A Short History of Threads in Transitions

As a member of the founding board of directors of NPR, Bill Siemering wrote the original mission and goals for NPR and was then hired to implement them as the first director of programming in 1970. With the staff, he created All Things Considered and later, in 1987 at WHYY-FM, developed Fresh Air with Terry Gross from a local to a national program. Today he is the president of Developing Radio Partners, an organization that strengthens the quality of radio stations and programming in developing countries. In this essay, Siemering reflects upon some of public radio’s history and its path to the future.

Media analyst Jeff Jarvis said that the present change brought by the Internet and digital media is as huge as the Industrial Revolution, like creating the Eighth Continent, a new world.

We feel both excitement at the possibilities and anxiety because of unknowns and rapid change that goes far beyond the change from public radio to public media and beyond how people listen to our work on iPads and smart phones.

Jarvis writes in his book, What Would Google Do?:

[The] world is upside-down, inside-out, counterintuitive, and confusing. Who could have imagined that a free classified service could have had a profound and permanent effect on the entire newspaper industry, that kids with cameras and internet connections could gather larger audiences than cable networks, that loners with keyboards could bring down politicians and companies, and that dropouts could build companies worth billions? They didn’t do it by breaking rules. They operate by new rules of a new age …

AIR asked that I look back at other transitions public radio has made in adopting new technologies and how, along with these transitions, public radio has expanded its vision. Can we find some commonalities?

First, some history. Radio as a medium is rooted in the Midwest populist ideal of bringing information and culture to the people. Even the word “broadcasting” has agrarian origins: It meant, “to scatter seeds,” which remains my favorite metaphor for our work.

In rural Wisconsin where I grew up, radio became a tool for education, especially for farmers in the early decades of the 20th century.

It happened this way. Earle Terry was a physics professor at the University of Wisconsin, a land grant college whose motto was “The boundaries of the campus are the boundaries of the state.” So in 1917, when Terry began experimenting with transmitted music and voice, the University seized the opportunity to create programming that would reach beyond the physics building into the homes of the largely rural population.

First regular broadcasts began in 1920 with programs for farmers, classroom lectures, classical music, and reading books aloud on Chapter a Day still on-air. In 1931, WHA’s Wisconsin School of the Air began broadcasting 10 instructional programs a week for rural schools. While attending a two-room country school outside of Madison, I listened to these broadcasts and learned science, social studies, nature, art, and music from radio. From first grade on, I regarded radio as an imaginative, storytelling place to learn.

Other state universities started radio services as well before commercial radio came on and dominated the spectrum. Educational radio, as it was known, formed an association, National Educational Radio, that distributed programs by tape.

Then, in 1967, Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act, which created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. We would need to re-envision our role and work.

In 1969, I wrote a paper about this transition, “Public Broadcasting – Some Essential Ingredients”:

…The federal legislation, which changed us, like Cinderella’s godmother, from the drab colorless, hard-working poor stepchild called “educational” into the more glamorous and popular “public” medium. The name change will be meaningless unless we live up to the spirit of the new name and seriously consider its implications. … The name change implies a shift from a narrow didactic agent to dynamic changing, adaptive service responsive to a still-to-be-defined public responsibility.

I wrote that we needed to form our philosophy based upon the interplay of the unique characteristics of the medium, the relationship to commercial media and societal needs.

When I was asked to write the original Mission and Goals for NPR, I expanded on these ideas:

The total service should be trustworthy, enhance intellectual development, expand knowledge, deepen aural esthetic enjoyment, increase the pleasure of living in a pluralistic society, and result in a service to listeners that makes them more responsive, informed human beings and intelligent responsible citizens of their communities and the world …

It would not, however, substitute superficial blandness for genuine diversity of regions, values, and cultural and ethnic minorities, which comprise American society; it would speak with many voices and many dialects. The editorial attitude would be that of inquiry, curiosity, concern for the quality of life, critical, problem-solving, and life loving.

These are some of the stones in the foundation upon which NPR and public radio were built. Which of these continue to be relevant today?

In terms of technology first, with new lighter-weight portable tape recorders we were able to get out of the studio and go to the people, use sound to tell help tell the stories. We started with a clean canvas for format and styles of production.

CPB supported the National Center for Audio Experimentation and Earplay at WHA, the University of Wisconsin radio station, to, among other things, capitalize on stereo production. Among other projects, director Karl Schmidt enlisted leading playwrights such as David Mamet, David Bartheleme, Arthur Kopit, and Archibald MacLeish to write radio plays. Edward Albee’s Listening exploited stereo production and was later a stage play. Earplay won a Peabody Award and the Prix Italia, the highest international award for radio drama.

When NPR programming was first distributed, there were not satellites, so stations were connected by dedicated telephone lines in order to capitalize on the immediacy of radio and produce news and public affairs programs. Because of the limited frequency of the telephone lines, we still distributed music and radio plays by tape. We bought radio plays and “soundscapes” from the CBC.

When program distribution moved from telephone lines to satellite, opening up more channels and high-quality sound, the NPR board established the Satellite Program Development Fund (SPDF). As a board member at the time, I advocated that we needed to invest in developing new programs to take advantage of the increased capacity.

Recently, AIR, along with eight leading producers, has taken this idea to a new level with the MQ2 Project, funding inventors who are leading the way with using digital public media.

This brings us to the present, when public media faces its largest, most complex transition yet, involving new ways to receive and regard information and media experiences.

