Making waves

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  June 10, 2010

But O’Connor says he is confident that growing support from listeners and underwriters will keep the station’s programming intact. And any dissertation on WRNI’s limits must keep this in mind: that the station even got to this point is a little remarkable.

INDEPENDENCE

Before WRNI launched in 1998, Rhode Island was one of just two states in the country without an NPR outlet. And in the years that followed, the listener could be forgiven for wondering if Rhody really had an affiliate of its own.

The station was lightly staffed and bleeding money. And in 2004, WBUR stunned local NPR enthusiasts with the announcement that it would sell the station — possibly to a commercial broadcaster.

Boston University, which owns WBUR, eventually backed off the plan in the face of the public outcry. And in time, the nonprofit Rhode Island Public Radio purchased the station for $2 million.

But formal independence came relatively recently: in January 2009. And the station has only just begun to work, in earnest, toward its goal — building a local news operation that approaches the quality of NPR’s more worldly coverage.

“I think the old paradigm of public radio was you had NPR doing national and international news and that’s why everybody tuned in,” says Brooks, the WRNI news director, who covered Al Gore during the 2000 presidential election and helped create the global affairs show The World.

“And then you had sort of the upstart local folks boring you with horribly produced stories about broken parking meters or whatever. And there was just this sort of jarring transition, ‘Oh, the local folks are on the air, bring back Susan Stamberg, bring back Scott Simon or Robert Siegel.’ ”

WRNI, he argues, has already moved well beyond that paradigm. He cites the station’s “One Square Mile” series, which has provided in-depth, state-of-the-city reports on Central Falls, Newport, and West Warwick. The station’s political team of MacKay and Ian Donnis, formerly of the Phoenix, is well-respected on Smith Hill and breaks news on a regular basis.

Brooks, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, did an amusing piece of his own recently — recounting his attempt to order a “hot dog” at Ferrucci’s New York System in West Warwick. Ferrucci’s sells wieners, of course, not hot dogs; the carpetbagger was exposed.

But with a limited staff, Brooks says, the station is often preoccupied with big — and, sometimes, tedious — stories on budget cuts and the like. The station, he says, needs to find more time for the sort of small, surprising stories that say something larger about the community — the sort of stories that make NPR’s national programming so compelling.

“Radio is an incredibly intimate medium,” he says. “When you’re doing it right, you’re really connecting with one person.”

And the promise of that connection — to the listener in the car, or in the kitchen — may be WRNI’s most intriguing offering. The station is not going to replace the ProJo. And if the friction between the two outlets remains, it won’t even collaborate all that much with the broadsheet.

But Rhode Island’s best hope for filling some of the gaps left by a receding newspaper may come in the belated discovery of another old-school medium — radio storytelling, with a little depth, a little color, and a little sound.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at dscharfenberg@phx.com.

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