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Chartock Radio, and the challenge of public broadcasting

Can you name the director of your local public radio station?

This isn’t one of those tests where you’re supposed to feel guilty if you can’t name your congressperson. I asked this question at a meeting of US media professionals and only one person in a room of twenty could come up with a name.

Clearly, they don’t live in Western Massachusetts or the Albany, New York area. (And I beg pardon in advance from my international readers – this is a post focused on public radio in the US, and specifically in my corner of it, and may be opaque to folks who live in countries with different models for public broadcasting.)

The director of my local public radio station, WAMC, is Dr. Alan Chartock, and like satirist Bill Shein, I can hear Alan Chartock’s voice in my sleep.

I hear his voice when I wake up as well. That’s because Chartock is also the “political observer” on WAMC, and his commentary on the day’s news events is featured in every morning’s newscast. The morning magazine show from 9am to noon features a segment called “The Congressional Corner”, where Chartock interviews local politicians. The afternoon call-in show, Vox Pop, features Chartock as a host at least once a week. He also hosts weekly shows, “The Media Project” and “The Capitol Connection”, as well as commenting on another weekly show, “The Legislative Gazette”.

It often seems like WAMC is pioneering a new radio format: Chartock Radio.

There’s a reason most people can’t name the administrators of their local public radio stations. Those folks tend to stay behind the scenes, allowing the celebrity hosts of nationally syndicated shows, and occasionally local reporters, to occupy the spotlight and build loyalty to the station. With the exception of Tory Malatia, humorously name-checked at the end of every episode of This American Life, most station managers aren’t known outside the community of public radio insiders.

Chartock has chosen a very different model for his administration of WAMC. As the Albany Business Review sympathetically observes, he’s the public face of the radio station, a constant presence in the life of station listeners. Not only do I know Chartock’s name, I know his wife’s name, his former faculty position at SUNY Albany, and what town he lives in. If I weren’t trying so hard to avoid listening to him, you’d think I were stalking the man.

I also know a great deal about Chartock’s political opinions. Chartock’s politics are pretty close to my own – unabashadly liberal, and strongly pro free-speech. It’s not that I disagree with the majority of his public political statements – it’s just that I don’t especially want to listen to them. I agree with much of what Keith Olbermann says, but I don’t generally tune into him, because I’m more interested in news coverage that aspires towards neutrality, rather than in the opinions of angry white men, on the right or the left. (I’m angry, white and opinionated enough on my own, thanks very much.)

When I wake up to National Public Radio, I’m looking for wide-ranging reporting and analysis with a minimum of overt opinion. I’m not naive enough to believe that this, or any other news, is “objective”, and I’m willing to do the work to search for a variety of opinions and perspectives on stories I’m following. But Chartock keeps putting his chocolate into my peanut butter, making me feel like I’ve stopped listening to NPR and tuned into Air America. Or, as one NPR producer thought, to Pacifica network, an explicitly left-wing syndicated radio network:

“I was driving through upstate New York and listening to the local public radio station, and there was this guy on the air ranting,” says one Washington-based NPR news producer, who didn’t want to be identified. “He was talking about the war in Iraq and how wrong it was and how we’re being held hostage as a country by this right-wing administration.”

The NPR producer assumed he had tuned into a Pacifica radio station, one of a small network of community stations that broadcast left-of-center advocacy-journalism programs. “It was actually sort of entertaining,” the producer recalls. “But then I nearly couldn’t believe it when this guy said, ‘In just a few moments we’ll be returning to NPR’s All Things Considered.'”

What that producer heard was Chartock during a fund drive when he’s at his most histrionic, taking to the airwaves for hours at a time to urge supporters to support the station. (Shein’s excellent parody portrays Chartock during a fund drive for precisely this reason.) Even Chartock has to know he sounds absurd at these times, punishing listeners who don’t give quickly enough with accordion renditions of “Lady of Spain” or by singing off-key. (Actually, he’s stopped playing “Lady of Spain”. I’d like to claim credit for this one. After one particularly egregious fund drive – and yes, I gave – I used Napster to download a dozen renditions of Lady of Spain and burn him a CD so he could torment listeners with a bit more variety. To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t used this particular tactic since.)

The unnamed producer is quoted in a story in Baltimore’s City Paper about public radio and bias. NPR has been fighting accusations that it has a systematic liberal bias. While they’ve invested substantially in trainings and policies designed to combat bias, each affiliated station makes its own policy decisions. Vermont Public Radio, according to the article, restricts talk show hosts from expressing their opinions on air. WAMC, on the other hand, has a decided perspective on issues, especially when Chartock is on the air.

