account of I keep reading all these glowing comments about North Country Public Radio being a community radio station, and I keep scrolling back to Ellen’s comment about "19 sets of call letters …"

    … and I’m sitting here in Prescott Arizona, which is a college town, a retirement community, a cow town, and the county seat, and yet the nearest public radio station is over 100 miles away.

    … and in most parts of town, you can listen to two public radio stations: KNAU out of Flagstaff, and KJZZ out of Phoenix. And they’re both very good regional radio stations, and they both have their share of Prescott-area listeners, but I would not call them community radio stations. Hell, KNAU is so busy trying to cover all of Northern Arizona that I doubt they even cover Flagstaff as well as they could.

    … and this sticks in my mind, on account of I personally started agitating for a community radio station in Prescott back in 1990. And ten years later, along came the FCC with its "Report and Order 99-25," authorizing the licensing of Low Power FM radio stations, and holy flushin’ toilets, you shoulda heard the earth shake with all the established radio stations, public and commercial, all joining forces in an attempt to kill or permanently disable LPFM. And I try my best to understand their side of the story, which seems to be that these tiny little 100-watt stations would step on the signals of the existing stations, and take away listeners and possibly drive these stations out of business, on account of some of them with their 100,000 watts of power and their six or twelve or nineteen sets of call letters are just barely hanging on as it is.

    … and then I come around to Transom, which seems like a fine place and a great example of Public Radio trying to do better, and I read about North Country Public Radio, which everybody seems to agree is community radio at its best, and I scratch my head and try to imagine how many days it would take me to walk across the length and breadth of NCPR’s listening area, and how much variety there must be from one town to the next, and I go to NCPR’s website and find out they’re still expanding, and nothing at all against regional radio but goodness gracious, if radio is local, why in blue blazes does it have to get bigger and bigger?

    Respectfully submitted,

    Abner

  • Jay Allison says:
    Low Power

    Abner’s question is good. I’ll be interested to hear how you feel about it at North Country. We have some of the same issues here on the Cape & Islands. We’re a regional service. We cover islands, each one as discrete a physical community as you can be, and and each one not like the others. But we’re all tied by water, and we at the radio station feel that’s good enough to warrant a handshake. We see our ability to bring together the region with a common signal as a great strength.

    That said, I personally would welcome the addition of a few Low Power FMs in the area, each one tending to smaller communities. There’s one trying to get started on Martha’s Vineyard and we’re very supportive — lending advice, resources, etc. If they can get off the ground, we can find ways to work together, I’m sure of it. That seems the best outcome. Very small, very local signals all cooperating with a larger regional service, which, in turn, collaborates with other regions and the nation (ref: http://www.radioexchange.org)

  • Dale Hobson says:
    community vs regional

    Abners’s question is good. We have been a little sloppy in defining what we mean by a community. NCPR covers a large geographical area; but when I think of a region, I think of a mix of urban and rural areas that share proximity and little else. Our listening area ranges from small-town to unpopulated. The largest communities are at the opposite fringes of our broadcast area: Watertown NY, pop. under 30,000, and Burlington VT, pop. under 50,000.

    We have nineteen transmitters, but 18 of them are 200 watts or smaller. Many are used to fill in gaps in coverage in mountainous terrain. Some serve fewer than 1000 residents.

    There are distinct communities and subregions in our area–St. Lawrence Valley residents have some concerns that Adirondackers are less likely to share. Providing useful weather coverage can be a nightmare. Despite that, there has also been a semi-defined place called the North Country, capital N, capital C, that has existed much longer than North Country Public Radio. Is it a community? I have always felt so, and have never found much dissent among residents in proclaiming its existence.

