This was originally sent to my newsletter. Want to subscribe? S’easy.
Two people recently asked me why we have local public radio stations. They saw the need for public media; they didn’t necessarily see the need for local stations. (One of these people even works in public media.)
This surprised me.
So I posed the question to my newsletter and also asked on Twitter. I got some very smart responses in return. The newsletter answers are below and I recommend you read all of them. (Most of the people responding don’t work in news.)
Some people had a very idealistic view of what local news is or could be. Others knew local was important, but couldn’t articulate why exactly.
This was also surprising to me.
News people are in the business of telling stories. They do it really well. But they’re not as good as explaining why the stories they tell are the right stories to tell - or why they matter while or after they tell them. I almost want newsrooms to hire a meta-editor, to cover the way the stories they tell resonate or impact communities before they’re published and then after they’re published.
I want local news to let people into the process of telling stories. Domino’s Pizza lets you track what stage your pizza delivery’s in - why can’t we do this for news?
Imagine a dashboard for a local newsroom. We’re brainstorming these six stories; here’s how you can help. We’re currently reporting on nine stories - looking for people to talk with who we might not know. We’re about to publish two, and would love to know if there are any questions you have. And we’re asking for your own feedback on three. This is audience-centered journalism. This isn’t just saying, “We have an audience after we publish.” It’s articulating the value of the public throughout the publishing process. Imagine how much more invested the public would be. Imagine the value they’d be able to articulate. Imagine the value they’d bring, and how much better local news could be if the public was involved from day one. (Here’s a nice automated dashboard - doesn’t have to be complex. Could be triggered by different back-end web items. If draft is in CMS –> Publishing Phase. If draft is live, Post-Publishing Phase. etc.)
I also am worried that local news is not viable commercially because it doesn’t scale. Local advertisers are now sending money to Facebook and Yelp and Twitter and bypassing their local commerical news organizations. This also, I think, speaks for the need for a public media in the United States — and a local public media. Public media is not based on scale. It worries me that stations like KUSP in Santa Cruz are thinking of winding down operations and that stations in Alaska had their state funding slashed by 23.5 percent this year.
I think local news is vitally important. And I really prefer to let the audience explain why. I’ve clipped out important points in bold.
And thank you for contributing. I’m glad we’re thinking like this and hope the conversation continues.
Local public media are like public libraries and local museums in that they preserve culture, educate, and engage in order to build understanding on important issues that are expensive or difficult to cover.
The Current, KCRW, KEXP, and other music-focused public radio stations cover local music scenes in their respective areas as well as lifting up artists that wouldn’t get airtime on commercial stations.
WHUT screens locally produced cinema and recently engaged in a two hour discussion of race and police violence called Cities in Crisis. None of the local commercial television stations are covering these issues with this depth. On election night, the local news couldn’t even get straight what side of town the candidate’s respective parties were happening. (Pro tip: Howard Theater is not in Northeast DC.) As I type this, WJLA, Washington’s ABC affiliate has an abundance of crime and tragedy stories on it’s homepage
Local public media are like public libraries and local museums in that they preserve culture, educate, and engage in order to build understanding on important issues that are expensive or difficult to cover. They can also empower people to stand up for justice where there is none. And because they’re supported by the communities they serve, they are a clear expression in a belief that their local communities deserve more attention than what somebody in Palm Beach has to say about them.
National correspondents swoop in and provide two minutes of a story, whereas local reporters can revisit a story multiple times to make sure that we, the listeners, fully understand it and its impact on us, if there is one.
Local stations are not just about the weather and the road conditions. Those are helpful things to know, but they are not the real heart of what local stations provide. They provide the color of the areas around you; things you might not notice otherwise, but which may be important for your daily life. For me, being in central Jersey, that means collecting news from “local” stations in NYC and Philly, both of which provide information I care about–about local arts, politics, parks, etc. Now, I know that most of the time I don’t hear things about Princeton, where I live, but I do get to hear about regional issues that may have some sort of bearing on my daily life, and that matters. Local reporters are able to pick up on local color and read into situations in a way that national correspondents can’t necessarily match. National correspondents swoop in and provide two minutes of a story, whereas local reporters can revisit a story multiple times to make sure that we, the listeners, fully understand it and its impact on us, if there is one.
