Current Online

Local voices distinguish public radioís echoes of 9/11

Originally published in Current, Aug. 19, 2002
By Mike Janssen

Public radio tests an unprecedented experiment next month, with stations choosing among 30 hours of programming pegged to the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Billed as "Understanding America After 9/11," the programs include more than 50 documentaries, call-in shows, short features and commentaries solicited from stations, networks and independent producers throughout public radio. Minnesota Public Radio is coordinating editing, marketing and distribution for the first product of an ongoing effort called the Public Radio Collaboration.

Stations are encouraged to air as much or as little of the programming as they want Sept. 3-10. NPR will commemorate the date itself with "Voices of Reflection," a full day of special programming with live coverage of memorial tributes.

At first, expectations of an inevitable Sept. 11 media barrage dampened public radioís enthusiasm for the Collaboration, says Bill Buzenberg, MPRís v.p. of news and the projectís creator. But he says that feeling has faded.

"Even those that early on were slow to move realize that this is a pretty big train leaving the station, and they might as well get on board," he says. So far, more than 100 stations, including those in the 20 biggest markets, plan to air some of the programs.

Buzenberg and his small team designed the Collaboration to raise public radioís profile above the media glut. It intends to draw attention to the systemís maturity and power while showing America how it has changed. And it tests a new way of pooling public radioís talent and spreading it around.

"Weíre trying to do it much more thoughtfully," Buzenberg says. "This isnít just a look back."

Grounded in local voices

The programs look ahead by studying how politics, spirituality and social relations have changed since Sept. 11. Itís a view from the ground up: Editorial guidelines asked for stories "through the eyes of participants and individuals, rather than through spectators such as analysts and organizational spokespeople."

The Collaboration helps people in disparate communities share their stories, says editorial director Michael Skoler. "Thatís something thatís disappearing in the media world in the U.S.," he says.

"Even in public radio at a network level you tend to get a group of editors who are thinking about the country as a whole and coming up with story ideas for the country as a whole," he continues. "Thereís some power in that, but thereís also some extraordinary power in people who are rooted in their communities."

The programs range in length from a minute to two hours and present a wealth of voices from people of divergent ages, races and faiths. Children and teenagers discuss the Pledge of Allegiance in "Pledge," a montage from KVMR in Nevada City, Calif., the state where a judge ruled the oath unconstitutional.

Saying the pledge "just makes everybody feel better and stuff," one boy says. But a girl comments: "as Iíve studied history more and more, Iíve found it difficult to have that kind of pride."

Another unique story, "Navajo Reflections on 9/11," includes interviews in which Native Americans say the terrorist attacks point to a world without equilibrium. "I would say Mother Nature is mad because it needs forgiveness," a Navajo woman says. "It needs something, but we donít know what to give it."

Stations of all sizes are feeding material to the Collaboration, but programs from major-market heavyweights are getting the most carriage. Six one-hour documentaries came from the projectís "anchor" stations: MPR; WBUR, Boston; WNYC, New York; KQED, San Francisco; and WAMU in Washington, D.C., working with Soundprint. Topics include patriotism, security and air travel, and the future of the U.S. military.

Other popular choices include an NPR documentary on foreign policy and national security, a Soundprint report on the crash at the Pentagon, and Lost and Found Soundís Sonic Memorial Project.

Over the weekend, many stations will air a global call-in show produced by WAMU and the BBC, and a "town hall" discussion produced by MPR, WBUR, KPCC in Pasadena and the BBC. MPR commissioned a special poll from the Pew Research Center to be discussed at the town hall.

MPR also started a website, understandingamerica.org, with pages for each program, and worked with the Public Radio Satellite System to list all the shows, with audio samples online at prss.org.

The network produced 20 radio promos, placed a color full-page ad in the Aug. 26 Newsweek, and is paying KERA in Dallas $7,000 to produce a spot for public TV.

Power from the people

For Buzenberg, months of meetings, edits and conference calls are just now coming to fruition. "Itís been fascinating on the one hand, and a real headache on the other," he says.

The Collaboration idea derived from Buzenbergís own coverage plan at MPR. Every three months the network tackles a complicated issue like privacy or Native American civil rights and blitzes its air with segments and specials morning, midday and evening. A special town hall meeting and website are also parts of the package.

Raising MPRís regional strategy to a national level involved modest CPB backing for seminars and promotion, as well as coordination among the anchor stations to avoid covering the same topics in their documentaries. Skoler edited about a fifth of the pieces and advised many more producers and reporters on their pieces.

Buzenberg admits to disappointments, such as limited contributions from independent producers. Indies learned earlier this year that the Collaboration did not have money to pay them. That meant they either had to donate work or bank on negotiating individual carriage arrangements with stations. Many were unable to chip in.

"Itís just one more example of people not really understanding what it means to be an independent producer, and how difficult it is," says Steve Rowland, president of the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR). "Everybody whoís an independent wants to do high-quality work. That requires a budget."

Buzenberg had hoped that stations would contract with independents, but few did. The Collaboration is expected to return with a different theme next year, and Buzenberg hopes to avoid the problem. He suggests AIR could raise money from foundations and divide it among contributing producers.

One station that did contract with an indie was KQED, who commissioned Sandy Tolan to report and produce a one-hour documentary titled "A Need to Belong: Citizenship in a Post-9/11 America." The station granted $110,000 from its program venture fund for the project, which General Manager Jo Anne Wallace says was "a major effort. We do not ordinarily do documentary programs."

A measured commitment

As the Collaborationís programs feed this week, stations are mulling the menu and planning their Sept. 11 coverage, trying to determine at what point special coverage becomes overkill. Israel Smith, the projectís logistics coordinator, has found himself discouraging some stations from taking too muchó"which, for a marketer, is a little bizarre," he says.

Stations are drawing up varied schedules with the outpouring of material. Wallaceís station will air the call-in, the town hall and the six anchor documentaries, as will KWMU in St. Louis. Though KQED will also air shorter segments, KWMU Program Director Mike Schrand says the docs are enough. "Thereís going to be plenty going on, but we didnít want to go completely business as usual," he says.

Meanwhile, "Days of Infamy," an American RadioWorks documentary comparing Americaís response to Pearl Harbor and to Sept. 11, is the only Collaboration program airing on WQCS in Fort Pierce, Fla. Station Manager Jim Holmes thought his audience, which skews older, would appreciate the theme, but other than that he plans to air only NPRís coverage on Sept. 11 along with classical music from Classical 24.

"I donít see it as being a Ďmedia event,í and thatís what we donít want it to be. . . . I see it as a day of reflection," Holmes says.

 
 
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Earlier news: Sonic memorials began airing in June.
Outside link: The collaboration's webpage on Minnesota Public Radio's site.


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