Is public radio the cure for local news?

The stations are thriving with their present formulas, and there are national nudges and grants to beef up local reporting. But the resistance to change is still significant.

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The stations are thriving with their present formulas, and there are national nudges and grants to beef up local reporting. But the resistance to change is still significant.

As mainstream local media decline and upstarts (like Crosscut) contend with a cluttered landscape, one obvious solution to more quality local news coverage is the National Public Radio station. Such stations have large, growing, loyal listenerships, with national penetration of about 10 percent of the radio audience (higher in NPR-natural towns such as Seattle), and many stations have newsrooms with a dozen or so local reporters. Why not more?

It won't be easy, public broadcast being highly resistant to change and not in any immediate financial need to do so. But there are plenty of nudges coming from funders and NPR headquarters. There are several initiatives to beef up local reporting in select cities, including an Argo Project that enables several cities to build topic specialities that feed into the national network. (The one in Seattle-Tacoma, anchored by KPLU, specializes in global health issues.)

Looking at the trends, James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times, warns that however logical it would be for NPR stations to fill more of the local void, it is still unlikely. He notes "the insular and genteel public radio world," and also the track record in the past where most of these stations do little enterprise local reporting. Some stations, like KUOW, soak up a lot of their talent in hosting call-in and interview shows. Many spend most of their efforts producing stories with an uplifting, people-like-us-listeners story-line. Nor have these stations embraced the Web, and normally their websites are more devoted to getting new members and touting the day's lineup of radio shows.

Another inhibiting factor is the license holder. In this market, the University of Washington holds the KUOW license and Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma owns KPLU. These institutions have legislators and alumni and their reputations to worry about, and don't know much about broadcast.

Rainey contrasts this with a Pasadena station, KPCC, which partially split from a community college and put itself in the hands of an independent, media-savvy new board, tripling its audience over 10 years. Wayne Roth,the general manager of KUOW, explains that KPCC is still licensed to Pasadena Community College; Southern California Public Radio operates the station under an agreement with the license holder, "not unlike the KUOW/Puget Sound Public Radio agreement with the U.W." 

In Puget Sound there is another drawback: fragmentation. Most markets have a dominant public station with both TV and radio, while here the PBS station, KCTS, is separate. Meanwhile, KUOW and KPLU compete for audiences and donors in the radio market. There have been talks about pulling together, led by KCTS, which is now doing some collaboration with KPLU, but they haven't gotten very far. Public broadcast greatly values its independence (from advertisers or other external pressure), which makes them difficult to get to the marriage altar.


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