The purpose of local is to see, know, care about and understand your community
The purpose of the local paper or station is to see, know, care about and understand your community in ways your neighbors don’t and then share what you find. It’s to be perpetual tourist in your town with a side helping of too much empathy.
What’s the purpose of local anything?
The first thought that pops into my mind is, what’s the purpose of a local anything?
It’s much easier to feel in our gut that there’s value to having:
A local school A locally-owned coffee shop A local surfboard shaper A local church A local identity A local language and so on…
They all definitely have advantages over the national, more “efficient” versions.
I guess it’s harder to see this for more obviously scalable things like media - but each of those can be scaled nationally, and have…..the local versions often compete pretty well with their national counterparts.
My station is WPLN in Nashville and they actually do far more local news coverage than the remaining Nashville newspaper
Oh my gosh, Mel, yes, my local public radio station is still incredibly relevant! My station is WPLN in Nashville and they actually do far more local news coverage than the remaining Nashville newspaper (The Tennessean) and more in-depth and nuanced local coverage than any of the television stations (although I don’t watch any of the TV news programs, this is just based on what the TV stations hype on Twitter). They add a depth of knowledge to the local dialog that would be missing if the station weren’t there, and the number of reporters they have who are really immersed in this community is pretty awesome. The best part is that over the time I’ve lived here (~11 years), I’ve seen a noticeable improvement in the quality and breadth of their news coverage.
For me local WashPo news is critical to my life and public discourse.
I live in DC. I don’t care for the hill. For me local WashPo news is critical to my life and public discourse. That said, old model of monopoly ad prices supporting big news is gone. Gotta find new models to make it work - both in revenue and in reporting.
Local TV? Graveyard of vapid hype.
When I’m looking for local news (as opposed to passively consuming it), I often am in a particular “role” in my head
I live in Brooklyn, and I listen religiously to WNYC. I do get some local Brooklyn based emails, which I’ve been trying to pay more attention to. When I’m looking for local news (as opposed to passively consuming it), I often am in a particular “role” in my head: i.e. I’m looking for events for kids in the neighborhood (mom hat), or I’m wondering about running groups or healthy restaurants (health hat), or someplace to co-work (office hat). I rarely use one source for all of those things, but usually they are local (if not traditional “news”) resources.
I wish I could get more worked up about local politics, because in theory I think that’s where a lot of change could occur, but it’s SO in the details that it’s hard to follow unless you can devote a lot of time. I see a big role for local stations in making that relevant and accessible for people - but I wouldn’t say that’s what they do now.
Local helps strengthen civic and cultural bonds
So I think about this question ALL THE TIME in regards to [my station]
Our mission is to strengthen civic and cultural bonds in [our location]- one of the world’s most diverse regions. I want our station to inform, engage, entertain and provide resources for people who want to be more involved in the issues that impact their lives.
This mission is separate and distinct from what NPR provides- but one cannot exist without the other bc of the existing business model.
The way we deliver that information changes from platform to platform but the purpose remains the same. We miss stories all the time bc we only have so many reporters in the building, but we try to be as responsive to our audience as possible, For instance, we didn’t have a reporter dedicated to housing issues but after our business reporters did a couple of stories last year that took off on social media, we decided to make it a full time beat. Same for commuting. The discussions we have at the local level are enhanced and complimented by the work NPR does.
I also think there’s a major role for us to play beyond the traditional “news delivery” system. Our live events team brings together people from all across the region to connect and discuss big issues in person. Sometimes those events are tied to headlines- like police/ community relations but sometimes they’re just an opportunity to bond over shared passions–like the massive listening session we had for the Serial finale.
National won’t hold your city councilmembers accountable.
In some ways, it would be way easier to simply have every NPR station [for example] run the same, standard schedule, with no local programming. It would truly then be National Public Radio, even if NPR doesn’t stand for anything anymore. But, we’d lose an incredible amount if we didn’t have local stations. A national station isn’t going to break in and tell you about a natural disaster that could wreak havoc. It won’t hold your city councilmembers accountable. It won’t do deep dives into your local school districts, or talk to interesting people in your area. It’ll instead focus on vague things that vaguely apply to everyone, with the majority centered around happenings in New York, DC and Los Angeles, simply because that’s where the hive mind exists.
But potentially the most tragic thing about not having a local station is losing that connection to your community. Maybe you miss out hearing about speakers coming to town, or local authors who have books coming out, or debates between people wanting your vote. Why would we ever give that up?
