Making waves

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  June 10, 2010

Anthony Brooks, a 30-year veteran of NPR who has served as news director at WRNI since September, inflamed the situation — inadvertently, he insists — while plugging the station during an introduction for public radio star Garrison Keillor at a Providence Performing Arts Center appearance in March.

There is no recording of the remarks. But Brooks, who was effusive in his praise of the ProJo during an interview, says he started off with a general statement about the importance of NPR in the face of newspapers’ decline and added something about how the station was pleased to have MacKay on its political team.

ProJo executives, who declined to comment for this story, were apparently incensed. The paper’s publisher, Howard Sutton, called O’Connor to complain. And the incident, no doubt, did little to improve the chances for collaboration between the two outlets.

‘AN ENORMOUS SHIFT’

Even in the best of circumstances, collaboration between competitors is bound to be a bit awkward.

And while WRNI staffers are careful to say that they could never replace a declining ProJo — “we are not going to supplant what the Providence Journal does,” says MacKay, “we’re there to supplement it” — the station makes little effort to conceal its competitive zeal.

General manager Joe O’Connor says the station, which employs five reporters to the Journal’s four dozen, aims to contend with the paper on the three to five biggest stories of the week.

And in the not-so-distant future, O’Connor says, he hopes to vault past the ProJo — in esteem if not in breadth of coverage: “I would like to think that, in five years, people have us on a higher pedestal.”

The ambition is rooted, in part, in the relative strength of NPR in an enormously challenging period. Public radio’s weekly audience of about 34 million listeners has been growing steadily for decades, with national news shows Morning Edition and All Things Considered leading the way.

And unlike newspapers, which have come under heavy assault from the Internet, “public radio is a medium whose distribution model and business model works just fine,” says Dan Kennedy, an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston. “People are stuck in their cars.”

The decline of local news reporting is, in fact, a major opportunity for a well-branded and relatively healthy concern like NPR. The network’s new CEO, Vivian Schiller, has said her goal is “to step in where local newspapers are leaving.”

But public radio has long focused on national and international news. And Leonard Downie, Jr., a former Washington Post editor, and Michael Schudson, a professor at Columbia University’s Journalism School, argue in their report “The Recon-struction of American Journalism” that public broadcasting — television and radio — are in need of a major reorientation.

That reorientation must start with Congress, they suggest. Any effort to build a robust local news operation will require significant resources. And the $1.35 per capita that the federal government allocates to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which oversees NPR and television’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), looks paltry alongside the taxpayer contribution to public broadcasting in countries with comparable economies — $25 in Canada, Australia, and Germany, almost $60 in Japan, $80 in Britain, and over $100 in Finland and Denmark.

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