The article quotes Stephen Yasko, an NPR station manager in Towson, MD as supporting the independence of NPR member stations on the subject of bias: “So if Alan Chartock is what Albany and upstate New York created and what works for them, that’s a beautiful thing, no matter what some outsiders might say.”

That, indeed, may be what works for WAMC’s listeners. The station is an amazing success story in many ways, and that success has been led by Chartock, who was part of a team who raised money to buy the station out of bankruptcy in 1981. Since then the station has expanded both by acquiring other stations in the region and by producing large amounts of original content. It’s become a fundraising juggernaut, raising over $2 million a year in three fundraisers from listeners (as part of a near $7 million annual budget.) Clearly something is working for many of WAMC’s listeners and supporters.

But there’s a downside to these expansions. WAMC is produced in Albany, NY and broadcasts from atop Mt Greylock in western Massachusetts (about five miles from my house.) But stations in the WAMC system of transmitters and repeaters are located as far away as Plattsburg, NY (140 miles north of Albany), Utica (90 miles west) and Milford, PA (120 miles south). As one would hope a public radio station would, WAMC tries very hard to provide local news. But this means that local coverage includes breaking news in Plattsburg, a mere three hours drive from my house, and only five hours away from those poor listeners in eastern Pennsylvania. News from Boston, which houses the government I pay taxes to, would likely be more helpful, but doesn’t fit within the station’s footprint.

So why don’t I listen to another station? There aren’t any. WAMC is my only option for public radio via FM. I’m just outside the listening areas for WFCR, an excellent public radio station based in Amherst, MA, and just south of the listening area for Vermont Public Radio. (I can now listen to programming during daylight hours from WNNZ, a new day-only 50,000 watt station affiliate of WFCR.) I don’t know the history well enough to know whether there have been credible challenges to WAMC in the Western MA/eastern NY area. All I know is that my situation with public radio feels a lot like the nightmare of media consolidation Chartock often talks about: when I turn on the radio, all I hear is the same voice, because a single entity has purchased all the stations, filling them with the same political viewpoints.

But hey, it’s an NPR station, right? So most of the programming is just syndicated NPR/PRI/APM programming, right? Well, that’s the other rub. WAMC produces ten shows – three featuring Chartock – and distributes them via National Productions, its own syndicator. Some are quite good. Others are pretty terrible, especially when you compare them to nationally syndicated offerings from the major NPR networks. The particular thorn in my side is “The Media Project”, a half-hour discussion of press issues hosted by Chartock that’s so bad that promos for the show routinely include panelists admitting that the 30 second plug is likely better than the show as a whole. If WAMC were not producing and syndicating The Media Project (which they proudly remind us each week is listened to in Nacogdoches, TX), they might be willing to carry WNYC’s brilliant On The Media, an hour-long program that’s consistently one of the best things on the radio.

I only know about On The Media because I can listen to it via the web. Podcasts – including OTM, PRI’s The World, Tavis Smiley, Sound Opinions and Democracy Now! – let me listen to excellent programming that isn’t available on my local broadcast station. And discovering just how consistently good these shows are makes me wonder why they aren’t broadcast by WAMC and why WAMC continues producing some of its weaker shows.

As much as I’d like to blame Chartock for this situation, I think what’s going on points more to the difficulties public radio in the US faces in the digital age. Savvy listeners can choose audio content at no cost from providers – professional and otherwise – around the world. They understandably would like their stations to carry this content, as it’s lots easier to listen to an FM radio in many circumstances than to a laptop or an iPhone. (I do a lot of radio listening as I repair my roof, for instance, where I’d really much prefer to accidently drop a $5 transistor radio than an iPod.)

Stations have to pay for this content, though, which requires raising money from their local communities. The better a job they do attracting listeners, the more they pay. It makes sense that WAMC would try to make money by producing content locally and trying to syndicate it themselves, making money instead of paying it. Unfortunately, in an internet age, when your listeners can compare your mediocre product to the best content available, they’re likely to demand your station switch to airing the good stuff. When your station doesn’t, they’ll support those programs directly if given the opportunity.

There’s an upside to this, of course – produce excellent programming and you’ll get donations from far outside your geographic area. I now support WNYC specifically to support On the Media and Chicago Public Radio in gratitude for Sound Opinions and This American Life. (And I give to WFCR to support shows like Morning Edition, even though I can’t actually hear it here except via AM.) But in a world where listeners can choose from any content, your content needs to be excellent, or you need to stop producing it.

This is the same quandry smaller newspapers find themselves facing. Realizing that subscribers are turning to the New York Times online if they care about international issues, they’re cutting international and national bureaus and focusing on local news. Some do so successfully, while others are being forced to cut that coverage as well as revenue models change and classified advertising is no longer a reliable revenue source.