As we saw from our history, there are some consistent themes:

  • From the very beginning, radio was to be a popular medium to reach people with cultural and information programming. In the transition from educational to public broadcasting, we sharpened our focus on audience.
  •  Attention was paid to the unique role of public broadcasting for social change in the sea of media options.
  • With new technologies, we allocated funds and places for experimentation, research, and development and engaged artist and thinkers outside of radio.

(In the process of writing the initial purposes and goals of NPR, I interviewed a number of thought leaders.) Curiously, the vision for public radio has contracted: The window for documentaries on NPR has shrunk, and cultural programming such as radio plays has disappeared. The amount of local programming has also diminished as more national programming is available and is less expensive, losing touch with the local community.

As we move through this transition, then we can consider the need to:

  • Capitalize on the unique strengths of the audio/radio/social media.
  • Find our niche in the vast media landscape.
  • Analyze societal needs and re-envision how to meet them creatively.
  • Invest in creativity and innovation.

Implicit in the original purpose (and now 40 years of practice), public radio aspires to be a “force for good,” which is the same as stated by Google and Twitter. Now we have an opportunity to expand our vision, to discover new ways to connect to and serve the public.

We need to reeducate ourselves to things that matter. While traditionally, news points to problems, things that need fixing, now we need to look at things that work, problems solved. Governments are the last place to look for innovation, and yet that’s often the primary focus of news.

For example, by focusing on the same intractable positions of officials in the Middle East, we believe there is no change; meanwhile organizations such as Just Vision are working with Palestinians and Israelis for nonviolent solutions to the conflict. They’ve produced “Budrus,” an award-winning documentary that is now shown in the U.S.A.

One of the greatest threats to our society is public ignorance. Hendrik Hertzberg points out in the November 15th New Yorker that according to a Bloomberg poll, two-thirds of likely voters believed that under Obama and the Democrats, middle-class taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and billions under the Troubled Asset Relief Program are gone. And they believed “that illegal immigration is skyrocketing and that the health care law will drive the deficit higher. Reality tells a different story.” None of these assumptions are true. Citizens cannot make the correct decisions if they have false information.

We’ve seen how a comment on Facebook about fictitious “death panels” that were no more real than unicorns or dragons, was repeated in the media as if real and ended up affecting public policy — an example of true fiction.

Now the most trusted source for information for many is a fake news program. Now messages of 140 characters have “helped transform the way that news is gathered and distributed, reshaped how public figures from celebrities to political leaders communicate, and played a role in popular protests in Iran, China, and Moldova.” (See The New York Times, “Why Twitter’s C.E.O. Demoted Himself.“)

Who would have thought that This American Life with Planet Money would produce what is widely regarded as the best explanation of the economic meltdown? Not CNBC or Bloomberg or The New York Times, but a public radio program that excels at storytelling, a unique strength of radio.

The Knight Foundation report “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age” defines information health as:

  • Availability of relevant and credible information to all Americans and their communities
  • The capacity of individuals to engage with the information
  • Individual engagement and the public life of the community

From halfway around the world, here’s an example of information health and public media that also illustrates how we are all connected by climate change.

Developing Radio Partners just concluded a yearlong project on climate change — named by the participants, Zachilengedwe Tsogolo Lathu (Our Environment, Our Future) — in rural Zambia and Malawi, with six local radio stations. In addition to environmental reporting training and weekly bulletins on appropriate topics with guidelines for reporters, we gave each station $500.00 for a community activity.

The Community Activity of Radio Mudzi Wathu (Radio in Our Village), in the small trading center of Mchinji, Malawi, is a good example of a grass-roots project.

Joseph Mazizi, a volunteer reporter producer, organized activities in two different locations over two days. Residents from a total of 27 villages learned how to make ceramic stoves that burn far less wood. Firewood that would be burned in three days with existing stoves would last about two weeks with the new stoves.

To provide a sustainable source of firewood, the local forest officer pledged tree seeds, asking only that the villagers build a fence for the tree nursery and create a village woodlot. A traditional leader pledged support and said that he would make sure that every kitchen would have a stove by the end of the month.

Because Zambia has the second highest per capita deforestation rate in the world — and neighboring Malawi has similar rates — finding ways to reduce firewood consumption is of great importance. With 85 percent of the people using wood to heat fires for cooking, we are all affected, as Burkhard Bilger wrote in The New Yorker:

As global temperatures have risen, the smoke from Third World kitchens has been upgraded from a local to a universal threat. The average cooking fire produces about as much carbon dioxide as a car, and a great deal more soot, or black carbon. Cleaning up these emissions may be the fastest, cheapest way to cool the planet.

Some of the goals of Zachilengedwe Tsogolo Lathu were to find solutions, engaging public officials and the community to bring change. This is an excellent example of doing just that. An African solution for an African problem.

Before our project, residents did not know the causes of climate change or how to mitigate the effects of it. Now they do.

I call this public media.

As producers, our challenge, as Martha Zulu at Breeze-FM said, is to “learn how to present environmental issues so it isn’t heavy in the ear.” (Of course, the same applies to any topic.)

While the new media landscape can be a bit disorienting, we need to move forward with courage and conviction. Radio/audio is, at its best, storytelling and is unique in bringing information to people, in discussion seeking solutions, holding public officials accountable, changing harmful behavior. The one quality I’ve found in each successful station I’ve visited in developing countries is a culture of candor, of continually trying to improve. They ask, “How can we make this better?”

Now we are all working to make public radio/media better, in order to be a force for good.