  • Ellen Rocco says:
    community vs. regional

    Abner’s point is an important one. I think Dale has gone a long ways toward defining the sense of community that North Country Public Radio works with. A few additional thoughts…NCPR did NOT oppose LPFM. If we had a concern about LPFM it was that the FCC, bizarrely, was proceeding to some extent without the normal technical checks in place–specifically, some kind of insurance that if new stations sign on their signals not wipe out an existing public service. I don’t think I’m overstating the case when I suggest that people in Long Lake, who can receive NCPR and not much else, would not be happy if a low-power religious station wiped out the NCPR signal. On the other hand, I absolutely believe we must move on LPFM and get those very local stations up and running. To underscore Dale’s point: regional IS community in this neck of the woods. There are many local commercial stations that serve single towns. We don’t even try to compete with them. We don’t do obituaries or drunk driving stories or anything that is strictly local–unless it has a broad community impact. For example, our news department might cover the school board meeting in Canton, not as the local commercial station does (reporting on every agenda item) but to give a clear example of say, land tax inequities vis-a-vis school funding–an issue that affects everyone in our listening area. It does mean something to people in other little towns to hear a Canton voice–because we are all part of the North Country. LPFM would give every little town complete school board coverage…or whatever. We can never do that. I think the LPFM "fight" turned into exactly that–a fight–leaving little room for people/stations that were not as rigid about their position on the issue than the big boys duking it out.

    One last point, re: Abner’s post. There is a very real financial issue for indigent rural regions like the North Country. Years ago, when we first began expanding beyond Canton, we did the math: no way to support local stations across the region. Just not enough people or money. As for continued expansion, I’d say it’s more like filling in the holes–we’ve drawn the boundaries of our signal coverage, now we’re just filling in a few blank areas where terrain blocks our signal.

  • Jackson Braider says:
    What about the philosophy of "community"?

    Abner’s post — a place where the theoretical and the practical and the practicable meet. Which leads me to a question for Abner: you describe Prescott, Arizona as:

    "a college town, a retirement community, a cow town, and the county seat "

    It seems to me from the outside that you are dealing with four distinct communities there. Do you attempt to reconcile these groups — or cohorts, or collectives, or what-have-yous — or do you simply broadcast away? Is there a Sinatra hour at 5 on Saturday and the Dead Hour at midnight, with school activities, local soirees, and the like in between?

    Your point about regional vs. community radio is very important, but as the population of Prescott shows, you don’t need a very big place to provide home for diverse interests. How do you address the needs of the people of Prescott while still maintaining the "identity" of your station?

    We have defined "community" here in a geographical sort of way, but we haven’t even begun to explore the various communities of "interest" that frequently intersect within our cities, towns, and villages — not to mention our "listening areas".

  • Abner Serd says:
    Hmm?

    Hi Jackson. I guess I don’t understand your question. Or maybe I’m reading into it an aversion to diverse programming, where none was intended.

    When I think of noncommercial community radio, I think of a station I once heard in Telluride, Colorado (KOTO), and another in Provincetown, Massachusetts (WOMR?). I spose I might include WERS in Boston, although being a college station, it’s a bit of a different category.

    I haven’t heard any of these stations in years. But what I remember is, none of them tried to be everything to everybody all the time. (Their programming also depended not so much on what the listener wanted to hear as what the volunteer wanted to play, but that’s another subject.) So yes, absolutely, there are communities within communities, and I don’t see anything wrong with an eclectic menu of programs, and to hell with prefabricated station identities (I don’t like theme restaurants, either) and if I completely missed your point, I’m sorry. I musta been distracted by all the cows.

    Abner

  • Jackson Braider says:
    Communities, Take 2

    No, Abner, I am not averse to diverse programming — there’s even a sizable public station in Boston that is, to put it mildly, "mulit-formatted."

    An argument could be made that simply by letting volunteers take to the air, one is already giving voice to the community(ies) — they are people from the area who care enough to give up their time for the station.

    I wonder about the Prescott community and your station because I am involved in an institution and institutions tend to lose touch with the people who live around them. So, to ask my original question another way, do you create or present any programming specifically to meet the needs, beliefs, etc. of the various groups who happen to be in your broadcast range?

    And please forgive my tortured prose — although I’m working very hard at it, English still isn’t second-nature to me.

  • beedge says:
    Humor Map & Disaster People

    just getting to this topic. i am amazed by Ellen’s…

    Four Essentials of Radio:
    A Map
    A Natural Disaster
    A Sense of Humor and,..
    People, on Both Sides of the Mic, Who Care About Each Other and the World Around Them

    everyone who has anything to do w/ radio. please go re-read her first post.

    it encapsulates everything i love about the radio stations i love. radio as barber shop, as city hall, as corner market, as coffee shop, as concert hall, as confidante, as drinking buddy, as next-door neighbor.

    we at HearingVoices occasionally distribute specials directly to stations. sometimes 100 stations run ‘em, sometimes 20. NCPR almost always manages to find room for our stuff.

    having had some interaction w/ Ellen over the years, i think the reason NCPR can so successfully blend basic NPR services with the best of local and indie offerings is not cuz it’s "women-managed" as much as well-managed.

    the manager understands what mathematicians call "dynamical systems," aka, Chaos. radio stations are bubbling cauldrons of technical and creative talent, of over-eager passionate volunteers, and seasoned reasoned professionals. it takes a master chef to keep these ingredients simmering together in one pot, but not over-heating.

    ok, that’s enuf metaphors for one morning.