Local helps communities get to know each other better
Local radio and newspapers are huge! Public media ties a community together and offers an outlet to share the stories of your neighbors - not only can you gather and send information that relates directly to the community, but you can also get to know each other better. I grew up in a town of about 36,000, and always looked forward to getting the weekly newspaper to see what was happening and who was involved. National reporters can’t always understand the nuances of a community or what stories are actually important - local town meetings might sound boring in theory, for instance, but they’re important – someone needs to be able to cover them and share them with those who are most directly impacted.
Local drives conversations, serves as public record and covers the news happening in your own backyard.
First things first — I absolutely love this newsletter. Though I don’t often respond, it makes me think about media in a way that I think makes everyone better. So thank you.
I’m a huge believer in local news. It drives conversation, serves as public record and covers the news happening in your own backyard. And while national news outlets can handle the big stuff, it’s never quite the same (or as good) as hometown coverage. I was at Penn State when the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case broke and I would still argue that The Daily Collegian (student newspaper) and the Centre Daily Times had the best coverage — period. We knew the area, we knew the players and while everyone else had one or two reporters on the ground, we had 100. With those numbers and that larger understanding of the situation, the coverage is more insightful and helpful. It tells the story with the understanding of WHY it matters in that community and can give reference to events that may be similar or other moments in history. It becomes more than a paper or source of record — it’s a key part of the story unfolding.
The scary part is that local news orgs are downsizing, and with each downsizing comes even fewer resources to cover the same amount of space. What’s being lost? The stories that matter. The important positive work happening in the community. The little events that later become pivotal for fundraising or community building. I could go on for hours — without local media, we miss so, so much.
Local improves community
I think a local news outlet (not picky about the medium) is a wonderful thing to have. I don’t think it’s as essential as other services (water, garbage collection, etc.), but having one improves the sense of community.
For me, an easy example of the value of a local outlet is a fire at home or business. It’s not “news” to someone five miles away necessarily, but it is news to the people on that block, the people nearby who might want to help clean up or donate to victims, and of course the family or business-owner themselves. A local news operation can cover that event for the community and connect the different voices (fire dept, church/aid organization, real estate developers, etc.).
Local plays a role in pro-bono advertising
They play a role in providing pro-bono advertising for local nonprofits – at least in my community, Hudson NY.
They nonprofit station interviews local politicians, creatives, artists, etc. – so that’s pretty good.
To host cultural events that those communities would otherwise never attend.
Four reasons for local
It reminds me of home and it allows me to still be connected with where I will always call home
In my opinion, local radio stations are critical. I am on a strict budget, paying off grad school loans, and spending minimally like many people but I contribute financially to my local station every year. I feel connected to the station, the reporters and the stories in a way that I don’t feel with TV stations, necessarily. I expect a lot from them - I expect listener input, a constant perspective of “does this affect the public? How?” and more. I actually moved to San Diego for a few years two years ago but lived in MA my whole life. Now that I live in San Diego, I follow KPBS on Twitter and sometimes watch them on TV but I religiously listen to my old local station in Boston, WGBH, every day. I listen through their mobile app and the Internet because it reminds me of home and it allows me to still be connected with where I will always call home. They cover stories I care about and that affect the people I care about. When 9/11 happened, I started falling asleep to the radio because it was this comforting sense that people were working, paying attention, and researching for us - the public. It’s one of the most important resources I have and we all have, in my opinion. They have our best interest in mind (I like to think but also actually do believe) and a commitment to getting to the heart of stories and issues. The local angle is critical because our environments affect so much of how we live. We are not all in the same place, affected by the same stories. National stories - yes - but there is so much culturally, environmentally, professionally, etc that is unique to our location. This is why local is necessary.
Local radio that speaks to people on the ground, where they live, without economic biases, can literally be life-changing and -saving for individuals as for whole communities
Journalism is nothing but a big highbrow-player’s game with no local, and public media stations should be on the frontlines of local.
You don’t always get that from local stations. Sometimes they can be very highbrow as well, focused on their donors more so than the less fortunate locals in the region.
Now, there’s a more ground-level variant on public broadcasting – community radio. I was a DJ and producer for many years on the old KUSF-FM of yore and can testify that local radio that speaks to people on the ground, where they live, without economic biases, can literally be life-changing and -saving for individuals as for whole communities.
