Local public radio: America’s last public square

April 24, 2017
Photo via Pixabay

A few weeks ago, wildfires ravaged through the Gardiner family’s Kansas ranch and killed a third of the cattle—more than 500 cows. Garth, a fourth-generation farmer and Trump voter, wondered why the president he’d supported hadn’t offered any assistance or even acknowledged the natural disaster devastating his community.

A woman in Seattle heard his story on the radio and responded online: “It broke my heart. I hate all that (Trump) stands for. I have spent several months angry at those that supported him. But now, more and more, as I hear the stories of those that he is systematically leaving out of his world view, I feel only compassion.”

Garth Gardiner and the woman who heard his story aren’t neighbors, but his story reached her through one of the few remaining outlets broadcasting local stories across the whole of the country. The Kansas wildfires were covered by The Takeaway, a news program produced largely by local public radio stations in New York and Boston, and heard nationally on public radio stations. But for that broadcast, listeners across America might not have known about the epic struggle in the nation’s heartland.

America’s appetite for political news has grown dramatically, and yet Americans are increasingly sorting themselves into like-minded communities—progressives living among progressives, conservatives among conservatives, Fox viewers with Fox viewers, MSNBC viewers with MSNBC viewers. And that means Americans with different points of view have become increasingly estranged. We are rarely exposed to stories that define life even just a county or two away—much less in regions as far apart as Seattle and Kansas.

And yet, our democracy depends on exactly that kind of understanding.

By most measures, this is a transformational moment for American journalism and for public media. Amid a torrent of “fake news,” budgets for local reporting at newspapers are being slashed around the country.

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Laura Walker. Photo by Janice Yi.

Laura Walker, president and CEO of New York Public Radio. Photo by Janice Yi.


In the process, we’re hampering ourselves by restricting two crucial ingredients for a healthy democracy: local reporting from communities around the country that is heard by other communities, and civil public discourse about what that news means. And that’s why the audience for public radio has also increased dramatically in the last year—its programs are the remaining public square.

When the White House proposed earlier this year to slash federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, ordinary people responded in anger—including the coal miners and single mothers that Budget Director Mick Mulvaney referred to when presenting the budget. Why? Because both red and blue America tune in to Morning Edition during their commute, and their children are watching Sesame Street.

At the beginning of President Trump’s First 100 Days, we joined together with American Public Media and over 160 local public radio stations to launch Indivisible Radio.  The idea was use these 100 days to get people talking and bridge the ever widening divides that erupted during a particularly rancorous campaign season. For 14 weeks, Americans of all stripes had a chance to talk and to listen to each other. An oil rig worker from North Dakota, an Evangelical pastor from Ohio, a veteran from Minnesota—people from across the country and the political spectrum weighed in on the pressing and philosophical issues of the day. Sometimes, the divides were taking place inside the family circle. Kristen from Arkansas and her husband, for example, found themselves on opposing sides; they were struggling to find common ground at a time when even watercooler moments—events like the Super Bowl, Oscars, and comedy TV shows have become politically charged. Indivisible Radio, she told us, was “healing her soul.”

In defending the CPB against charges of political bias, supporters pointed out that a disproportionate amount of federal funding goes to broadcasters in rural America. Moreover, they countered, the subsidy amounts to a mere $1.35 per citizen.

But powerful as those arguments may be, the most important reason to preserve the CPB stems from a worrisome reality: Local public radio is one of the only places where many ordinary Americans hear local news and are exposed to people living outside their immediate bubbles. In a nation more balkanized than ever, programs like The Takeaway and Indivisible Radio that help curate thoughtful conversations, have emerged as unique places for red America and blue America to get to know one another. Public radio is what connects Kansas to Seattle, New York to Oklahoma.

Instead of slashing funding for the nearly 1,500 public radio and television stations across the nation, we should treasure the few remaining local institutions capable of bridging the chasm that divides the nation’s electorate. America’s true public square is currently on the chopping block in Washington. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting should be saved.

Laura R. Walker is president and CEO of New York Public Radio, the largest public radio station group in the nation. An innovator in podcasts and digital technology, she also sits on the board of Tribune Media Company.