  • beedge says:
    Emergency Activation System

    re: Natural Disaster- several years ago, the college/community (non-NPR) station where i volunteer was selected by FEMA to be the official EAS station, the one that would remain broadcasting in state of emergency, the station all others would turn to for information during disasters. we were chosen not cuz were the biggest or best-funded — we’re last in both those categories — but cuz we’re the only station that hasn’t gone thru 18 different owners and 19 different formats in the last 20 years. even tho we’re run by post-pubescent punks with green mohawks and ancient hippies with secret mushroom stashes, we’re still the stablest station in town.

  • Abner Serd says:
    long story short

    Ah. Well. To make a long story short, I don’t have a station. I did my best to spark interest in applying for an LPFM license at my own institution – my employer and alma mater, Prescott College – but I abandoned my efforts when it became clear to me that nobody else was passionate enough about the project to invest any time in helping to make it happen. People liked the idea. Everybody wanted to have his own show when the thing was built. Until then, everybody had other things to do. As for me, I figured out that I couldn’t single-handedly build a community radio station (well, I could have kept on doing all the work, and I might have been able to see it through to the end, but it wouldn’t have been a community radio station). So I put the dream aside (again) and concentrated on building a home recording studio instead.

    Five other groups in Prescott did manage to file applications for the one usable frequency we were left with after the third-channel protection kicked back in. Last I heard, several of them were hoping to share the use of that frequency. I guess that’s one way to ensure that a range of communities-within-communities will be served. But since the licensing process seems to have virtually ground to a halt, it’ll be a long time before we hear the results.

  • Steve Young says:
    Local station, Local news

    Jay Allison has asked me to add to this discussion led by Ellen, particularly about local news. I’m currently Broadcast Director (combined program director and news director) at the station Jay and WGBH founded on Cape Cod. I’ve always had great respect for Ellen and NCPR and I’m grateful that so many important issues have been brought up in here.

    I was struck by this paragraph in Ellen’s opening “manifesto:”

    “(L)istening to people in the system adopt the latest cant is kind of like watching birds flock and wheel as they get ready to migrate in the fall. I mean, c’mon, one year the starlings are all calling out "seamless, NPR repeater station" and then (oh that dirty rotten satellite) "local, we must be local." Some of us never thought radio was anything but local.”

    Well put. But when it comes to local news, one can’t blame PDs for being conflicted on this issue, just as one can’t blame birds for flocking and wheeling and flying south for the winter. The fact is, stations have to look at the issue of local news with the same mixture of idealism and realism we bring to all our programming decisions – and most do. I agree with Ellen that the standard pro and con arguments that she skewers above are shallow and misleading. But I also think she too easily asserts that, in essence, we should be local because we ARE local, at least when it comes to news. As hard as it is for this old reporter to say it, the fact is many stations thrive without providing their listeners much –if any — local news. There’s also very little evidence that listeners care or even notice if the station provides in-depth local news. Reporters are extremely expensive and the good ones are rare and getting rarer. None of these factors alone should be decisive in the “should we or shouldn’t we” debate. But each clearly needs to be part of the discussion.

    I think a better way to frame the issue is to consider two competing concepts: relevance and importance. Ellen argues that local news is vital if a station wants to be relevant to its listeners and its community. David Giovannoni in his various papers and speeches over the years emphasizes “the importance of importance.” In a nutshell, he believes that most local news is simply not important enough to NPR listeners to merit their support. He also famously defines the NPR “community” as a “virtual” community of listeners and believes that geography is irrelevant. An NPR listener on Cape Cod is the same as an NPR listener in Canton is the same as an NPR listener in Sacramento.

