This American Radio

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In the early '80s, when Washington first started cutting funds for public radio, cash-strapped stations faced two possible paths. They could aggressively seek out business underwriting, do a lot of marketing research, and, in general, emulate commercial stations. Or they could become less costly and less bureaucratic, and more dependent on volunteer labor and listener sponsorship. Most chose the first path—in part because the government decided to subsidize it, reasoning that outlets that could attract large audiences and substantial private funds were the ones making enough of a difference to deserve federal subsidies.

Why, you might ask, should a successful mainstream station serving an affluent demographic get any subsidies at all? Good question.

Jerry Starr has written a nice piece on the split between the two sorts of stations and the odd politics of the public broadcasting game. It's worth a read, and not just because he had the good taste to quote a paper I once wrote about the topic.

NEXT: New York Times Says Paul Ehrlich Got It Wrong

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  1. It’s a matter of civic pride for me that Philly’s WXPN seems to have invented the AAA format (under the University of Pennsylvania umbrella, but their cash comes from the in-house CD merchandising of the World Cafe syndicated program – they’re the Clear Channel of AAA) …
    …but for truly wacky radio, I like Drexel University’s WKDU. For my morning commute, I don’t know if I want skater thrash metal, reggae, electronica, or public service announcements read by sullen teenagers. Thankfully, WKDU chooses for me.
    They’re 100W and I barely get them. I’ve never picked up the community/microradio from West Philly that Jesse Walker mentioned in a prior article.

  2. I once read about Somebody-or-other’s Law, in Kirkpatrick Sale’s *Human Scale* (I’m too lazy to look up the name, but I highly recommend the book). He said that when there were two equally viable technical solutions to a problem,
    1) a centralizing technology that would have to be managed by top-down Stalinist hierarchies and 2) a decentralizing technology that empowered neighborhoods and communities and could be administered directly by the clientele, the federal government would always promote the former.

  3. Keith: The one West Philly micro station I remember writing about offhand is Radio Mutiny. It went off the air a few years back, alas.

  4. In a world full of communication options there is no reason for Federal funds to be used for public radio. If they can’t find a viable commercial niche they have no reason being parasites.

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