Now, a network of local stations can aggregate their output around topics and can share resources to build impact, and cover regional and national issues with rich, rich local detail.
I don’t think they have risen to that opportunity, however, which is disappointing.
Local community media is produced by the people who live in the community and it introduces people to creating media
I grew up in Maine, and our local community radio station (WMPG) was a huge resource for me. It wasn’t a public station per se, but it was run through the local state university, staffed almost entirely by students and community volunteers, and had resources and opportunities (like a news and current affairs show made by teenagers/high schoolers) that no one else had locally.
The way I see it, there are several advantages to local community media like that. The fact that it’s not beholden to commercial interests is of course the primary one. This allows for a much greater diversity in content; so many genres were represented, including super niche and obscure stuff. That alone made the place important to me.
The high school/youth radio show, which I participated in for a few years, was my first exposure to creating media, and I think turned me and a lot of my peers on to working in both the broadcast and digital realms. I think exposure like that is important for kids who grow up in places not known for being media hubs/metropolises.
Since you’re interested in membership, I’ll also say that the station, though scrappy, inspires intense loyalty among its listeners. And it relies on their support (donations, volunteering) to sustain itself. Because Maine is such a small place, most everyone has some kind of connection to the station, and I think it’s that localism and personal connection that motivates people to both become involved and then to help to keep the station afloat as members/donors.
Asking why local matters is the fundamental question
The fact that I can’t recall any writing on this is telling. This is the heart of the matter. That is the fundamental question. Why are we in public radio? Why is this station here? Why are you in public radio?
Local reporting documents
I think local news is very important, and I want reporters to live in the communities they’re documenting. Hyper-local investigative reporter is my dream job that doesn’t exist because there’s not enough of a market for it :(
A local news outlet is part of my identity; it’s part of how I see myself
I live and work in the Upper Connecticut River Valley, straddling the Connecticut River with work on the New Hampshire side and home sweet home on the Vermont side. (My home town is 3,400 people. My work town is 11,400 people.) However, I am only a member of Vermont Public Radio–Not NHPR on the other side of the river. I did not have a great answer about why until I got your inquiry. After all, I am affected by news from both states: legislative coverage, coverage about local towns, local fires, local employers, local school games. National news can be covered by anyone, but local news means more from local stations. I find myself switching on the dial to pick up both. So why does one matter so significantly more that I give only to one – not disproportionately and certainly not in equally divided parts.
I identify as a Vermonter and not–definitely not–as a New Hamp-shite (New Hampshirian?). I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my public radio has replaced religion. But I would say: public radio is my temple. It is where I go to have community, to have my beliefs and sense of humor reinforced by like minded people, to hear the news from sympathetic travelers of the world, to hear the same stories of human existence, challenge, triumph told over and over again- with different characters but the same moral. It is a supplement to the town common- I can hear the news of the day, new discoveries, the weather.
Now I am not from Vermont originally (I am a New Orleanian). So VPR is not my only temple. I have other former congregations: KUHF - Houston, WWNO & WWOZ – NOLA, and the great KERA - Dallas Fort Worth. I listen to those stations (online - but still listening, radio style) to feel and remember. I hear accents that sound like “home.” I remember who I was. Sometimes I catch up on news that affects the people I love who are still in those places (or at least I can imagine them there because the geography of the language and the story are just as I remember them).
A public radio station provides a service that is not usually part of its overt mission: it creates community and forms a sacred and ritual space for dialogue, hopefully debate, shared joy and shared sorrows. In doing so, it creates collective identity and imparts building blocks of individual identify: memory, story, experience, emotion. Add the possibility to make a contribution: by submitting citizen journalism, pledging a donation, etc. and you are most of the way to a collaborative community.
Yes. You could make an argument that Fox News provides stories, invokes emotion, creates memories, exploits emotion. NHPR does that too. But I don’t find myself and my family there. At the end of the day, I am like a dog: I need one reliable consistent place that smells the same everyday, where I can circle five times and lay down and feel the world will hold me up until I wake to a new morning. VPR smells like home. Only local radio can do that.
They are obsolete. I haven’t checked local news my entire life. I have vague memories of my grandparents checking it when I was a kid. I get everything on the internet. If there’s some way of watching that content online, and if it is unique and compelling, I’ll eventually find it. Otherwise it will be disrupted. I assume that most of the viewers / listeners of local stations are older generations. Once they die out, most of their audience will have disappeared.