    In my own thinking, I’ve drawn upon these concepts and my own experience to develop the following tentative conclusions:

    1) It’s possible for a small market public radio station to become a primary source of local news for its listeners but it’s extremely difficult, expensive and risky. Most importantly, its value to listeners is often questionable. We need to ask ourselves the following difficult questions:

    — Is our area a “breaking news” location? If we create a daily hole in our schedule do we have enough news to fill it up? This is a quality AND importance issue.

    — Who’s our competition? According to the first Local News Project, 53% of core NPR listeners get their local news elsewhere. Giovannoni says that our listeners have the perception that they can get local news from other sources, whereas they can only get NPR from us.

    — Are we making a difference? Are we being heard? According to the Local News Project II (just getting under way), 70% of core listeners are unaware of our local news efforts. That’s a staggeringly sobering figure, if true. Considering the cost of producing daily local news, one could phrase this statement this way: “70% of our listeners are not listening to what we spend 75% of our programming budget on.” And that leads finally to:

    — Can we afford it? I’ve done some back-of-the-envelope figuring about reporter costs and it’s not pretty. Conservatively, it ranges from $100 -150 per produced minute for the most productive (and most underpaid) reporters. That doesn’t include overhead or production equipment (it does include benefits). By contrast, in program fees and board op salaries it costs my station about 50 cents per minute for 24/7 network programming. Okay, we all know that local news is very expensive. But also consider this: I know of at least two statewide public radio stations that have more reporters on staff than that state’s entire AP bureau, which of course serves every newspaper, radio station and TV station in the state. Does that make sense?

    2) The safer route is for the station to concentrate its money and energy on becoming an excellent secondary source (feature series, call-in shows, commentaries, partnerships with other news organizations) and occasional primary source (more on that shortly). And it’s extremely important for the station to promote its efforts both on the air and in the community.

    — This approach allows us to choose the focus, the timing and the topics and not be driven by the grind of daily breaking news – or the lack of it.

    — This approach is also more likely to meet Giovannoni’s “importance” test. If we’re in touch with our community and believe an issue or series of issues are worth a week’s worth of features, commentaries and call-in shows, our audience will likely agree.

    — This approach allows us to better control costs. Our call-in show costs about $8 per on-air minute, for example, and we can pay our freelancers for features on a “per minute” basis.

    — “Packaging” our efforts and promoting them aggressively, going after (and hopefully winning) awards, getting out into the community every day and recording people (which we do for our Sonic Ids which air 20-30 times a day) and promoting ourselves unashamedly, all help to foster the perception that we’re doing relevant and important things all the time. Showing up at a DA’s press conference with ten other reporters apparently does not.

    3) It’s important to develop a minimal infrastructure to handle true news emergencies.

    — As Ellen points out so eloquently, this is the ultimate “relevance “ test. Even if you don’t put much stock in daily newscasts, your reporters and on-air people need to build their Rolodexes for weather emergencies or natural (or otherwise) disasters.

    — It’s a good idea to get your reporters (if you have any) and on-air people out covering an occasional breaking news story, even if it doesn’t rise to disaster level. It keeps the rust off and does provide a pleasing addition to rip and read.

    — NPR needs to rely on us for breaking stories in our area as well as the occasional feature. It’s very hard to do either if you’re a stranger to your community or you have reporters who don’t practice their craft.

    There’s nobody who’s a bigger booster of local news on public radio than I am. It’s my career, after all. But we have to do it wisely or else we’re not adequately serving anyone, least of all our listeners.

  • Jackson Braider says:
    Plz answer me this…

    The kind of stuff Steve Young talks about here is, in one sense, the kind of thing that makes your eyes cross — and it’s certainly not the kind of thing we want to think about when it comes to public radio. The difference between 50 cents (has anyone noticed you don’t find the cent sign on the keyboard anymore?) and $125 per minute of national vs local news is tough to ignore.

    For example, Steve notes that 53% of NPR listeners get their local news from other sources. Which means, in turn, that 47% of NPR listeners get their local news from their NPR station. It would be interesting to know if that figure is static or is it "trending" somewhere. And it doesn’t take into account the fact that much of the local NPR news, at least in Boston, is gleened from our local papers.

    So we arrive at the idea of the station as a secondary source — nice work, btw, to NCPR on the earthquake story. I would have loved to hear the background on W’s visit to the Adirondacks, when the snow screwed up the photo op, the press bus got lost, and Bush ate his lunch in a trailer (or something like that) because the live feed to the networks got cancelled.

