The U.S. public broadcasting system has strong national “brands” in PBS and NPR, but it remains anchored by the local stations. The stations are more than technical facilities for local production and transmission; they represent the authentic link between the national system and the tax-paying public. Stations are naturally mindful of the grassroots needs of their communities; In turn, local residents know whom to hold responsible for their broadcast service. While some consider this notion quaint in the modern age, local accountability remains the very basis for U.S. broadcast regulation.
Your privilege to use the public’s airwaves is regulated by the U.S. government through the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC holds your station’s ownership accountable through the licensing process.
(The FCC largely focuses on administrative and technical considerations, but it weighs in occasionally on programming matters — such as punishing indecency, enforcing equal time provisions for candidates and generally assuring that broadcasters serve “public interest, convenience and necessity.” Bona fide news coverage holds a privileged place in this schema. When responsibly delivered, actual news is immune from FCC rule making — even rules on obscenity and equal time.)
Licensees of non-commercial radio stations come in many forms. Usually, the authority rests with the organization’s official board of trustees or directors.
News Directors don’t normally get involved in FCC licensing matters but they might provide the licensee considerable justification for having or keeping the license.
There are cases where licensees have exercised inappropriate influence over their station news departments. News Directors are always advised to have a clearly articulated policy in place that insulates editorial decisions from licensee interference.
A station’s identity is inextricably linked to the community it serves. When this community is viewed through a business lens, it’s referred to as a market. Characteristics of a market can include everything from population and demographics, to its geography, history and political life.
The characteristics of the market play into the station’s public service strategy. Rural markets offer fewer listeners and less public support, so a station may seek for the widest possible geographical reach. Urban markets, on the other hand, offer more listeners but also greater competition, so the station may seek a narrow demographic appeal.
When it comes to public radio news, News Directors are advised to know your communities, know your listeners, but don’t approach your service as a consumer commodity. Rather, know that you are serving the market when you are serving its people as citizens in a democracy who need reliable information to make good decisions.
There has been an inexorable trend in public radio toward news as a preferred format. Audience ratings show more listening (in the aggregate) to news than to classical, or triple-A, or jazz or any eclectic format.
The success of news on public radio is largely due to the audience-power of NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Even now, after years of format conversions, more stations are building upon the NPR programs, choosing news (and its informational cousin: talk) for the bulk of their daily schedules.
As the commitment to NPR News has grown, so has the commitment to local news. While costly, local stations getting heavily into news face an inescapable conclusion: that choosing a news format is tantamount to choosing the journalistic calling. If they are to serve the information needs of their public, they cannot afford to neglect the needs that are local. That is why most serious news stations staff a local news department.
[A significant number of stations still switch from news to music during the mid-day or overnight. But even these “mixed-format” stations develop local news competencies when they predominantly brand themselves as news.]