People Get Ready

[ make levees, not war ]

WIST is an “entertainment” station

Posted by schroeder915 on November 30, 2006

Oh yeah … I’m back!

I was scanning radio stations on the road trip up to Wisconsin. There was something interesting I heard on a number of music stations — “Bob”. It’s apparently a new corporate format to play more variety. To my ear, however, it’s just a different playlist played in repetition ad nauseum.

Once I hit the Wisconsin border, there it was: Air America Radio.

That’s on top of the Wisconsin Public Radio network — one of the best examples in the country of how radio can serve its community, if not the best of its kind.

Now I’m back to the world where corporate power controls our airwaves to manipulate the way we think — and there are almost no alternatives which offer non-sensational conversation about issues of interest to our communities and our nation.

I don’t know why I don’t just let it go, but I think I reached a breaking point when Entercom decided to kill the Air America Radio format. I’ve talked at length before about Air America. In particular, I was fond of Al Franken’s ability to talk to liberals or conservatives, to even find merit in some of the arguments made by conservatives. And when he criticized, he did it with a bit of humor, something self-righteous, angry talk show hosts seem to have forgotten how to do in their orgy of self-promotion.

So now I listen with dismay at how an entire generation of Americans are being brainwashed by the factless rants of partisan ideologues, and in the process, one of our important public squares has become a toxic wasteland filled with hatred.

Recently, I have reluctantly and nervously entered into that hostile environment to make the case for more civil dialog. It’s harder than it might seem to remain calm with these guys. Inevitably, conversations turn hostile because hosts shout over any caller who disagrees with them. I’m finding it difficult to remember a time when radio hosts were professionals who could maintain a degree of civility even when callers disagreed with them.

I don’t know why I bother. I’ve been thinking I should just give up and buy into satellite radio — leaving to the waste bin of history the corporate AM/FM radio model — but I still believe in the magic of the radio I grew up with, and I’m troubled by the sullying of our democracy in an important public square.

I find it interesting that the Walter Boasso-sponsored radio station (they must have cut him a great deal on ads in his bid to unseat Governor Blanco) which promotes itself as “the” news station of the Gulf South should have aired an interview with a United States Senator, yet not post that interview on its “HOT, HOT, HOT TALK ON THE BIG 870 AM: WWL breaking news and smokin’ interviews” audio archive Web site.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that neither Spud McConnell, nor Senator David Vitter, could adequately answer my criticism on Tuesday, and then cut me off before I could finish my point:

Senator Vitter, I’d like to talk about the offshore oil revenue-sharing bill as a point of departure for a conversation about media bias generally. Bobby Jindal was more interested in playing party politics for the Bush administration than in supporting Louisiana. His OCS revenue-sharing bill was more generous than Mary Landrieu’s version, but he wouldn’t let go of the language in his bill which would have ended the federal ban on coastal drilling in other states.


Here’s the point I want to make about that. WWL never questioned Bobby Jindal on that issue, and it concerns me that WWL hosts are quicker to criticize Democrats than Republicans.


Now, Entercom, which owns WWL, killed Air America Radio to re-run the same content on three of its six stations in New Orleans, and Clear Channel started yet another pro-Republican radio station on WRNO.


I question whether New Orleans residents are being served when the information they get is partisan.


Would you, Senator Vitter, call for the FCC to hold public hearings to ask commercial broadcasters how they’re serving the New Orleans community, and would you support legislation in support of restoring the Fairness Doctrine?

Let’s see, which is more important:

1) WWL’s Deb Albertson talks with Dawn Johnson of the LA Retailers Assn about where people are shopping this season; or,

2) WWL’s Spud McConnell talks with a United States Senator about what he’s doing to help Louisiana recover from the worst disaster in American history.

Apparently, WWL thought shopping was more important. The Vitter interview is missing from the WWL archive.

I was compelled to make a call again yesterday to WIST host Shane Warner. He seemed to be making a desperate attempt in Rush Limbaugh-fashion to stir up a riot of anger in his audience, repeatedly asking why America is so lawsuit happy. Then, he and a caller had a good laugh about the woman who sued when she was burned by coffee.

That’s when I snapped and had to call in. I’ve been turned away often enough by call screeners now that I often use other names, and state an issue that I can use as a point of departure to make my case for less partisan talk radio. Here’s how that conversation went, as best I can recall:

Me: I think it’s important to dispel some disinformation about that lawsuit against McDonald’s by the woman who was burned. She received third-degree burns on six percent of her body in under ten seconds because the coffee was just short of boiling temperature. That particular McDonald’s outlet where she bought coffee had received repeated health department complaints about the temperature of their coffee before the incident occurred. The woman wanted to settle out of court merely for the cost of her medical bills which totalled $20,000. McDonald’s only offered her $800, so she sued in court for $2.7 million — two days worth of McDonald’s coffee sales. Now that seems reasonable doesn’t it?