    Anyway, so we start arriving at the idea of being a "secondary source" — but secondary to whom or to what? The problem with all the David Giovannoni stuff to my mind is that it is so absolutely BIG PICTURE that — I don’t know. He sounds radical, though what he seems to promote is a highly centralized corporate structure. Maybe he’s thinking out of the box because he can’t fit in it in the first place.

    One thing I’d love to know: who does David Giovannoni work for? Do any of his theories bear any theoretical relationship to the Denver Project?

  • Steve Young says:
    Being first

    I admit I was reluctant to post my thoughts on local news in here because it would divert the discussion from celebration of "localness," particularly of Sonics which my station, through Jay, originated and which I’m extremely proud of (we just won a regional Murrow award for them). But here we are or at least here Jackson and I are. A couple of points: a few years ago a fellow (public radio)news director told me that he wanted his listeners to always hear about news that broke in his area first on his station. That’s a noble goal and a traditionally "commercial" one ("get it first and get it right!") but I’ve come to believe that it’s unrealistic, particularly for small market stations. Being a "secondary" source at its best can simply mean being deeper rather than wider. Also, the reason why it’s important for public radio people to look at the numbers, no matter how distasteful it may be to do so, is because numbers increasingly matter in the world of public radio. Fifteen years ago Giovannoni (and others like him) began teaching public radio executives the black arts of market and audience research. In light of massive cuts in government funding, many believe he saved public radio. Others believe he ruined it forever. At any rate, what was heretical then is mainstream today.

    Finally, that’s a good question about the 53% figure, whether it represents an increase or a decrease. Don’t know the answer.

    Kudos to NCPR not only for earthquake coverage but coverage of Bush’s visit to the area yesterday. Somehow, those guys always seem to get the story!

  • Ellen Rocco says:
    wow! i can’t leave you guys alone for a minute…

    Thanks to Steve Young and Jackson Braider for the wonderful conversation about local news and local focus. For those of you following this discussion who are not based at a station, Steve has very eloquently summarized the issues many of us grapple with constantly. Martha Foley, our news director, is away at a conference on globalization and sustainability (ain’t that an appropriate pairing of topics), so I’m filling in with this response. I do hope Martha returns in time to add to my comments.

    First–and again–the issue of community. Steve raised the notion of communities of interest, including the NPR community, which exist across geographies. I have no argument with this notion. However, in practical terms for NCPR, I cannot worry about or serve people across the country–or the globe, for that matter–who are part of the "NPR community" or the "rural community" or any of the other communities of interest that connect with our local audience. I can only worry about the North Country. This is the community we serve. If others tune us in, welcome. If others find our website interesting and useful, terrific. However, those others are not our primary audience. People who ACTUALLY live and work in the North Country, in our listening area, are who we work for. When reporters cover a story, they cover it first for our local audience and only secondarily for broader audiences. Brian Mann, who so ably covered both the earthquake and President Bush’s Earth Day visit to the Adirondacks, had a primary responsibility to inform our listeners. We always encourage our reporters to extend their stories to the nation (and the world), but NCPR listeners come first. I don’t think this is a rural vs. urban headset. WNYC certainly kept all of us informed after 9-11, but the station’s first responsibility was to its listeners in the metro NY area. And, most of the time, stories emanating from the North Country are not earthshaking (forgive the pun)–we encourage reporters to share stories with the larger public radio community because that sharing outward is also a service to the North Country. Anyone who lives in a rural area knows that it’s a BIG DEAL when listeners hear "their" local reporter delivering a story or feature on the national news programs, that it makes people feel their lives and their concerns are important.

