Keeping the public out of public radio

Like many other transplants to the Asheville area, I am very happy to have a public-radio station bringing classical music and NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered to my new home. Public broadcasting has been an important part of my life, both personally and professionally, for four decades, and every place I’ve ever lived, big or small, has had really good stations—except for WCQS in Asheville.

WCQS appears to be run by a small clique who have worked there for ages and who seem determined to keep outsiders—including independent producers—out.

In more than two years of listening to the station, I’ve never heard a broadcast created by a local independent producer, except for about six of my own Compact Discoveries programs scheduled as specials. Produced in Weaverville, my classical-music series is broadcast weekly by more than 50 other public-radio stations throughout the United States, plus Alicante, Spain; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Port-au-Prince, Haiti. For two years in a row, it has been the most-licensed radio series distributed by the Public Radio Exchange. It would be nice if it were broadcast regularly by its hometown NPR classical-music station, wouldn’t it?  Instead, only low-power community radio station WPVM-FM broadcasts it weekly in Asheville (1 p.m. on Sundays).

But this is not just about Compact Discoveries. WCQS denies its listeners access to some of the best programs broadcast by public-radio stations in other communities: Performance Today, Day to Day, Talk of the Nation and The Diane Rehm Show, to name a few.

WCQS could be a much better station if it made a sincere effort to open itself up, to listen to its audience, and to act in the interest of the public it’s supposed to serve.

One way of doing this would be to create a daily, half-hour, Mountain Matters magazine program that would reflect the area’s life and people in the same way that All Things Considered reflects the world’s politics, art, science and culture. This could be an expensive proposition, but it doesn’t have to be. Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Ore., has done this for many years using one paid news director and a staff of community volunteers. It gives broadcast students at the local university practical, in-the-field experience—something WCQS could be doing here.

Another possibility is creating a truly independent community advisory board. Until last year, WCQS hadn’t had a functioning CAB for 13 years—in violation of federal law and Corporation for Public Broadcasting rules. Nevertheless, during this period WCQS has applied for and accepted CPB community-service grants, certifying that it was in compliance with all federal laws and CPB rules.

What is a community advisory board, and why is it so important that it’s required by federal law?

The answer gets to the heart of public broadcasting: It should serve the public and involve the public in its major programming decisions. CABs were established to provide a vehicle for public reaction to, criticisms of, and suggestions for programming and other matters of interest to the community.

CABs are advisory. They don’t run the stations; they’re not the board of trustees. They are there to provide consistent public feedback on how the station is doing. That’s why they must be independent of the station’s management and board. They report to the governing board, not to station management.

I pointed this out to the chairperson of the WCQS board of trustees in July 2006. After that, as a result of my persistence and assistance, WCQS very slowly re-established a CAB, which finally met last May 9. But what they created is not at all independent, by any meaningful definition, as required by CPB rules.

Station management drafted the new CAB’s bylaws—which had to be approved by the board of trustees as well as the CAB. The trustees must also approve CAB members. How can the advisory board be independent under these conditions? On the contrary, the trustees can make sure the CAB has no one on it whom they don’t want there. By preventing station critics from joining, they can create a mechanism for rubber-stamping station policies and programs. This is what they’ve done.

The management-produced bylaws call for a minimum of two meetings a year, as if to say, “If we must have a CAB, let’s be bothered with them as rarely as we can get away with under CPB guidelines.” The May 9 meeting was run by a board of trustees member and dominated by the station’s management. The CAB members were given the opportunity to introduce themselves to one another, and little more.

A committee of the trustees selected the first 15 people to serve on the advisory board. An independent CAB could have chosen its own members, starting by soliciting interested people via the station’s airwaves, Web site, publications and news releases. It turned out that four members of the former CAB were willing to serve on the new one; why not have them select the other new members, based on CPB requirements, if station management really wanted to involve the public in public radio. But WCQS seems more interested in listeners’ financial support than in their programming input.

WCQS management and board of trustees leadership need to understand that this is not their station: It belongs to all of us who live within the coverage area. It’s time to put the public back in public radio in Western North Carolina!

[Fred Flaxman’s extensive career in public radio and public television has included stints with stations in Washington, D.C.; Chicago, Oregon, Florida and Arizona. His Compact Discoveries programs may be heard on demand at www.prx.org. He may be reached at fred@compactdiscoveries.com.]

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3 thoughts on “Keeping the public out of public radio

  1. Darlene

    I hope you charged this individual for advertising his product. That was all this article was about was him and his and if they don’t use his Compact Discoveries then they are not a good station. I do not think one person constitutes “the public”. I cannot agree with the process of “one blowing his own horn” at the expense of others because they chose not to use his product. You had such an outstanding page 3 and I suspect you charged them for advertising. How disappointing then to read this commentary which was truely advertising and I suspect you printed that free of charge. It doesn’t mean I think you are a bad publication just question the standards of advertising.

  2. travelah

    Darlene, that is a good point. His letter strikes me as self serving and a promo piece. I think he was trying to build support for his product.

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