Curious City

Listen to “Curious City”

Talk to any radio old-timer and they will wax on and on and on about “localism.” I think it’s in their blood.

Localism, is, essentially, a commitment to local public service, the idea that a radio station exists to serve its community. Localism holds that programming should be informed by the needs and interests of the citizens living within the “footprint” of the station’s signal.

But listen to most stations — commercial and public — and you have to ask: “Where’s the localism? Where’s the local content that serves this community?”

Most commercial, FM broadcasters air music and typically not a lot of local music. Maybe they have a talk show on Sunday mornings at 6am where, for example, the local Red Cross chapter has an opportunity to talk about an upcoming blood drive. And, of course, there’s local weather and public service announcements. But, all that is just an extremely small part of the broadcast day.

Commercial AM stations tend to fare better in terms of localism. They often have morning talk shows that tackle local issues. They may even have a reporter or two producing local news reports throughout they day. But, AM stations are apt to be a “pass through” for network programming originating in some far-off city.

Then there’s public radio. Public stations also tend to be a “pass through” for national content — think Morning Edition, All Things Considered, The Diane Rehm, Car Talk, This American Life….. Do the math some day. How much local airtime on your public station is set aside for local programming? What distinguishes your station from other stations across the country?

I don’t have time now to explain the disconnect between a broadcaster’s commitment to localism and the dearth of local content. Suffice to say, a lot of it has to do with ownership limits and media economics. Fortunately, there’s a growing recognition that if radio is to exist into the far future, stations need to reinvigorate their love of the local.

Enter Localore, a project of the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR) and several funders including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (Full disclosure: I’m on the board of AIR.) Localore funds dozens of public media projects across the US in an effort to, among many things, foster the production and broadcast of local content.

On this edition of HowSound, we listen to a story from the Localore project “Curious City” based in Chicago at WBEZ. The story is about Chicago’s distinctive accents. Jennifer Brandel, the lead producer for the series, says “Curious City” looks to ‘hack’ the prevailing public media model by bringing the community in as content generators.

As an old-timer with localsim in his blood, I think Localore, projects like “Curious City,” and the turn toward the local in broadcasting is clearly the right direction.

Here’s a link to an excerpt from the Bertolt Brecht essay on radio I read from in the program.

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