    Okay, now the issue of cost. Yes, local news is certainly a major expense. Our news department costs us about $200,000 annually. Our total cash budget is about $1.5 million. That’s about 13% of our annual operating budget. Is that too much? NPR programming is about comparable as a portion of our budget. Is the total audience for regional news vs. NPR news comparable? No. For one thing, our NPR fees buy us many more hours of programming than we can produce for the same amount. We also air the NPR newsmagazines during prime time. Nonetheless, local news holds its own pretty well. As part of a CPB-funded NFCB (National Federation of Community Broadcasters) survey we are participating in, we are learning a lot about how and why and when our listeners tune in. I base my statement about local news audiences on these survey results. (I won’t go into the excruciating details here.) However, the question remains, if local news does not "perform" as well as NPR news, are we justified in spending 13% of our annual budget on this service? I believe we are. This is where I think stations so often get lost. You see the raw numbers and freak out–worrying that your station is "underperforming." Or, you see the numbers and refuse to pay them any attention because your "instincts" tell you that "people like" what you do. At NCPR, we take what we consider a balanced approach between audience research numbers (and the money generated by larger audiences) and community service (mission). Make no mistake: local or regional news departments are mission driven. If money is the goal, there are probably more efficient ways to make–and save–money. But, put enough money into local news, do a good job, and the payoff will go beyond membership and underwriting dollars. It is service. It serves our core audience. It serves our community by contributing so richly to our sense of this place.

    Now, should every rural or small community station have a news department? I don’t know. I think Steve’s suggestion–to have some kind of minimal staff capability in place–is a good one for ANY radio station. Without that minimal capability, a radio station throws away a key strength of our medium–immediacy and localness. I do know that whatever level of service a station chooses to provide, it must do that service really well and reliably. Steve is right about depth being essential to public radio news coverage. I believe this is as true at the national level as at the local level. When NPR news is lauded it is usually for the depth of its coverage, not for beating out CNN on the breaking international stories. We don’t have to go head to head with CNN. That’s redundant. When NPR is criticized (at least by our listeners), it is for the failure to take a story deeply enough. The expectation of public radio is that it will explore a story meaningfully, surprisingly and with a full range of voices–regardless of whether it emanates from NPR or NCPR.

    Okay. I gotta get back to work. Whaddaya all think?

  • Jackson Braider says:
    Enough of the news already: What about Culcha?

    Steve: thanks for the candor about numbers — numbers of dollars, numbers of listeners, costs of creating local vs. acquiring national programming. (I hope the fundraising is going well, btw).

    What I am gathering from both you and Ellen is an effort to define locality — locality of place, locality of people. And that neither of you seem to be particularly caught up in trying to address diverse local constituencies (except maybe the Indian language course), the notion being that in your local coverage, you are attempting to address the common interests, needs, etc. of your total listenership.

    Is that a fair precis?

    So, can this be translated to the not-so-big city? One of the stations in Boston — the one that calls itself "Boston’s NPR News Station" — went through a period (or so I see it, at least) of pretending that Boston was, well, the hub of the universe and that the nation as a whole cares about what’s going on here on a daily basis.

    The result, at least to my ear, is news that is kinda local, but not quite. And the news that is truly local seems, for the most part, to be lifted from the local papers. In sum, the very traits and characteristics that give Boston its Boston-ness are smoothed over to give stories a national gloss.

    But even as I am saying this, I suddenly realize that we haven’t yet discussed here what is so vaguely called "cultural programming". We have been speaking as if news and talk are all that there is to radio, but these are actually only a part of the broadcast day.

    I take that back — Sonic IDs are the vitamin pills of cultural programming. But doesn’t it feel a bit like the tail and the dog — listeners slogging through 20 minutes of "Beyond Computers" just so they can hear an oyster shucker for 30 secs?

  • Andrea de Leon says:
    Northeast Bureau Chief, NPR

    I’m joining the discussion late….
    I got my start at NCPR, and it is still my favorite radio station. Hands down. I was screwing up board shifts back when NCPR still hired work study students to baby-sit the opera and spin records late into the night. Those days are gone at NCPR, I believe. Probably good for the listeners (they suffered through some amazingly bad moments when I was at the board), but it was a wonderful training opportunity. For all those starting out in radio, or hoping to, I urge you to look for a place like NCPR. The station was small enough, and the staff was patient enough, to give me a real understanding of how the technology worked, how the finances worked, and how to make stories in a land without news conferences and piles of press releases. In the year I worked full time at the station, there wasn’t a single news conference called in the listening area. Talk about enterprise reporting. Back then the place was held together with extra-long extension cords and the same never-say-die dedication to serving the local audience that you’ve been hearing about.

    This isn’t to say that you can’t get a great start with an entry-level job at a big station, or even a network. But in my opinion, nothing could top a small station with critical listeners, supportive mentors, and strong editorial standards. As an NPR editor, I work with lots of station and free lance reporters. It is always clear who’s used to working at a place with high standards for content. The great work being done by Martha, Brian Mann, and David Sommerstein really shows me that the place is as healthy and vital as it was twenty years ago….and probably more so.

