Public radio remains a pillar of high-quality media

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My heroes have radio voices. My heroes have a passion for vocalizing information in a way that at once soothes and enlightens. This intense fervor makes a “radio” voice as inspiring as it can be, and I see that energy as a vital part of an on-air personality. When I tune into the airwaves, I know from experience that captivating voices exist only at the bottom of the FM radio dial.

There, devoted public radio engages its audience with excellent content, all of which comes from the passion in those voices. Their institution remains worthwhile because listeners share a special bond with their public radio station. They know the station will never betray their trust.

In trying to maintain that trust public broadcasting travels a road littered with obstacles. Quality media is not always easy. The former chief of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlinson, has come under fire in recent weeks for attempting to over-regulate his company. He threatened to withhold funding from certain organizations if they did not “balance” their programming, set up committees to observe NPR and public television programs, and instituted political tests for new recruits. Tomlinson aimed eventually to bring more conservative viewpoints to the public broadcasting table in a society where the public opinion views the media as a left-leaning means of communication.

While it’s debatable whether Tomlinson’s means to this end were ethical, his motivations evince a greater commitment to quality media. The end he pursued finds its cause in a love of excellence in public broadcasting. Yes, Tomlinson should stand trial for his means, but the ends he sought do not deserve abuse. In fact, I praise Tomlinson for bringing to light these issues and trying to make public broadcasting exemplary. He wanted to give the public broadcasting audience more reason to trust and enjoy their local stations.

As a part of this public broadcasting, NPR, its member stations, and other public radio institutions have to prove that they can remain a part of legitimate media. They have to sell themselves to their listeners directly, and we all have heard or seen those intense money drives during which public media validates its own existence though the donations of its listeners. For public radio, the drives make it far more accountable and responsible for its content than normal radio elsewhere on the dial. A distinct reciprocity emerges from this relationship as listeners and their radio exchange funds for superb programming.

Even if one does not think that media should have to plead for funding from its own audience, these fundraisers work extremely well in paying for an otherwise free service. Just recently, KUHF, the public radio station in my hometown of Houston, exceeded its campaign drive goal by tens of thousands of dollars, and that speaks a lot of good about how much it has affected its listening audience as a whole. It has made a lasting mark on the Houston area by constantly broadcasting content that listeners can trust.

To distinguish a public radio listener, one only has to identify that trust and loyalty. It separates loyal listeners from those who flip through radio stations solely to find their favorite song. My radio dial remains always below the 92 mark that separates public from commercial radio. I trust NPR’s Morning Edition to present the news and thoughtful commentary in stories that never fail to pique my interest. Every week, I listen to Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, a news quiz show, because I know its panelists will always have witty yet informative takes on the week’s news. I am never disappointed.

The run-of-the-mill DJ simply plays music and talks every so often about this or that as commercials fade in and out of his show. To me, that superficial connection with listeners cannot work. Sure, such channels work in their own niches, but I see more friends channel-surfing the radio above that 92 mark. At times, I find those stations provide thoughtless drivel without any purpose other than weak entertainment.

One can easily ignore the mediocre personalities, but the local public radio invites listeners to enjoy its radio personalities intimately. It creates an environment hostile to distractions that makes listeners want to focus on their radios. Every time a program begins, one can easily imagine sitting down with the show’s host and enjoying a cup of coffee while beginning an informative dialogue. That is the power of an experience that only public broadcasting can give.

I, like many others, know that NPR and other public radio stations will consistently present fascinating content, and my appreciation works both ways. The station appreciates its listeners for their contributions, and the listeners appreciate the station for its programming. That, in essence, is public radio. Created from and sustained by passion, the service of outstanding radio voices will continue to fill its role for people like me that cannot get enough of it.