WFCR at Crossroads
Where's the Public in Public Radio?
By Edward Shanahan
Let’s talk accountability one more time, specifically as it relates to the intensifying debate over programming changes at public radio station WFCR in Amherst.
As was the case in the recent controversy that blew through the Hampshire County United Way, the virtual shut down of the Academy of Music, or the end for the Hampshire Community Action Commission, the ultimate question always remains who’s in charge? And what role is there for the public, which f
financially supports and presumably benefits from these organizations?
Last fall, I spent several weeks reporting and writing a story ( see WFCR Public Radio in the downstreet.net archives) about WFCR’s finances, programming decisions and its defense and critics.
In the process, I concluded that while the station’s management recognized that there was some vague unhappiness with its schedule, heavily weighted to classical music and limited local news and information programs, it preferred to stick to its existing line-up.
And, station manager Martin Miller specifically said there were no plans to hold a series of community forums to discuss programming issues as was suggested by one critic.
Miller seemed to be saying that those at the station and the advisory groups within the Five Colleges and UMass, which holds the license, knew best what its listeners wanted. Miller’s comments and those of other WFCR insiders were tinged with a certain smugness, self-satisfaction, even elitism, if such attitudes could be fairly attributed to public radio, which ultimately relies largely on its listeners for operating funds.
The mangers suggested there might be some changes in the works, but we would have to wait and see what was going to happen in the months ahead.
And then earlier this year, the station, without warning, announced it was dumping its long-time Valley Folk program, cutting by half the on-air slot for the Spanish-language Tertulia program, and making some other minor fixes to the schedule, none of which affected the huge block of classical music broadcasting time.
There was a flurry of criticism of the station, and a minor concession was made, but the protest led by the Coalition to Democratize WFCR in the beginning never seemed to develop into a far-ranging public debate over how decisions are made at the station and who gets to exercise the greatest influence on these decisions.
But, alas, the station management may not be home free, after all, as a citizens group has now organized a formal effort to put pressure on the station to “open up” its decision-making. The group has prepared a resolution to be introduced at the Amherst Town Meeting this spring to put muscle behind WFCR’s critics.
And the resolution is very specific in what it seeks to accomplish – introducing greater accountability, openness and public involvement in the public radio station, not a bad idea, in my view. Just being asked by the station to send in money four or five times a year is not sufficient public involvement.
What follows is the text of the breakthrough resolution:
RESOLUTION FOR PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY FOR WFCR
WHEREAS, WFCR 88.5 FM is a public radio station broadcasting from and licensed to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
WHEREAS, in January 2007 WFCR
WHEREAS, WFCR replaced cut programs with additional classical music and jazz.
WHEREAS, WFCR’s programming changes have reduced the diversity of genres and cultural representation and were made without inviting review or input by the WFCR listening area.
WHEREAS, WFCR has acted inconsistent with its mission “… to provide the area with diverse news, information, music and cultural programs ...”
WHEREAS, WFCR receives a portion of its funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).
WHEREAS, all privately-owned CPB-funded public radio stations and many state-owned stations have representative Community Advisory Boards which hold meetings open to the public. The community is not well-represented by WFCR’s current Advisory Committee, and this board does not advise on programming.
NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that Amherst Representative Town Meeting hereby implores the University of Massachusetts to actively
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that we call upon the Select Board to urge the Town Manager to present Amherst Town Meeting’s position to the University of Massachusetts.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that a copy of this resolution be sent to Governor Deval Patrick, University of Massachusetts President Jack M. Wilson, Federal Communications Commission Chair Kevin J. Martin, Corporation for Public Broadcasting Chair Cheryl Halpern, U.S. Senators Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, U.S. Representative John Olver, Massachusetts State Senator Stanley Rosenberg, Massachusetts State Representative Ellen Story, and WFCR General manager Martin Miller.
U P D A T E :
Town Meetings in Amherst, Pelham and Shutesbury have all voted in favor of a resolution urging the University of Massachusetts to create a Community Advisory Committee to participate in the decision making processes at Public Radio station WFCR. See background below,
as well as an article in the downstreet.net archives.
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