    What also impresses me is how the core group of veterans at NCPR, Martha, Jackie, Radio Bob, Kathleen, and all the rest have managed to stay engaged, every day, in the importance of serving the local audience in that remote part of the country with the best possible soup of the day. And I’d love to hear one of them comment on that.

  • Ellen Rocco says:
    until someone else chimes in…

    Hey, Andrea, nice to know you’re there–our favorite started-as-a-student former employee…While we wait for one of my fabulously creative colleagues to reply to the question you posed, this observation: it’s easy for me to stay involved when I’m accosted daily in grocery store or on the street or at a restaurant by listeners who loved or hated a story we aired earlier that day or week, or when a listener emails me with a request to carry Pacifica News and I explain why we don’t, or a handwritten note arrives from the teacher whose class received copies of a book we talked about on the air etc etc etc. It always gets back to place–and the people in this place–for me. A total inspiration. Amazing, huh, after all these years…

  • Jackson Braider says:
    What about Youth Radio?

    Youth-type-Radio speaks a lot about place. Is there anything like this going on in, quite literally, your neck of the woods?

  • Jay Allison says:
    web and fund-raising

    Ellen and Co…

    Before your tenure is up, I want to ask about your approach to 1) the web, and 2) fundraising. I’m interested in ways you may be going with or against the flow in those areas.

    1) the Web. What do you feel a public radio station’s web role should be? Is it an extension of service? But so much service is possible! Where do you draw the line? I found this on your site, for instance:
    >"By sharing our stories, our art, music and opinions. By talking about where we live and where we have been and what we love and hate. UpNorth Communities will attempt to make the radio a two-way proposition. We have many ideas for discussion groups, salons, interest areas, etc. Please use the form to your right to give us yours. This is a do-it-yourself Internet project."

    How’s this going? Do your listeners give you feedback on your site and what they want from you? Do they listen to a lot of archived audio, or do you find that they bookmark you for steady reference the way they’d punch in your frequency on their radios? Do they want to build a community with the station at the heart of it? What do you want listeners/visitors to do?

    2) Fundraising. What’s your practice and philosophy? What works, what doesn’t? How do you keep coming back and asking them same thing year after year without driving people crazy? How do you set limits on underwriting time? Do you have a broad base of small contributions and/or a deep base of major donors? All insights appreciated, as we just completed our first spring fund drive with both our stations on the air. In fact, you can hear a few of our attempts to persuade and cajole here: WCAI & WNAN Spring Fundraiser spots. I think my favorite is "The Birds."

  • Ellen Rocco says:
    youth, web, money

    I finally got around to the youth radio pieces on transom. If you haven’t listened yet, do find the time. So worth it. Definitely stuck-in-the-driveway/parking lot listening. Very open, fresh voices–I actually found them hopeful, in spite of the hard start each of these young people had.

    We invested a lot of time, money and people (the money was mostly for the right people) in the development of our website (ncpr.org). Anyone out there following this conversation: please take a few minutes to explore our site and let us know (here or through the site to our web guys) what you think. It’s been up and running in its current form for barely a year. Some things we’re redesigning because they didn’t work quite as well as we had hoped, e.g., the various on-going discussion groups (though we have a good short term response for discussions of issues with an immediacy or urgency or compelling connection to on air pieces). Some elements of the site, I think are quite wonderful–like the North Country gallery which showcases the visual and musical work of area artists. The news page draws a lot of traffic–both regional stories and world material from NPR, PRI and others. Bill and Dale, our web guys, say our commitment to audio–making the news portion of our website truly audio based as much as print based ("gigabytes, we got gigabytes of audio," says Dale)–is relatively risk-taking and innovative for this neck of the woods. In a sense, we built the site as much for the future as for the present–perhaps, even more for the future. Right now, web access is pretty slow and often unreliable except for that small percentage of users who have cable-based access or a university connection. For most people in this rural region, that kind of access is years away. We also built it for the future in the sense that we believe it is bound to be the medium of choice (or is already) for people who are young right now (or aren’t even born yet). Gradually, we are adding more and more features that are created by people in our community. This is the direction we’d like to move in. So, yes, something like the youth radio project is definitely of interest to us. As soon as someone from the news/production department here can surface for air, I think that’s going to be high on the list.