Local stations are how we know that someone is watching.
My market is special. Truth be told, every market is special. My market stretches from about thirty miles east, to about 200 miles west. It’s a weird stretch, though no weirder than our congressional districts.
Local includes the bedroom communities of Fredricksburg, Richmond and Charlottesville, along with the myriad farms between those places and a small city called Wytheville. In between, there are more Main St’s than you can shake a stick at and at least a 1,000 times as many cows. But, there’s only one NPR station, WVTF/Radio IQ. The number of frequencies it broadcast’s on is intimidating, but the one thing that links that whole area together are those call-signs.
When WVTF extended its reach all the way to Wythville I was a bit surprised. It already covered the denser stretch between Virginia Tech (it’s home) and UVA. It had already stretched slightly eastward to cover Louisa County. And now it was going another hour and a half down I-81. I thought it was ridiculous. Then I went there.
Scan across the dial and look for any local news? Music programming aplenty, but aside from WVTF and its alternate callsigns there was only one news station and it was based in Bluefield, WV.
The only real chance people have to hear news on the radio from their home is WVTF’s coverage. And that matters!
I can come back to Charlottesville for the reason it matters. My special home, with more than a few local sites dedicated to covering local news on-line, with two large-ish TV news organizations competing for coverage, with a weekly and a daily newspaper all reaching for as much coverage as they can muster, my special home has trouble getting bodies in every meeting. The near portion of our market still covers 9 municipalities, a handful of colleges and universities and the people that make up those communities. Covering every significant event across all our outlets is an impossibility; covering just every municipal meeting is a stretch.
One of my favorite local reporters, Sean Tubbs of Charlottesville Tomorrow, routinely watches livestreams of meetings he isn’t in while covering a different meeting. Why? Not because he is going to write about both while splitting his attention, he’s too good of a reporter to publish without being able to ask follow-ups and dig deeper. No, he watches because he needs to see it for himself. He’ll even refer his Twitter followers to other publications that sent reporters to cover the meetings he couldn’t get to. This community of reporters sees these referrals as a greater good. Better to have a competitor cover a meeting than to let another meeting go unobserved. It’s remarkable.
Local stations are how we know that someone is watching. I love my community, but I’ve never served on any of its boards or commissions and have only ever attended a handful of its meetings. These guys take themselves away from friends and family week in and week out to make sure that someone is always there for every meeting. To make sure that every person in a community has an opportunity to hear their elected and appointed officials speak. And isn’t that everything?! Isn’t that how we create an informed electorate! Heck, isn’t that how we inform our community about the on-the-ground goings on?! Is there any other way, really, than to put someone there!?
I’m sorry, this is rambling and over long. Keep it up. Thanks for challenging your readers to look around and see what’s here.
Local stations are conduits for demagogues
Local stations need to once again begin serving their local communities. All too often they merely act as a conduit for demagogues.
Local frames the conversation in a community.
Local newspapers provide folks an accurate, honest and curated introduction to their neighbors and to the issues about which their neighbors are passionate. They frame the conversation in a community. Usually, that’s as simple as shifting the conversation to be centered on others instead of on ourselves. That’s something social media can’t do well. I was a small-town (10,000 people) newspaper editor for a few years, and it’s still the job I’ve loved the most. I didn’t live in the town, but it was obvious how passionate I was about the town, and that’s what mattered. We missed stories, but because we were in the town all day every day, we missed far fewer than the paper from the neighboring city, which purported to cover us but never did it well (and was writing, largely, to an audience audience, so skipping the most human stories, the ones that were of interest only to our citizens).
Warren Buffett’s take
Have you read the letter Warren Buffet wrote to the publishers and editors of Berkshire Hathaway’s daily newspapers? It gives a great reason why local papers will always survive. ( and this could translate to local public radio and TV stations.)
Mel note This is the letter I found.
Think of local like local food
As a self-proclaimed food person more than a self-proclaimed media person, I think of local food and local radio in a similar breadbasket. When things develop locally, they taste of the place they’re grown. They’re good for your body and your mind. They don’t necessarily bode as well when traveling long distances, but they make the place where they were created that much better.
Local stations and local reporters both inform and guard the public they serve.
It’s hard hitting, meaningful and rigorous. It’s why local stations need to exist.
Local stations and local reporters both inform and guard the public they serve.
