Intro from Jay Allison: 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."
The Four Essentials of Radio
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 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.
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In case you couldn’t plow through everything above: North Country Public Radio is about people in a particular place.
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.
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.)