S.W.: Well I don’t really know the facts in that case.


Me: That’s the problem. You and other right-wing hosts don’t learn the facts before you go into your partisan rants. Ever since the Fairness Doctrine was eliminated by Ronald Reagan, we’ve been subjected to partisan pro-Republican radio hosts who don’t check their facts, and that’s bad for our democracy.


S.W.: You can go listen to liberal [said with contempt] NPR if that’s what you want, which is government-funded.


Me: It’s not government funded. It’s listener-funded.


S.W.: [hostile] It is not! It’s government funded.


Me: Most of the funding for NPR programming comes from listeners.


S.W.:This is a business. We provide programming and our advertisers pay for our programs. We don’t need government paying for programs.


Me: Some of the programs are paid for in part by the government, but most of the funding for stations comes from listeners. So you don’t support Sesame Street?


S.W.: No!


Me: So you don’t support early education.


S.W.: Yeah but I don’t think the government should pay for it.


Me: So who’s going to pay for it? McDonald’s?


S.W.: Yeah, McDonald’s.


Me: So you’d kill Big Bird?


S.W.: Yeah, shoot him with my big gun! [laughs, then cuts me off]

For more about the coffee lawsuit, read this Jon Greenbaum article in Common Dreams, or this Wikipedia entry which has an interesting debate in the comments section. By the way, the Constitution provides for the right of citizens to seek fair compensation for damages. The only alternative to lawsuits is more government regulation, and more government bureaucracy, to administer and enforce those regulations — which is an interesting point. You can’t both eliminate lawsuits and regulation if citizens are to be able to protect themselves from harm, and preserve the right to seek compensation for damages — which raises an interesting question. Who, exactly, benefits from eliminating citizens’ rights to seek compensation for damages? You’ll find the answer when you find the money for the messages promoting tort reform, and against government regulation.

Rather than have a thoughtful conversation about radio, or broadcasting generally, and how it could be less partisan, considering facts rather than biased opinions, Shane Warner chose to fall into his comfortable role attacking a strawman issue, falsely disparaging public broadcasting as wholly government-funded and, therefore, (again falsely) liberal.

I have my own criticisms of NPR (not so for PBS) for being run by over-the-hill people who have been doing the same thing for far too long, and as a result, who are too conservative, and who cater too much to the suburban soccer mom segment. And why is that? Well, precisely because NPR’s operating budget is largely listener-funded:

NPR supports its operations through a combination of membership dues and programming fees from over 800 independent radio stations, sponsorship from private foundations and corporations, and revenue from the sales of transcripts, books, CDs, and merchandise. A very small percentage — between one percent to two percent of NPR’s annual budget — comes from competitive grants sought by NPR from federally funded organizations, such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.


Published reports in Worth Magazine and Consumers Digest cited NPR as a leading U.S. nonprofit charity because of the organization’s program spending efficiency, high level of private support, and outstanding public service.


On average, public radio stations (including NPR Member stations) receive the largest percentage of their revenue (34%) from listener support, 24% from corporate underwriting and foundations, and 13% from CPB allocations.

It should also be noted that the reason for the creation of the government-funded but independently-managed Corporation for Public Broadcasting was to foster educational programs that served the public in a non-partisan manner. I would argue that the CPB successfully fulfills that mission.

It is true that NPR and PBS news programs provide opposing viewpoints, rather than simply present one side of a story — like Rush Limbaugh does — and that it balances those opposing viewpoints — unlike Fox, which stacks Republican spokespersons in greater numbers and quality than Republican critics. For that reason — because NPR and PBS are truly “fair and balanced” — they’re lampooned by right-wing partisans as being “liberal.” I actually think NPR reaches too often for conservative and libertarian viewpoints from the American Enterprise Institute, the CATO Institute, and the Heritage Foundation. I don’t trust their information, because it’s clearly biased. But no one can accuse NPR of not being “fair and balanced.”

For an appreciation of the difference between how the news is spun by NPR, as opposed to, say, Fox News, consider the fact that 80 percent of Fox News viewers incorrectly believed that Iraq had al Qaeda links and WMD before the U.S. invasion in 2003. Only 23 percent of people who use NPR & PBS as their primary news source had those misperceptions. Let me just rephrase that statement: People who get their news from NPR and PBS have the most accurate view of reality!