In 2012, a local reporter discovered that all the recycled glass in Rhode Island (hundreds of thousands of tons) was actually being thrown away into the local landfill. That policy quickly changed once the public knew. It’s all due to an underpaid muckraker digging through pages and pages of new legislation passed in the 11th hour.
In 2013, a local reporter in Miami broke the news that a small clinic had been the major supplier of PEDs to Major League Baseball players, including two MVPs. The story sent ten men to court, and is the reason why Alex Rodriguez didn’t play last year.
In 2014, a local reporter discovered the Governor in Oregon had been steering money, contracts and personnel decisions to his wife’s consulting firm. The reporting forced the Governor to resign. He’s currently being investigated by the FBI.
So what’s the importance of local stations?
Content. And the ability for a reporter to report.
Local news helps build awareness and share unique perspectives
I think local radio stations should still exist, but I’d argue that their purpose today is much different than it was decades ago.
Working in PR, I can attest that businesses, associations and schools still rely on local media (including radio stations) for a number of reasons: to build awareness in the market, promote community events, cue the local workforce into hiring plans or other professional opportunities, etc. I’ve also found that local radio stations rely on different interview sources - and consequently share unique perspectives - compared to local print/digital newspapers and TV stations. Local radio programming also seems to allow for longer, in-depth conversations with interviewees, which provides listeners with more information than can be squeezed in a three or four minute TV package.
Today though, local radio stations are in the position to communicate and disseminate local stories/voices more meaningfully than other media. Social media is great for spreading information throughout a geographic market quickly, but local radio can spread “meatier” information. Living in Chicago, programs like WBEZ’s “Curious City” comes to mind – that’s the kind of local reporting and storytelling that you can’t get from newspapers or, these days, local television. Local radio stations also serve as valuable partners to initiatives like StoryCorps, helping ensure that these oral histories are shared in relevant markets.
A local public radio station reminds you of the overall importance of strong public media
Local, to me, is so important because - apart from all of the stories in your backyard worth covering - the presence of a public media outlet near you serves to remind you of the overall importance of strong public media. I think about this in the same way I think something like Howard Dean’s 50 State Strategy was important to the Democratic Party. The idea being that Dean, as DNC chair, put the emphasis on having a Democrat on the ballot in every race on every level locally and regionally. It seems nonsensical that this wouldn’t be the case, but very often, seats went uncontested for the GOP. Even in losses, though, what the 50 State Strategy signaled was that local politics matter, because local results often go a long way in determining things like congressional district maps and - indirectly via the election of a secretary of state - rules and rights for voting. So by signaling that every race mattered and also that this level of party infrastructure mattered, Dean build the groundwork that led to 2006’s congressional wins and to the election of President Obama in 2008.
To bring it back to public media, I don’t think public media survives without a similar 50 State Strategy. The more hyperlocal a station can be, the more people will feel invested in public media and its importance in the overall commons of our society. And the stronger we make the foundation on the local level, the stronger public media will be on the national level, because it’ll function like a major league team pulling talent and ideas from the farm system. So to me, it’s an infrastructure matter. It’s obvious that local stories matter, but what’s less glamorous - the house’s foundation - is even more important.
I’ve always loved this quote from Thoreau in “Walden”
“Hardly a man takes a half-hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, “What’s the news?” as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels. Some give directions to be waked every half-hour, doubtless for no other purpose; and then, to pay for it, they tell what they have dreamed. After a night’s sleep the news is as indispensable as the breakfast. “Pray tell me anything new that has happened to a man anywhere on this globe”–and he reads it over his coffee and rolls, that a man has had his eyes gouged out this morning on the Wachito River; never dreaming the while that he lives in the dark unfathomed mammoth cave of this world, and has but the rudiment of an eye himself.”
Local connects you to the place where you live.
The purpose is, to connect you to the place where you live. To both inform and fuel your own curiosity about the area you inhabit. And, one step beyond, to connect that place to the broader world. [On my show] We explore this region and talk with the various, interesting people who inhabit it. [Our city], as both a city and region, is unique in that it is a very storied city, with it’s own rich history and vibrant communities. It’s global city where the big picture IS important to those who live here. Most cities, areas and towns, though have a similarly individual DNA. There are interesting and important stories everywhere.
