Thursday, February 23, 2017

WLRN: Mediocre local programming for a major U.S. city ... by gimleteye

(In the early 1990's I was instrumental in building public support for the expansion of WLRN into the Florida Keys. After moving to Miami in 1992, I also worked with WLRN local access television and hosted an environmental education series called 'Fragile Earth'. I came away from both experiences chastened about the lack of transparency in WRLN management and programming.)

In a letter to the editor of the The Miami Herald yesterday, Richard Brodsky of Coral Gables wrote, "The problem is that WLRN-FM is, at best, a mediocre broadcaster. Yes, it buys programming from NPR and other programming sources, and through its affiliation with the Miami Herald, there is local news and public affairs coverage. But we can go on the Internet to listen to hundreds of NPR program outlets that provide the same national programming, if not more."

That is the crux of the problem -- mediocrity in local news and public affairs coverage by an entity sitting on an astounding $14 million in unrestricted funds supervised by a board accountable only to itself.

Brodsky adds, "The size of this “net position” raises two important questions: How and why has a nonprofit corporation accumulated this huge treasury? Why is this money not being put to use in expanding and improving the news and public affairs programming?"

Excellent questions that probably will not be answered by Miami-Dade school board members or district school chief Alberto Carvalho for a variety of reasons pointing in one direction: lack of community leadership.

The Sun-Sentinel took a different approach in its recent OPED defending WLRN. It warns that funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting could be at risk, although what CPB ought to have been looking at all along is that pot of gold Friends of WLRN is sitting on.

The Sun-Sentinel also comes to the defense of WLRN local reporting; a perspective with which I disagree. Public radio here falls far short of providing the diverse commentary and points of view that our region deserves. For example, for decades WLRN studiously avoided reporting on quality of life and regional environmental issues until relatively recently. Still, issues like local zoning, urban planning, government roles, and enforcement of pollution laws get very little coverage.

The Sun-Sentinel cautions Carvalho (who "risks outraging citizens who depend on public broadcasting -- especially local radio") dramatically overstates the case. "Does he not understand that trust can be lost overnight?" the Sentinel asks. Honestly, many listeners of WLRN lost that trust a long, long time ago.

Brodsky raises the option of "... a brand-new entity (a trust or other form of nonprofit ownership funded by listener contributions and foundations) ... that could (sic.) buy the station over time from the School Board and operate a first-class radio station (and, if appropriate, a TV station) focused on providing hard-hitting, in-depth local news and public affairs programming to complement NPR and other programming." The Sentinel also notes that other big-city school districts transferred their public radio and TV licenses to community foundations serving the public good.

I'm not sure that school district chief Carvalho wants to go in that direction, although it is certainly worth opening the question to public debate. In the debate over the future of WLRN there is a silver lining, but a more vigorous effort is required to find it than any of the principals care to make.

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