by Bill Davis
On Sunday 15 March 2020, I spent nearly seven hours in the Dublin airport with thousands of people frantically trying to get to the United States before travel restrictions fell into place. The most significant delays occurred as travelers went through US Customs “pre-clearance” in Ireland rather than going through customs at Dulles International Airport in the US. The theory was that this would be easier, faster, and safer. The reality was a gauntlet of frustration, confusion and delay. Moreover, the gauntlet actually increased the risk of spreading Covid-19 because so many people were confined in such a limited area for such a long time.
So, as one does in these situations, I began to ruminate on how the Covid-19 crisis in the US has, in fact, revealed the strength and importance of local public radio/public media journalism. Throughout my jet-lagged travels in Ireland and the United Kingdom during the previous two weeks, I had plenty of opportunities to listen to local public radio station streams (KPCC—for obvious reasons—but also WGBH, KQED, WAMU, WBEZ, and others). To a station, they were providing a resource that no other medium in their respective communities was providing: a calm presentation of factual information in real time that was addressing local needs and concerns. Each station’s stream had a palpable “sense of place” and a strong level of engagement with both the community at large and the specific needs of specific populations within the broader community. In short, at a time when “social distancing” was becoming America’s de facto public health policy, public radio stations were providing a space for virtual congregation—a place where we could figuratively come together to address this crisis.
As the Covid-19 crisis has intensified and now that I’m back stateside and semi-self-quarantined, I’ve had a lot of time to listen to—and read—a significant amount of local coverage from public stations across the country. And, again, I am impressed by the quality and depth of the local journalism that our colleagues are providing to their communities. At a time when a considerable amount of local commercial coverage feeds into panic responses, public radio’s coverage has remained level-headed and even-handed.
Others are taking notice. On Tuesday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti complimented KPCC’s Larry Mantle for this calm and measured approach, even as Larry was grilling Garcetti about whether the city was doing enough for its citizens and residents. On Thursday, the New York Times encouraged New Yorkers to “keep calm and listen to [New York Public Radio’s] Brian Lehrer.”
WGBH in Boston is providing two excellent examples of this approach. First, they’ve launched “In This Together,” a Monday-Friday show at 7pm hosted by Arun Rath that draws on the resources of the WGBH newsroom to address the impact of the Covid-19 crisis in the greater Boston region. The second is WGBH’s online “Coronavirus Resource Center” that draws from their local news team as well as the coverage from ‘GBH’s national PTV news programs such as “Frontline” and “Nova.”
The last two years have seen several public radio stations transform themselves into local digital news publishers. Gothamist, Billy Penn, DCist, Denverite, and LAist have all produced significant amounts of local coverage of the Covid-19 crisis in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Denver, and greater Los Angeles, respectively. At times, this coverage has been as or more extensive than the local coverage provided the much larger newsrooms of the leading newspapers in those communities. I have been particularly impressed with the work of my hometown colleagues at LAist who have created the multi-platform “No-Panic Support Group for Living Through Coronavirus in LA,” which creates a level of civic engagement and audience feedback that I have not seen anywhere else in the country.
Which leads me to conclude that we in public media have a compelling story that we need to share with our audiences, our members, our boards, our civic leaders, our funders and potential funders, and—perhaps most of all—ourselves. Against a backdrop of steep declines in local news coverage from traditional newspapers and other commercial media and during a time of extraordinary crisis in our country, public radio stations (and their digital news sites) are providing tremendously important services to their communities. In addition to high quality, in-depth, and fact-based journalism, we have provided a much-needed space for people to come together in spirit, even as they maintain their physical distance. At the same time, we have developed highly innovative and creative ways of engaging with larger and more diverse populations in our service areas. in short, we are being there for our communities when they need us the most.
This is a significant accomplishment but, of course, we cannot pat ourselves on the back. The Coronavirus crisis is far from over, and our communities are expecting even more from us in the coming weeks and months. In order to provide the highest levels of service to our communities, we must be diligent in making our constituents aware of the critical services we are providing—and that funding to continue providing these services is essential. Such funding can come from membership; major gifts; philanthropic foundations; public-spirited companies; and local, state, and federal governments. If we fail to make the case for significantly increased funding to realize the full potential of our public service now, we may not have another similar opportunity for decades to come.
Bill Davis is President Emeritus of Southern California Public Radio and is currently working with the Station Resource Group on an initiative to increase the impact, significance, and capacity of public media organizations’ local journalism.