I’ve moved around a fair amount - Massachusetts, San Diego, Virginia, D.C. - in the last decade or so. Everywhere I’ve lived, identifying the local public radio station was an important - and easy - first step in getting a sense of place when I rolled into town. And when I lived and worked in public radio in Virginia (Hampton Roads region), it was at a time when the local media - the Virginian-Pilot and the now defunct alt-weekly - were shrinking their staffs or shuttering completely. People felt strongly about the local talk show already, but the reliance on it increased as other outlets for conversations and coverage important to the community diminished. That experience cemented my status as a local radio evangelist.
And yes - as a local producer I know I’m missing stories. Reporter colleagues are as well, not because they’re bad at their jobs (quite the opposite!) but because we don’t know what we don’t know. It can be a challenge to cover discreet communities and uncover new stories. But the major advantage public radio has in discovering them is it’s audience. We engage with listeners, we go into communities, we invite ideas.
So while local may seem trivial to some in this global age, it’s vital. People will always care about what’s happening in their backyard, perhaps most of all, and want a trusted, engaging and - yes even - entertaining resource to bring it to them.
Radio, in particular, is a medium that works even when other services go down.
Yes. Necessary. Always. Because we live in bodies, in places, with weather.
I live in Hoboken, NJ, a city of almost 50,000. Brought to its knees by Hurricane Sandy. Local radio mattered and got through(thanks, batteries and windup radio). Internet, not so much.
Many of the best investigations come from local outlets because they’re close to something
I always think the purpose of a local news outlet it to serve that specific community. Local outlets can give communities what they need and care about, from local elections to the high school homecoming parade. National outlets aren’t going to do that if they serve the biggest audience, but local outlets can focus only on what’s important to a specific community.
You could also point out that many of the best investigations come from local outlets because they’re close to something. National organizations have to bounce from topic to topic as the news changes but local news outlets cover the same community and the same businesses every day.
Local is a filter. Local is a branch
A local station exists to be that friendly voice, that personal interpreter, that casual acquaintance, who filters and personalizes the national and international NPR sound.
They tell you the traffic, they talk to regional and local leaders and they – most importantly – sound like the people you know and trust and surround yourself with.
A local station is your branch of the larger national tree, adding insight to local stories in the national news and being a watchdog where no one else will be otherwise.
Local stations are the most important part of the public radio world.
Local news is part of the connective tissue that makes a city a real city
This is funny, I was just watching the documentary Radio Unnameable last night–about Bill Fass’ show on NYC’s WBAI. It’s on Netflix if you haven’t seen it. I hadn’t heard about it before stumbling on it there.
But that dude’s show was a midnight-to-5AM thing on a little non-commercial station in the middle of the dial. And his freeform all nighters helped galvanize a community there in the early to mid-‘60s. People from all walks of life would call in to just talk, and enormous events were organized basically just on the strength of Fass’ suggestions that, say, we should sweep up the trash on 7th Street that’s piled up because of the garbage strike.
I kept thinking, man, I wish we had something like that. And we could yet, if [local station] doesn’t go completely under.
In order for local stations to justify their existence, they need to support and engage and react to the communities around them. If they’re doing that, then what I’m about to say applies.
Radio is an equalizer–most everyone has access to them. And because the broadcast radius is necessarily limited, you have a pretty decent idea of who it is that you’re talking to. And there is so much potential there for good. To act as a sort of virtual Third Place for communities to gather. To be a forum for the people there. Radio’s greatness lies in its potential to be a living part of its community. As a medium, it’s well-established enough to have this built-in clout which can be used (should be used in my opinion) to amplify the unheard voices in the city.
Locally-based and community focused radio is part of the connective tissue of what makes a city a real city. It’s in there with local television news crews, newspapers, alt-weeklies, bloggers, and all that stuff that gets people to talk to each other. And given that radio is a medium for voice, how appropriate is that?
Local works when it focuses on local issues
Simply put, from my perspective, local media (radio, print, tv, whatever) should serve the local community with locally-specific and locally-relevant stories. Local media can and should be focused on local issues. Stories of national import are NOT the same as stories of local relevance and vice-versa.
I live in Aurora, IL (population around 200,000; 2nd biggest city behind you-know-who in IL) and my wife and I read our local PRINT paper to find out what is happening, news-wise AND events-wise, in the area. Our local newspaper, The Beacon-News (owned by the Chicago Tribune but still uses some actual live, local reporters) may not be error-free but it still has a role to play in between all my email newsletters (ahem), podcasts, my Twitter feed, my feedly.com feeds. It is focused, very specific role, but still relevant to me and my daily, on-the-ground existence, in Aurora, IL.