    We just began distributing a one-screen weekly e-newsletter, The Listening Post. Dale Hobson, our web outreach guy, is the editor. It’s short, sweet and very nicely written. (You can check out the latest issue on our website.) When we created our web team, we specifically hired a web outreach person to team up with the web manager–we assumed that the manager would be so geeky he/she wouldn’t be able to talk English. We wanted a teammate who could relate to and talk with real people. As it turned out, we got the best of all possible teams: both Dale and Bill speak English, and they can actually talk computer stuff to each other and people like me–and, Dale’s a fine poet, and both Dale and Bill have a wonderful design sense.

    I’m rambling here a bit, so let me sum up about the website this way: it’s not yet nearly what it’s going to be–tons of potential–but, already, I don’t know how we communicated and served our community without the dimension the website adds.

    We got a grant from Verizon Foundation to establish a teen website–help connect isolated rural kids. We’re working with area high school students this spring and summer to design and manage that space. We’ll keep you posted.

    Okay, fundraising. First, Jay, Steve and all, wonderful spots you posted to your station’s website. I listened to all of them. (Have I been in this business too long, or what?) Our on-air fundraising evolved very gradually over about 20 years and we have recently made some relatively revolutionary decisions. For years, a fall and spring fundraiser (with some kind of very low-key messages during the summer to attract support from seasonal listeners). Fall: six days, lots of donated "special" premiums ranging from loads of manure for the garden to weekend stays at fancy hotels in Ottawa or the Adirondacks. Spring: four days, with just a few premiums–perhaps a magazine subscription or cookbook. (Yes, yes, of course there was always a station coffee mug and t-shirt and tote.) For the past five years, Kathleen Fitzgerald, our membership director, tried to convince us (me, especially) to get rid of the premiums. September 11 did it for me. In a delayed fall drive, and again this spring, we realized we’re at a new place. Down to the message, creative production of fundraising breaks (like your wonderful messages, Jay), and, as always, a sense of humor, warmth and fun. We have always subscribed to the notion that it’s essential to sound like you’re having fun–that makes people want to be a part of the process. Whining is, of course, never ever never permitted.

    We have wonderful underwriting support (thanks to the world’s best–Sandy Demarest) and our listeners are stunningly generous. We have a major donors program (Sweethearts of the Radio)–membership gifts of $500 or more used to challenge other listeners to give. We probably do as well as the best in our system in comparable communities. Perhaps noteworthy: we initiated an endowment fund some years ago. It’s got about a million in it right now and our goal is $5 million in three years. Our plan is to use endowment interest to support all the extras we do, not the basic operation. Extras include: website, satellite news bureau in the Adirondacks, and outreach projects (buying books for schools and libraries in conjunction with a call-in series featuring writers).

    Whew. Gotta run. I’ll check back soon.
    Ellen

  • Brian Farenell says:
    Urban vs. rural public radio

    Sorry I’m a late comer to this discussion but I just recently discovered Transom.

    Ellen wrote, "For years I insisted to the big boys in the system that there is a difference between serving a rural community vs. an urban one, that it’s not simply a matter of same issues on a smaller scale."

    I couldn’t agree more. I am a listener and member of both Ellen’s North Country Public Radio and Northeast Public Radio (WAMC). NCPR is based in Canton, in way northern New York while WAMC is based in Albany, New York’s capital. I can assure you they are two TOTALLY different stations in terms of style.

    Both reflect the areas they serve. NCPR is very calm and laid-back. WAMC is very energetic. NCPR’s news is very focused on the North Country and the Adirondacks; lots of stuff on what individual communities are doing, like Norwood’s music in the park series. I heard far more via NCPR on the Finch Pruyn mill strike in my city of Glens Falls than I did via WAMC, even though Albany is much, much closer to here than Canton. WAMC is more focused on bigger political stuff; because WAMC’s listening area includes 4 states and thus has to do news of 4 different state governments, it has much less time to do stories at the community level. NCPR is excellent at cultural stuff and in covering the Adirondacks. WAMC is excellent at political stuff, which is natural since it’s based in the state capital.

    I enjoy both, each for the strengths they bring; I enjoy them both to the point that I am a member of both. But no one who has listened to both can deny that they are two totally different public radio stations with very distinct personalities.