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WBEZ: High Fidelity or High Tail?

By Kevin Robinson in News on Nov 2, 2011 1:30PM

2011_11_2_wbez.jpg I read the report in Crain's Chicago Business yesterday morning with a sense of sadness and a cynical shrug. That WBEZ would announce two of its locally produced programs, local news, art and culture magazine Eight Forty-Eight and Jerome McDonald's long-running global affiars program Worldview, would soon be put on hiatus to determine if they are meeting the stations strategic goals might be disappointing, but it shouldn't be a surprise. A part of me felt gratified that I'm (still) not a member of Chicago Public Radio (Disclosure: my wife is a High Fidelity member, and I make a payroll contribution to National Public Radio) because, while it feels like WBEZ's leadership doesn't give a damn about their audience anymore, what's worse is that they don't seem to be accountable to that audience.

When I was growing up my father instilled in me a love of NPR in general, and WBEZ specifically. Listening to Morning Edition on the way to school in the car, or Dick Buckley's Sunday jazz program, a high value was placed on intellectual curiosity early on. When I was old enough to drive, 91.5 FM held the first preset on my car's radio, and each car after that. In college, when I was too broke to put gas in my car, I would listen to the pledge drives and think to myself, "someday I'll make enough to be a member. I'll pay the station back for all the years that I've listened for free."

Now that I can afford to do so, that feeling is gone.

My first sense that WBEZ isn't the station that was came when I read the Chicago Reader's expose of the Vocalo project. As the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times shed staff and cut features, Chicago Public Radio avoided stepping into the void those outlets left, focusing its resources not on increasing its coverage of local news and events, but rather on a second broadcast frequency aimed at a younger demographic in Northern Indiana that had little to no interest in public radio. At a time when media was on the ropes, leaving Chicagoans with a dearth of hard news reporting in the city, Chicago Public Radio CEO Torey Malatia diverted WBEZ's resources and staff to Vocalo.

The second blow came when WBEZ announced it would cease broadcasting jazz in the evenings. Today WBEZ broadcasts a rerun of Eight Forty-Eight before switching to WHYY's Fresh Air, followed by three hours of Canadian and British public broadcasting programs.

That WBEZ would pay to run Canadian and British programming weeknights, rather than focus on local news or replay Worldview in the evening, makes it hard for me to accept that the station's leadership would consider pulling two popular, long-running locally produced programs. Therein lies my reluctance to become a member of Chicago Public Radio. Almost all of the news that I turn to public radio for is produced outside of Chicago. Why should I fund Malatia's experiments with the broadcast equivalent of Chicago Now or Red Eye, when I could instead pay my dues to NPR and listen to their news online? Certainly the Tribune Co. is happy to hand out Red Eye at no charge, and John Kass doesn't passively aggressively badger me to send Sam Zell and crew a few bucks every quarter.

If WBEZ is going to cut out what's left of its locally produced programming that reports on Chicago, (and in the more abstract sense, programming that puts global issues into context for a major metropolitan area that is impacted by them), maybe listeners should react the same way readers reacted when the Sun-Times and the Tribune stopped publishing content that mattered. By taking their audience, and therefore their dollars, elsewhere.