Saturday, February 29, 2020

Our Vanishing Local Media

Several weeks ago, some friends of mine lost their jobs, and based on what I've been told, none of them saw it coming. In fact, none of them did anything wrong. They were all talented and hardworking (and popular). They were all team players. But it wasn't good enough. They worked for Boston album rock station WAAF, owned by Entercom (which also owns more than 200 stations nationwide).  Entercom sold WAAF for $10.75 million to a contemporary Christian radio network from California, thus ending a live and local station that had played rock music (and local artists) for decades.

I have nothing against religious radio networks, nor do I object to satellite programming (I often listen to Sirius/XM); and as a former consultant, I understand there are some circumstances when syndicated shows can save a station money.  But I do object to the loss of live and local programming, especially when a station was doing well, making money, and keeping the community happy, as WAAF was. In so many cities, including the one where I live, local radio stations have either been sold to a national syndication company, or shut down entirely.

And it's not just local radio stations that are disappearing. Local newspapers are also in trouble, including some big names: in Sacramento, the McClatchy family owned the Sacramento Bee since the late 1850s; the family was an integral part of the community, not just reporting on the news but advocating for causes like improving local roads or building public colleges.  But the transition from print to digital has been problematic in many cities, as newspapers have struggled to make the same amount of money online that they were able to make in print. In mid-February, McClatchy filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy: the paper (and the others formerly owned by the company) will survive, but the new owners are a hedge fund from New Jersey, rather than anyone from the McClatchy family.

Some newspapers haven't been so lucky: they have gone out of business, leaving their community with no local coverage at all: by the end of 2018, more than 1,300 US communities no longer had a newspaper, creating so-called "news deserts" where the public is no longer kept informed (and local politicians are no longer kept accountable).  And while in some cities, online publications have sprung up, many are poorly funded and thus, they lack the resources to cover the area as thoroughly as it needs to be covered.

With fewer newspapers, there are fewer experienced reporters, and less fact-checking. With fewer local radio stations, there are fewer announcers who live in and know the community, and one less way to find out what is happening around town (plus local musicians have a harder time getting exposure and becoming better known).  Meanwhile, a lack of local media often leads to less civic engagement-- folks have no idea what the big issues are, or how their tax dollars are being spent.

We're living in a time where many people don't support local journalism; they seem to think that good reporting ought to be free, or that partisan blogs are just as useful. But they're not. I enjoy reading blogs (and I enjoy writing my own); but blogs are no substitute for the professional and thorough reporting of the Boston Globe, nor the local perspectives of my hometown paper, the Quincy Patriot-Ledger.  I also understand that many folks aren't as attached to radio as they were in previous eras. But as I've said many times, local stations provide another good way to stay in touch with your community.

I'm sorry that fans of WAAF no longer have the station they so loyally supported. I'm sorry that too many cities no longer have a local newspaper. Call me old-fashioned, but I truly believe that live and local media still matter. They are one more tie to the place you call home; and they keep you connected to it in a more personal way, which is something that social media cannot do.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

My Story in Four Photographs

Friday was my birthday, and I'm pleased to say that hundreds of folks reached out to me on social media. Most were Rush fans, but some were folks who have heard me on the radio or read some of the books and articles I've written; and a few were colleagues and close friends. It still amazes me that so many people want to send me birthday wishes, and believe me, I appreciate it because it wasn't always that way.

Valentine's Day is an interesting day to have a birthday: when I was in high school, I didn't have many friends and it would always depress me that other kids got Valentines, while I seldom did (except from members of my family). I remember that I had a crush on a guy who lived up the street from me, but he barely knew I was alive.  And it seemed that everyone went to the prom except me. I knew I wanted a career in broadcasting, but I was told that wasn't "normal" for girls.  It wasn't an easy time for me, and if you look for photographs from back then, you'll find very few: convinced that I was not attractive (the other kids said I was ugly), I refused to let people take my picture. Years later, I still cringe when I look at my high school yearbook photo, but in a way, I'm glad it survived, since it's a reminder of a very different era.

It was in 1968 when I finally got to be on the radio, at my college station, after nearly four years of trying to persuade station management to give me a chance.  The school newspaper found my on-air debut a noteworthy event-- I had become the first female deejay in the history of the station, and a photographer took a picture of me in the studio to accompany the story. You may have seen the photo online-- there I am, with long hair, surrounded by turntables (we played only vinyl back then) and I'm holding a record. It was actually one of the happiest times of my life: at last, I was doing what I loved. 

I had no way of predicting that it would take nearly five years before I got my chance to be on a professional station (women announcers were still rare, and not always welcome, even in the early 1970s). It has been well-reported how I was hired by WMMS in Cleveland, after the station's program director heard me on the air at a small station in Cambridge, MA, where I had a part-time show playing folk and folk-rock.  I had never lived away from home, but I left Boston (and a full-time teaching job) in the autumn of 1973 to follow my heart and pursue a radio career.

And it was at WMMS, probably in the summer of 1974, that the other photo of me was taken: the one where I'm holding a copy of the newly-released US pressing of the first Rush album. I'm standing with Neil, Geddy, and Alex, along with Matt the Cat (one of the WMMS deejays), John Gorman (the program director), and Don George (the promotion representative of Mercury Records). I had no way of knowing that my life was about to change, thanks to my role in launching Rush's career. And for obvious reasons, this photo is one of my favorites.

There are many photographs of me that were taken since then-- of course I love my wedding photos, and I've also been photographed with a number of famous people over the years. But the one other photo that has a special meaning was taken in May 2011, when I got my PhD at the age of 64. Few people believed I could do it, plus I had a bunch of health problems; but I kept going and finally got it done. Sometimes, I still can't believe I did it. But it's a real photo, and no, it wasn't photoshopped!

If you had asked me back in high school what I'd be doing when I was 73, I doubt I could have thought that far ahead. But I do know the fact that I'm still here, still alive, still blogging, still working, and still trying to make a difference, is in large part due to my love of music and my love of radio and an unlikely friendship with three rock musicians from Toronto. To everyone who reached out on my birthday, thank you. I never imagined five decades ago that I'd get to do some of the stuff I've done or meet some of the folks I've met. And the best part is there's still time to do more. And that's what I hope to be doing in the year ahead.