Local helps you when you move to a new place and need something to stay grounded
I just moved from Brooklyn to San Francisco. The rules are different here. People drive different. Local shops think I’m nuts tying my dog outside. “Bring him in!” And the schools work on a crazy lottery system. There’s a drought, but all the produce is local produce.
The board of supervisors moves in a different way. Everything about politics here is different in little ways. And I’d like to hear about current local events from someone who understands this city.
Local news adds value locally
Mel: If the local entity (and I would no longer call it a “station” because that is a broadcast term which is going to lose meaning as digital gains steam) is adding value locally – creating local programming, holding events that benefit the local community, acting as a convener for the discussion of regional issues –then it should exist. If it is only a pass-through for NPR-created programming, it really doesn’t have a compelling reason to exist, and likely will have a tough time to survive in the future. Think of yourself in a connected car – you can listen to anything from anywhere in the world. Why do you want to listen to your local public media entity – their audio programming, for example? It has to be because they are offering something you can’t get elsewhere – news and information about your local community. And hopefully some great locally-created programs also.
Local reporters help national reporters
How much do national reporters rely on local reporters to lay ground work before they parachute in to report a “big picture” story that’s accessible to people across the country/ world?
Local should exist because there’s a world outside of NYC and the NYC suburbs
I’m a bit sad to think of someone wondering why local radio/ newspapers should exist, so I thought I’d send along this email. I’m from upstate NY (and recently moved back from Boston), so if I ever want news related to this region and not NYC it has to come from local news. Local news has a huge purpose here b/c so many people forget/don’t know/don’t care that the majority of NY is not NYC and NYC suburbs.
That being said our Rochester newspaper, Democrat and Chronicle (D & C for short) is a piece of work (weird conglomerate with USA Today and full of typos). I think the Buffalo news might also have a strange conglomerate structure. We still get the D & C at my house (and I definitely read it), but I like the content on WXXI better. My favorite is the Connections podcast on WXXI.
In addition, I pay attention to the local news across the US to try and keep track of things that the national news might not pick up. I made a public radio twitter group of all the NPR member stations and am always checking that. I also have a ROC twitter feed with all the Rochester news stations/publications.
Finally, I’m in the middle of reading Monocle magazine April issue (strangely one of my favorite ways to get US news… even though it’s a British publication) and there is a huge article in here on local public radio featuring MPR, KUT, and OPB. Seriously this article (called Voices of America) is one of the best explanations of the local public radio landscape I’ve seen in a while.
PS. Demographic/news consumption info info: I live near Rochester, NY. Population 220,000 in the city… not sure about suburbs. Local reporters here are pretty fantastic about covering interesting stories… what doesn’t make it to tv usually makes it to twitter, online or a podcast. I get majority of news online via email newsletter (briefi.ng is my favorite) but also watch local nightly news, national news, PBS Newshour, and follow tons of local news stations/reporters on twitter.
Local is important because it pays attention to many more people, in many different ways.
In the process of building [something in Edmonton], I ended up thinking a lot about Clay Christensen’s idea of “jobs to be done.” I may be mangling his concept, but it seemed to me that one important job to be done is “pay attention to me.” This is a thing that people “hire” their local newspaper to do, in a way. They don’t necessarily pay money to be in it (although advertisers do, of course); it’s more that they like that the newspaper is around so that when something noteworthy happens, it will be noticed. When they are in it, they feel validated.
National media cannot pay attention to a very big percentage of the total audience. Local media can pay attention to many more people, in many different ways.
Once a local media outlet realizes that the job its community has hired it to do is to pay attention, then it may devise more opportunities to pay attention to more people…
A newspaper, printed on dead trees, is a lousy medium for delivering news anymore; but it remains an excellent medium for delivering validation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people tell me how thrilled they were (and how thrilled their moms were) that they were in the paper. “I saw you on the website” still doesn’t have the same cachet.
“I heard you on the radio” or “I saw you on TV” does have that cachet, I think. Maybe because people know that time is limited, just like space in the newspaper is limited, so if they make it on air, they must be a big deal. Could local public radio and TV stations give that feeling to more people than they do now? Could that be part of their reason to continue existing?