Community radio: the local voice

The great newsman Edward R. Murrow railed against his broadcast medium when he said “If radio news is to be regarded as a commodity, only acceptable when saleable, then … I say it isn't news.” Years later Newton Minow famously referred to commercial broadcasting as a “vast wasteland” - all serving commercial interests.

The signing of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 by President Lyndon Johnson set aside space for non-commercial broadcasting. The Congress espoused that it is in the public’s interest to address the needs of the unserved and underserved and that all citizens have access to public telecommunications. 

Why this attention in public interest programming? The airwaves belong to the public, not to a specific network, your local station or a political party. The programming appeals to the greater societal good without regard to how saleable it is.

Congress believed it was worth setting aside a portion of the broadcast spectrum to benefit the needs and the interests of the communities they serve and since there is no profit to be made it has to be supported somehow. 

Recently, the debate about continued federal funding for public broadcasting has brought information that distorts what happens in our business. Funding from the federal government (reportedly less than one three-thousandths of one percent of the federal budget) is given to local, non-commercial public broadcasters to operate in the best interest of their communities.

If these communities are not happy with how they are being served, they have the right to question the programming selected by their neighbor professionals and volunteers who run the hundreds of public stations in this country.

Part of WEKU’s coverage area lies in rural Kentucky where we serve many small Appalachian communities as their only source of state news. News that affects their everyday lives: how the state will fund Medicaid, whether or not pseudoephedrine is legally attainable, or whether to allow expanded gaming are answered because of the work we do every day.

We also discuss important local topics – from a young woman in Hazard talking about overcoming child abuse from multiple members of her family to a Vietnam War veteran who finally found a place that he could share openly his PTSD-symptoms without being ridiculed.

We also deepen our listeners understanding of the world by bringing them news and information from a variety of sources including the BBC, CBC and other national programming providers. Why? It is the right thing to do.

Our commercial counterparts don’t examine these issues in detail as they are on public broadcasting. That’s why there is still government funding of non-commercial broadcasting which in many communities is desperately needed in order to survive.

As a provider of news and information programming, we work to remain neutral on whether federal funding should or will continue for public broadcasting. It seems that a service that consistently ranks as the second best use of federal funds behind the military should be worthy of continuing to exist.

We do know what would likely happen to our service if funding is ended. Instead of hurting the national networks, which many critics have railed against publicly, public broadcasting would have to limit and in some cases, eliminate the work we do – serve our community’s best interest.

My colleague, Marcie Crim of WMMT Whitesburg, KY in a recent op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader said it best:

“Community radio is produced by and for our communities and we can't do it without the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. NPR may lose only 2 percent of its budget if CPB is defunded. However, whole communities will lose a vitally important local voice.”

Roger Duvall is the station manager and director of WEKU in Richmond, KY.