What Happens Right Here

Neenah Ellis has been station manager at a small station for two years and she loves it. She loves it because she gets what local radio is all about. I am thrilled that a public radio talent like Neenah has decided to wade in at street level.

I went back and re-read a piece I did for Transom nine years ago. None of the essentials have changed. Better yet, I wasn’t embarrassed to have written what I wrote about local radio…which I boiled down to these four elements:

A map

A natural disaster

A sense of humor

People on both sides of the mic (or digital screen, 2011 addendum) who care about each other and the world around them

A decade ago, those of us who had been investing in local news for a long time—and intended to continue—were a minority seen by our system as either a) quirky and charming, or, b) just plain dumb and uninformed about broadcast trends.

A decade ago, I indicated that we were spending equally on local news and news programs acquired from NPR, or about 13% of our spending on each. Today, the percentage for NPR has not changed significantly (still between 10-15%), while we spend about 25% on local news. I never said it was cheap. I will re-assert unequivocally that it is essential, more essential than ever. And I think everyone knows why.

A map, to remind you who you serve; a natural disaster, to remind you to take your work seriously; a sense of humor, to remind you not to take yourself too seriously; and passionate commitment to doing the work well and inviting those around you to participate. Would I add anything to the list today?

It’s time to open our station doors, our hearts, our minds and our bank accounts to the next generation of public media makers. So many of us started at small and mid-sized stations—even Neenah started at a station, albeit a larger one, before moving over to NPR.

At North Country Public Radio, whenever we’re on the cliff edge, ready to make a big decision about doing something new—like maintaining and building out a regional news department or investing in a robust and equal-to-broadcasting digital service—it comes down to two questions:

Is it important?

If the answer to this question is “yes,” then:

If we don’t do it, will anyone else?

Look around your community or region. Who’s left in town to do the local news? A local calendar? Who’s left to turn the spotlight on local arts and performance? And who’s left to connect the local narratives to the stories being played out on national and international stages…and vice versa? “Local” doesn’t mean in an airtight vacuum, it means, what happens at this dot on the map matters to the people who live here, and is connected to stories from other dots across the country and the globe.

You know what I took away from Neenah’s piece? She lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio and people in her community come to WYSO to hear their stories told. I bet we could swap a few…

Ellen Rocco

About
Ellen Rocco

Born and raised and schooled in Manhattan, Ellen Rocco moved to the North Country farm she still lives on in 1971. She has been at the station since 1980; station manager since 1985. Ellen served six years on the NPR Board (tenure ended about 18 months ago), and has been a panelist for CPB, the NYS Council on the Arts, and other media and cultural organizations. She's at NCPR because it’s great to do good work…in this place. She has never had ambitions to climb the ladder to bigger, better known stations. She works there because she lives there, and is part of that community.

More by Ellen Rocco

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  • Sue Halpern

    5.08.11

    Reply

    This is so smart and so necessary. Thank you, Ellen!

  • Catherine Stifter

    5.10.11

    Reply

    Ellen,
    Thanks for pointing back to the local aspects of why radio (and radio stations) are so important. Duh. It’s the community. When I used to go out to stations as an NPR trainer in the 1990s, I would always say that the local airtime was where reporters (producers/editors) could have the most influence. A piece on NPR is great if you can get it, but YOUR air is always there. Use it for good.

    Nice piece. And congrats for staying in place and holding the line on radio excellence.

    Thank you!

  • Ian Kath

    5.24.11

    Reply

    Ellen,

    It’s interesting that out of corporate media there is now a return to niche media. That’s what you’re talking about here regarding physical locality. Yes everyone cares about what happens in the local but now, with the internet what is local?

    Podcasting has brought us back to local topics in the sense of niche interests that can be shared around the world and there is still the opportunity for physically local content through the new channels of twitter and blogs when events happen.

    The idea of local media rather than just local radio is a concept of everything that is produced in a local community. Now we have multiple systems to get that media out and the community has grown beyond our near physical location.

    Radio is and will always be part of that mix but now the average person with home based systems can also add to the community voice and reach people beyond their physical location.

  • Ellen Rocco

    6.01.11

    Reply

    Ian…I agree. When I say local “radio station” I mean local media. All platforms. Lots of voices, from station and community sources alike. Here in the Adirondack North Country, NCPR serves as a kind of hub, or gathering place (as one friend of the station put it years ago, we’re the “electronic general store”).

    It is, however, important to distinguish between “niche” and “local” media. When I say “local” I mean physical geography. I can share all kinds of interests in common with people across the globe, but only the people who live in my community share, say, the experience of a devastating LOCAL natural disaster, or a school board, or the faces and voices of the actual people we all run into in the grocery store.

    Here’s another way of looking at the importance of local media: it impels us to connect with people we might never get to know; it exposes us to issues and ideas that we might not have chosen via niche media, which is narrow in a way that local media cannot be.

  • sam

    6.01.11

    Reply

    You can read more from Ellen Rocco in the current issue of the AIR blast.

    http://www.airmedia.org/backoffice/PageInfo.php?CatID=5&PageID=659

  • sam

    6.10.11

    Reply

    And be sure to check out this interview that PRX’s Emily Corwin did with Holly Kernan at KALW. As Emily says KALW is “churning out stories that may take place in San Francisco, but are captivating no matter where you are.”

    http://blog.prx.org/2011/06/4687/

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