Driving the discourse in Detroit

As a region's media landscape shifts, a public radio program fills a void

During the somewhat less frantic months of the presidential campaign season—between the primaries and the nominating conventions—the Swing States Project will feature occasional profiles of people we’re calling, for lack of a better phrase, discourse leaders. These are people in the press—TV or radio hosts, newspaper columnists, people with important online presences—in battleground states who in one way or another help to lead substantive and civil political conversation.

Below, Anna Clark, the Swing State Project’s Michigan correspondent, takes a look at The Craig Fahle Show, which airs on WDET in Detroit.

MICHIGAN — Perhaps you have heard of the Craig Fahle Party, which has made an unexpected late-breaking entrance into the political season. Emerging out of Detroit behind a public radio host who champions civility, the party has democratized itself enough to broadcast the advice it receives from political consultants, and has put its campaign song and mascot up for a public vote—which is how the party wound up being represented by the Coney Dog (“Michigan’s bi-partisan food”).

Doesn’t ring a bell? You needn’t worry. This venture from The Craig Fahle Show on WDET is a tongue-and-cheek way for Detroit’s NPR station to bring a light touch to the political news that it has become known for covering with uncommon rationality. Join the party, and in return you’ll receive a set of campaign buttons, a pocket U.S. Constitution, a membership card, a weekly election news wrap-up from Fahle himself, and two tickets to “The Craig Fahle Party’s Election Night Party.” (Oh, and you’ll be supporting public radio in the meanwhile.)

Outside of the satire, The Craig Fahle Show has over the last few years become a leading source of news and culture in metropolitan Detroit. Featuring the namesake host’s broadcast essays, interviews, and call-in segments, the show—which airs 10 am-noon four days a week, and 10-11:30 on Fridays—elevates the voices of both high-profile and grassroots leaders who are making an impact nationally and locally. Recent segments include an interview with Ann Romney, wife of the GOP presidential candidate, a feature on Michigan’s female state legislators performing “The Vagina Monologues” at the state capital, and a report on the thirtieth anniversary of the murder of Vincent Chin, which marked a turning point in hate crimes history.

As part of its role as a local discourse leader, the show also airs regular conversations with prominent journalists, including Bankole Thompson of the Michigan Chronicle, Bill Shea of Crain’s Detroit Business, and Michigan Radio’s capital news chief, Rick Pluta. And it shares this conversation with a substantial audience: WDET 101.9 is one of very few public radio stations to operate on a commercial frequency. At 48,000 watts, the broadcast from a station on the campus of Wayne State University in Detroit’s Midtown spans the region, reaching down to Toledo and into southern Ontario.

When I visited with the team behind The Craig Fahle Show during a recent Monday editorial meeting, it was a full-court press: besides Fahle and the show’s producers, the bulk of the station’s staff were present to pitch ideas and pose questions as the station manager worked the whiteboard schedule for the coming week’s segments. There are five or six segments per day, and according to producer Amy Miller, the show had a stockpile of pre-recorded segments that hadn’t yet been aired. “We have far more content than we have room for,” Miller said. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Fahle replied.

Despite the high-toned ambitions and noncommercial format, entertainment imperatives weren’t entirely absent: some newsworthy pitches were turned down if the interviewee was known to be boring on the air. As the conversation continued, producer Laura Weber noted that she’d heard from the camp of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, which was due to finish its tour in Michigan the next day and wanted a Romney surrogate to appear on the show. “I told them that depends on who they offer,” Weber said. “Because we don’t want to just Staff Person #1.”

“We need to talk to someone, like we would with the Obama campaign,” said Joan Isabella CherryCherry Isabella, the show’s executive producer. “Tell them we don’t talk to someone just because they’re surrogates. We need a subject.”

Fahle started as an intern at WDET. He’s left the station twice but came back both times, most recently from a North Carolina broadcaster. The show, first known as Detroit Today, launched in 2007 as part of significant changes at the station that shifted the programming focus away from indie and local music and into news. The program re-branded around Fahle later, capitalizing on his popularity with listeners.

“I think there’s a void in public radio, and radio in general in this region, that Craig fills seamlessly,” said Weber. “He’s rational; opinionated, but nonpartisan.”

This is a rare quality in anyone, but particularly in an industry where hosts are expected to build a reputation by honing a strong and sometimes polarizing point-of-view. In such a context, being nonpartisan can be equated with being neutral. But the terms are not synonymous, and Fahle is the evidence—he makes a point of researching the issues he covers, and expresses his own opinions clearly even as he leaves substantial room for others to make their case. He regularly challenges his guests, as well as listeners on the call-in segments, but retains enough of a calm “regular guy” tone to keep the show fairly well balanced. Said Weber: “He’s very personable, and able to negotiate really fine lines that divide people.”

While the show has a lot of ground it means to cover, it prioritizes space for on-air listener commentary. Weber told me that the show likes to do a call-in segment every day; Isabella likes to have at least a bit of call-in every hour. “We get callers from all over the region, not just Detroit,” Weber said. She has noticed that men tend to call in right away, while women won’t call until later in the segment. But overall, there is a noteworthy diversity among those who pick up the phone: Detroiters, suburbanites, older people, college students. There are at least two people the show is sure to hear from anytime the topic is “something political,” Weber said, but Miller added that, “I’ve been really surprised at how few regular callers there are, compared to other radio stations I worked at.” The engagement with listeners extends to the show’s Facebook page, where both the producers and the host are active.

(For all its virtues, the show is not immunue from the political fights that often surround public radio. Isabella suggested that public radio itself has become so ingrained in many people’s minds as being liberal that “anytime you say something not right-wing, they say you’re being too liberal.” Weber, meanwhile, adopted a stance often used by nonpartisan media outlets: “We get it from both sides, which I take as a sign that we’re doing a good job.”)

There have been talks about taking the show statewide, and while that discussion hasn’t necessarily been resolved, Weber said, “I do know that Craig is deeply committed to the region, as all the followers of the show know. He’s really so interested in Detroit, Oakland County, Macomb County, and Lansing for how it affects us here.”

And that matters. The timing of the rise of The Craig Fahle Show may be no coincidence. Detroit’s newspapers still provide quality reporting; the Detroit Free Press just won an Edward R. Murrow award for an online video documentary, and the political coverage of both the Free Press and The Detroit News has a good deal to recommend it. But in 2009, about the same time that The Craig Fahle Show relaunched under its new name, the big regional newspapers reduced home delivery to three days a week. In July of that same year, The Ann Arbor News ended its 174-year run.

“Especially with the dissolution of newspapers, this is what regional journalism is all about,” said Weber.

By the end of my visit to the station, one of the show’s regular guests had turned up: Saeed Kahn, a Wayne State professor who specializes in Pakistan and Islamic political thought. He wore all black and was carrying an umbrella; he leaned back in one of the office’s rolling chairs, clearly comfortable here. As introduction, Fahle gestured to him and said, “He’s one of the smartest guys I know.”

I turned to Khan, my pen still poised on the page from the notes I’d been taking.

“Tell me something smart,” I said to him.

Without missing a beat: “I listen to this show.”

Correction: This story originally misstated the name of the show’s executive producer. She is Joan Cherry Isabella, not Joan Isabella Cherry. CJR regrets the error.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.