WAMC, I fear, is too big to do a good job with local coverage and too small to produce world-class syndicated programming. It’s too big for my hundred dollar donations to have any significant influence over content and too small to merit the scrutiny of a project like Colorado MediaMatters. Evidently WAMC is good enough that no one has organized a campaign to demand that WAMC take more neutral stances on personal opinion on-air or to attempt to build a rival station with a different on-air philosophy.

I’d love to hear about ideas for changing WAMC from anyone interested in the topic. Is the philosophy to try to convince Chartock to change? To build a rival station and try to draw listeners and sponsors to that station instead? Is there a winnable compromise, perhaps pushing WAMC management to use one of their new HD channels to run a more “traditional” NPR station, with more syndicated content and less Chartock? Am I the only one who’s reached this point of frustration with Chartock radio?

10 thoughts on “Chartock Radio, and the challenge of public broadcasting”

  1. I’d love to know what Alan’s response to some of these questions would be. It might make a great morning poll question on the Roundtable. :)

  2. I have been referring to Northeast Public Radio as “the Alan Chartok Radio Network” for *years*, and I don’t even live in its signal area. As I’m sure you’re aware (in fact, you can probably recite the station list in your sleep too), it has a bunch of stations across the Hudson Valley and central New York.

  3. The problem with asking a station to run an HD channel is that there are about 100 people nationwide who have HD receivers. And, as you point out, more and more people are downloading the shows they like but cannot access via terrestrial broadcast (This American Life has been the top podcast on iTunes for time immemorial).

    HD is a nice way for stations to add more shelf space for other programs, but it won’t solve your “listening to programs you like on your roof” conundrum, unless you want to spend a couple hundred dollars on a receiver. In which case, the threat of dropping an HD radio from your roof would cause teh same level of anxiety as dropping your iPod.

  4. I think podcasts are really the bees knees. I was a small but steady contributor to National Public Radio wherever I happened to live in america (in another lifetime). Now my Ipod is full of what may be good karma, even when I now don’t give. I do feel guilty because I regularly listen to a dozen science and social commentary podcasts, i wonder if they do paypal…

  5. I’m in WAMC’s listening area too. I enjoyed the station at first but I got tired of it for the reasons you pointed out. I now listen more to North Country Public Radio, as I’m at the edge of their listening area too and it’s less histrionic.

    In fairness, all of Chartock’s rants are advertised as commentary or analysis, which isn’t unreasonable. And they run commentaries and interviews from people on all sides of the political spectrum, even real progressives. I actually would like to hear a little more commentary from public radio to supplement the neutral (not to be confused with objective) journalism NPR generally provides.

    I don’t think you could describe WAMC’s NEWS coverage as particularly left wing, although I do think it’s mediocre and a mile wide/inch depth… especially in comparison to the excellent in depth stuff done by NCPR. When you have a listening area as gargantuan and diverse as WAMC’s, I think that makes quality in depth reporting impossible. They’ve spent so much money expanding their on-air coverage empire but I don’t think spending on reporting has kept pace.

    The fund drive especially reveals his true colors. But at the same time, it works. The pied piper’s flute draws in an astonishing $800,000, four times a year. Regardless of my issues with Chartock, and I agree that WAMC is more a cult of personality, I like having the choice. If I want sober, more “traditional” public radio, I can listen to NCPR. If I want something a little more lively, I can listen to WAMC. It does have a little more variety.

    (And BTW-You can’t listen to streaming audio on an iPhone. If there is, PLEASE LET ME KNOW as I’d love to be able to)

  6. Although, I don’t mind that WAMC doesn’t have as much NPR programming as other stations. I would much rather have a good local morning show (like The RoundTable was when Susan Arbetter was there) than one of the many generic national political talk shows. And their WAMC2 HD stream DOES look like a more “traditional” NPR affiliate lineup.

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  8. I couldn’t agree more! I am in WAMC’s listening area also and I’d love to support local programs but I can’t take any more Chartok so I too listen to WNYC online.

    The final straw for me was the last fund drive I listened to where he ranted about Terry Gross and what “biased interviwer” she is, then about Diane Rehm and how “boring” she is then about Amy Goodman…get over yourself, Alan, and you could learn A LOT from all three of these brilliant women.

  9. The Adirondack Almanack points out today that Albany public radio’s WAMC is pulling a raid on North Country Public Radio’s Lake Placid satellite translator. The Adirondack Almanack blog paints Alan Chartock of WAMC as the grinch stealing away with Lake Placid’s real public radio station. Lets all sing, “You’re a mean one Alan Grinch.”

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