Sunlight Shining Through Cloud

Cool Tunes — Awful News

Posted on: June 10, 2012

My relationship with radio goes back to my earliest days on the planet. Today, I remain an insatiable information junkie. Given the amount of time spent behind the wheel, I find myself hungry for a meal that can only be served up by NPR. No bloviators for me: give it to me straight…I’m smart enough to interpret. Such has it been for some twenty-five years.

I have been both blessed and cursed with opportunities to live in many places in this country. Thus, I have the means to compare. When I get to a place, finding NPR is a priority. The Twin Cities operation is top-notch. My most recent experience (in the Triad of North Carolina), not so much.

And now I’m in North Dakota; the 48th least-populated state. I have, therefore, a commensurate expectation for the NPR affiliate/network here. They call it Prairie Public. First, the bright spots.

Three ND cities have two Prairie Public transmitters each. The second signal has been dubbed, Roots, Rock and Jazz. It’s a hodge-podge of low- or no-cost syndicated programing covering the Blues, Jazz, and non-pop Rock…the kind you won’t hear anywhere else. There is also a local DJ who quite obviously has a pedigree in each genre. Mike Olson will string together a number of records along a theme. It could be Negro Spirituals performed by contemporary artists; or lesser-known songs of Bonnie Raitt or Neil Young. Olson has done strings of songs about the sky up above; about dysfunctional love; about Puerto Rican girls.

Olson’s shows are fun because he never announces a theme: you are implicitly challenged to figure it out. And he never tells you when it’s done; he just (deftly) transitions to a new theme. He is not your polished DJ-type either; he’s just a low-key cool dude sharing his musical world with you.

The other bright spot is on the statewide network of news stations. Danielle Webster has the presentation skills and intelligence you should expect from an NPR local affiliate. If she continues to work at her own high standards, she could well find herself at a larger market.

And that’s the problem: standards. NPR News delivers at the highest level of excellence from Washington. Its affiliates are challenged to work up to the same standard as best they can…some succeeding more than others. Prairie Public has either low standards or no qualified leadership. The drive-times are occupied by mumblers and stumblers who, it seems, have never read the copy they’ve torn from the papers. An hour-long daily interview program is given over to a guy who has no interviewing skills.

A ‘special assignment’ producer delivers the dullest reports from what should be the most exciting area of the state: the Oil Patch. Irrelevant syndicated features are inserted into the most-listened-to newscasts to fill time in a state that, frankly, doesn’t have too much other news. All of this is stitched together by a ubiquitous sponsorship reader who hyper-enunciates her horrific regional accent.

Then, like other lower-budget affiliates, Prairie Public fills the daytime and overnight hours with classical music.

I’m sure it’s a tough thing, running a listener-supported, non-profit, highly-visible enterprise like an NPR affiliate network. On one hand, there’s never enough money. On the other hand, there are audience expectations. And if you don’t deliver on those, they don’t give you their donations. And the circle goes ’round again.

But no experienced radio industry professional could credibly blame listeners for a station’s poor performance. Therefore, the responsibility for this awfulness rests squarely on the shoulders of management.

Radio’s greatest strength has always been its ability to communicate on a one-to-one basis with its listener (and there’s only one: you). If a station dishonors this relationship by delivering crap, you turn it off. I’ve waited months to write this review thinking that, given time, I would find a way to appreciate Prairie Public‘s effort. But little effort seems apparent, so I reflexively reach for the volume button each time NPR News finishes its segments.

1 Response to "Cool Tunes — Awful News"

Disappointing, isn’t it? Just proves the adage that you get what you pay for.

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