Radio that Serves the Public Interest

In his latest commentary for Recoil Magazine, MediaMouse.org contributor Jeff Smith talks about the campaign to get local radio on Democracy Now! and chronicles his–and others–experiences pursuing this with local community radio station WYCE.

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In 1934, when the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) was created, broadcast licenses were granted to commercial and non-commercial entities. The FCC stated simply that all broadcast licenses must be used in “the public interest, convenience and necessity.”

Recently, a local radio station owned by Goodrich Radio decided to change its format from Disney Radio to what the station is now calling Public Reality Radio. Station owner Bob Goodrich has understood for some time now that there is a void in radio programming in West Michigan, particularly if one is looking for progressive ideas or independent journalism.

WPRR (AM 1680) made the switch to independent information and news programming in September and is carrying a variety of programs. One program that WPRR is running that has me very excited in the award winning show Democracy Now!, with Amy Goodman. Democracy Now! is airing Monday through Friday from 5PM – 6PM on 1680 AM. I say excited for two reasons. First, Democracy Now is an excellent news program that actually believes that the function of journalism is to hold power accountable. Secondly, I’m pretty stoked because I have been involved with an effort to get Democracy Now! on radio in Grand Rapids for years, so this is a big victory.

Starting in May of 2003 there was an effort amongst some of the staff (I was one of them) at the Community Media Center (CMC) to air Democracy Now! on WYCE. WYCE is owned and operated by the CMC and several of us thought that Democracy Now would be a perfect fit for an organization that promotes citizen produced media and independent media. Amy Goodman was the keynote speaker at a regional community media conference in Grand Rapids in May of 2003, so it made sense to make an initial appeal for the program with her visit. About 350 people attended her talk and afterwards we circulated a petition to have Democracy Now on WYCE. Over 200 of those in attendance signed the petition at the conference and another 200 who were at an immigrant rights march that same weekend also added their names to the list. Unfortunately, our efforts were ignored.

In January of 2007, I was at a national Media Reform conference in St. Louis, MO and was again inspired by presentations and conversation between 3,000 people, all of which were committed to democratizing the airwaves. Upon return, http://www.mediamouse.org began an online petition campaign to get Democracy Now! on local radio (WYCE) and TV (WGVU). We collected over 500 signatures, this time with pledges from people to donate several thousand dollars in pledges to either station if they were to air Democracy Now!

Last spring we learned that the host of Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman, was going to be on tour with her third book, so we organized an opportunity for her to speak in Grand Rapids. In early May, we were able to fill Plymouth Congregational Church with people wanting to hear what Amy Goodman had to say. We collected more signatures at that event and encouraged people to come to a CMC board meeting with us to present our petition to air this very popular independent news program.

A group of Democracy Now! supporters delivered the petitions and gave information packets to members of the CMC board. The petitions asked for Democracy! Now to begin airing on WYCE in November, which would give the radio station an opportunity to make the change just after their fall fund drive. Unfortunately, the desire to have this award winning show on a local community radio station was not well received. We were asked why we did not go to WGVU to air this show. If they had read the petitions we submitted, it clearly stated that we were requesting that Democracy Now air on both WGVU TV and WYCE radio.

In the months that followed, several of the Democracy Now! supporters went to more CMC board meetings and got others to send e-mails. In late summer, we were informed that the radio station was “reviewing its purpose statements” in order to re-evaluate its mission, so no programming changes could take place until they worked that out. In October, we sent the new CMC board members a letter informing them of our efforts and asking them to consider airing Democracy Now!. There has been no response to our last letter and it has become increasingly apparent that the CMC is unwilling to consider any programming suggestions from the public.

What makes the response from the CMC/WYCE so frustrating is that it is the same kind of response that I have heard from corporate media over the years when we have challenged them on their programming or news bias.

In 2005, the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID) conducted a TV license renewal campaign to both educate the public about broadcaster obligations to the public and as a way to hold them accountable. We conducted about 60 public presentations and got over 1,000 people to sign letters to send to the FCC demanding better local news coverage around issues like elections, war, economics, racism and environmental issues. We even held a public hearing where 130 people publicly demanded these changes. However, despite all of that effort, the local TV stations refused to take seriously any public criticism.

It is unfortunate that the CMC/WYCE has displayed the same kind of indifference to public input and it says to me that they are not serving the public interest. I know that there are WYCE listeners who would disagree with my analysis here based on a desire to maintain an “all music format.” Well, the station already has some information programming like Catalyst Radio and Acoustic Cafe, so why not air an award winning program that will occupy 5 hours a week out of a total of 168 hours that WYCE broadcasts each week.

Fortunately, WPRR 1680 AM has been listening to the public interest and decided to air programming that is sorely lacking in this community. I would encourage folks to tune in to this new station, particularly to Democracy Now! weekdays at 8am and 5pm. I would also encourage people to contact them to show your support and to give them any ideas on other possible programming that serves the public interest.

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org