Maybe if more members of the Republican-led Congress in 2003 were getting their news from NPR and PBS, American soldiers wouldn’t still be getting slaughtered in Iraq, but would instead be hunting down Osama bin Laden.

Here’s an interesting little conversation I just came across on this topic:

In my experience, conservatives are quick to cite as “biased” any information or insight suggesting that the world is a larger and more diverse place than the little cultural boxes they grew up in, especially if presented in a nonjudgemental way. Stories about the lives and problems of migrant farm workers, or families with no medical insurance, or teenagers in Afghanistan … merely touching subjects like these is indicative of “liberal bias”, isn’t it? All the more so if any deeper understanding is actually communicated. If that’s the real crime (and I suspect that it is), then indeed NPR is guiltier of it than most other news outlets.

Those “conservative talk” hosts must really fear the truth to so shelter their arguments from robust criticism. I guess that explains why they can’t carry on a civil discussion with someone like me, and have to take guests off the air when they don’t repeat the right-wing mantras.

I had another occasion during my lunch break yesterday to call WIST host Kaare Johnson who was opening up the phone lines for a “community hour,” giving listeners an opportunity to talk about things that WIST hasn’t covered. He went through the same litany of right-wing hot button issues that Shane Warner talked about, including “Why are Americans so sue happy?” (WIST management must be telling hosts what to talk about, or hosts lack originality).

This time I chose to jump right into a discussion about media bias. I figured if I told the call screener I wanted to talk about “media bias,” it’d be interpreted as liberal bias. That worked:

Me: Congratulations Kaare on getting your own show! [Until recently, Kaare Johnson shouted news briefs on WWL]


K.J.: Thanks.


Me: I think what you’re doing this hour, by giving people in the community an opportunity to say what’s on their mind, is a great idea. I actually think there’s a market for a station that would be entirely operated and programmed by community organizations. I think it would be great if one of the big corporate radio owners gave a station to a group of community organizations.


K.J.: I don’t see what your point is.


Me: Well, like you said, there’s a lot of information being shared by people in their neighborhoods right now, and I think that Lowe’s and Home Depot and contractors would pay to advertise on a station run by neighborhood activists and community organizations.


K.J.: What would that do?


Me: Well, that’s what you’re doing now, isn’t it? Giving people in the community an opportunity to talk about things that haven’t been covered elsewhere?


K.J.: Yeah, but this is a business. You’re talking about something that wouldn’t make any money. Who would pay for it?


Me: Are you saying that what you’re doing in this hour isn’t profitable?


K.J.: Well, no, but we don’t do what we do as a public service. This is a business.


Me: Oh no! That’s where you’re wrong. As an FCC-licensee, you’re first responsibility is to serve the community.


K.J.: You’re taking a literal interpretation of the meaning of public service. What we do is entertainment. You’re taking the FCC literally.


Me: I’m saying that I think that a station run by members of the community, for members of the community, could both serve the public, and find lots of advertisers to pay for the programming.


K.J.: Yeah, but this is a business. Companies have to buy radio stations and make a profit. You don’t think they’re going to just give away a license?


Me: Yes, I do. Entercom and Clear Channel have a combined 13 radio stations. Most of them just play the same music over and over again, and the ones that have a talk format, are partisan pro-Republican. That means people aren’t getting the unbiased good information they need to rebuild their communities.


K.J.: Okay, well, interesting topic. I don’t see how that’s going to work, but thanks for the call.

After the commercial break, Kaare Johnson said that he thought that radio stations were already doing what I talked about. The only difference, he said, was that “we’re the professionals” who decide what the community should hear. He again criticized my “literal” interpretation of the term public service.

I might differ with Kaare Johnson’s definition of the term “professional.”

By the way, WIST hosts should decide what to call what they do. They can’t both be a news and information station, and, as hosts frequently say, an entertainment station.

I’m probably preaching to the choir. The people who should be reading this post probably don’t seek alternatives to “conservative” talk radio and Fox News.

Finally, the corporate simulcasting phenomenon that Entercom started in New Orleans on three stations is apparently plaguing other communities. Tara:

On another note, just learned that our only alternative rock radio station has just been cancelled and the AM sports-talk station is now going to simulcast in FM…apparently it is a trend motivated by the proliferation of satellite radio users…or so goes the spin.


Our local media conglomerate is Citadel Broadcasting.

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