Radio reverb: the impact of "local" news reimported to its own community.

Author:Hood, Lee
 
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"I've never been to Omaha, but we do your local news," a member of a large radio conglomerate matter-of-factly told a college professor with Nebraska roots. Omaha, with a population of almost 400,000, is one of many markets throughout the United States in which part of its "local" radio news is actually produced and delivered from a remote location, sometimes hundreds of miles away and often in other states, as corporations seek to increase cost-efficiency by reducing local staffs and providing more programming from a central location.

The State of the News Media 2004 report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, citing figures from the Radio-TV News Directors Association, noted that more than 40% of radio stations do news for one or more stations outside their own market. The report asserted: "Consolidation has made original local public affairs content more of an afterthought ... and the data available suggest a growing number of stations are not local at all, despite a high desire among audiences for local information" (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2004, Radio introduction, para. 3).

Former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner Gloria Tristani called this trend "outsourced news" during a speech in which she identified loss of localism as one of the main risks of consolidation. Calling localism "the bedrock of our broadcast system," Tristani (1998) argued:

It's not that big chains ... can't or won't serve the local communities in which they operate. They can and do. But I still think it can be more difficult for them to reflect the particular needs of their local communities when more and more decisions are made on a regional and national basis. (p. 4, italics in original) Technology and deregulation have made radio a locus for the blurring between local and nonlocal programming. Much commentary has been written in the popular and trade press about practices associated with consolidation, such as "voice-tracking" in music and entertainment programming (e.g., Carpenter, 2004; Dotinga, 2002; Mathews, 2002). Not nearly as much has been written on questions of local radio news and whether taking it out of its local context changes its character in fundamental ways.

Yet consolidation of resources is blurring the lines of what is local in local radio news, who is delivering it, and from where. The system of remotely produced local newscasts in an increasing number of communities across the country raises important questions about the essence of localness in local news and the impact on the communities served by such a system. How do remotely produced local newscasts compare to locally produced news in providing the community its news? What are the implications when decisions about what to include in a local newscast are made without knowing the context of the community? How much of newsworthiness is defined by standard news conventions versus local contexts?

These questions become more critical with the growth of outsourced news. As Huntemann (1999) argued:

Without local news staffs devoted to reporting small-town issues as well as national briefs, audiences receive canned regional news that may only occasionally cover issues reflecting the listener's immediate geographical area. Regional or wire news staffs are harder to hold accountable simply because they are more difficult to reach. With a larger area to cover, regional staffs cannot be in touch with community happenings, do not have time to interview local citizens, or cannot devote in-depth coverage to local news events. (p. 403) Or, as the Project for Excellence in Journalism's (2004) State of the News Media report put it, "What is the impact on local cities if there are fewer people, and certainly fewer people working as journalists, at the local radio station?" (Radio Ownership, para. 8). The 2005 report further elaborated on the issue:

Beyond the obvious problems of presentation, such as pronunciation and local knowledge, how can people provide a real news service to an area without even being there to cover it? ... If a good portion of success in life is being there, showing up, that may be an even bigger part of the key to journalism. (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2005, Radio News Investment, para. 12) What is the impact of journalists producing and delivering news for communities that they have never visited or of which they have little or no local knowledge, as in the example of the reporter who had never been to Omaha?

This study is a first step in trying to examine these questions. Incorporating field data from one radio market served by local news delivered from another city, it seeks to begin a larger discussion of the outsourced news phenomenon and how it might be serving the communities that receive it. The qualitative nature of the study allowed the researcher to document the processes by which remotely produced news is reimported into one community and to identify issues that could be followed up in later quantitative work.

Background

In its early days, radio was a source of cultural unity, "the glue that held a nation together through disasters, war and economic depression" (Matelski, 1995, p. 5). During the Depression, many people looked to radio as a form of entertainment and escape from harsh realities, and a way of uniting whether through Franklin D. Roosevelt's "fireside chats" or through the serials provided by the radio networks. Yet even then, local broadcasters supplemented the network entertainment schedule with news, information, and public affairs programming. When television came on the scene in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Matelski (1995) argued, local service was one of the key ways radio survived. "Retooling the medium by combining strong local identity and specialized programming was enough to save radio from its TV-induced slide" (p. 13), she asserted.

Even as late as 1990, researcher Vernon Stone reported that only 8% of radio stations did not do some kind of news. Yet by 1993, that number had grown to 17% (see also McKean & Stone, 1992, on a growing trend against news). Still, in 1994, Stone estimated that out of 6,640 commercial radio stations, there were 5,500 newsrooms; by 2001, the number of newsrooms had dropped to about 4,500 (Stone, 2001). With the trend toward consolidated newsrooms and remote delivery of local news, it is likely the number has dropped further. Much has changed since Lacy and Rifle (1994) wrote about the impact of competition and group ownership on radio news. At that time, they argued, "there is agreement that radio must emphasize local news" (p. 583). Yet even then, they found that competition "resulted in more staff-prepared news ... but in a lower percentage of staff-prepared reports devoted to local news" (p. 583, italics added).

Radio deregulation has resulted in a much greater concentration of ownership since passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Large media conglomerates control a growing majority of local radio outlets throughout the United States, as a number of researchers have noted. Chambers (2001) documented the dramatic increase in absentee ownership and the decline in local ownership over the past 30 years. Williams (1998) examined the impact of ownership rules on small-market radio. He asserted that the biggest impact was found on the negotiation of advertising rates, but allowed that "other effects could emerge over time" (p. 8). Other recent studies of radio and the impact of consolidation have examined format competition (Wirth, 2002) and program diversity (Chambers, 2003).

As Chambers (2003) noted, most previous research was conducted under an assumption of ownership structures that existed before the expanded influence of Clear Channel Communications on the radio industry and before the enactment of the Telecommunications Act. He argued, "The development of local radio clusters and the use of cost-efficient programming strategies such as voice-tracking and satellite distribution have shifted the structures of local markets and created an opportunity to update the literature" (p. 35). The focus of Chambers's study was the effect of consolidation on programming diversity in local radio markets. Yet the developments he noted also call for an updating of the literature on radio news.

Role of Local News in a Community

Social scientist Andrew Kirby (1989) asserted that local stations "create their own interpretative mixes of what is to be broadcast. These versions are based, to a significant degree, upon local knowledge" (p. 323). Kirby argued that although we live in a world that interacts via a global economy, most Americans remain rooted in their localities, not in national or international spheres. "Although much takes place beyond our horizons, the locality is the setting within which we experience such events" (p. 325), he submitted. Drawing on the insights of Clifford Geertz, Kirby (1988) asserted:

The locality is the scale at which people reproduce themselves and their "local knowledge" (Geertz, 1983), and is the scale at which--for most of us at least--reality is experienced ... the locality is a filter through which we deal with the realities of existence. (p. 241) Barkin (1987) submitted that some stories on local newscasts invoke strong ties "to the conventions and mores of a beloved place" (Bell & Newby, 1972, p. 24). Those stories may become a context through which people form what John Shotter (1986) called a "collective sense of place," in which individuals "share a sense of how they all are situated and how they are each placed in relation to one another and what topoi there are in their locales" (p. 210).

It could be argued that news events and issues create a bond with a particular locale. Growth and overcrowded roads affect residents of an area whether they are news consumers or not. A flood or a blizzard is an event that many people share, just...

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