A eulogy for Free Speech Radio News

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This commentary first appeared on the website of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters and is reposted here with permission.

It is with sadness that I write about the closure of Free Speech Radio News, which produced its last newscast April 28. Launched in 2000 by striking Pacifica Network News reporters, the founders were passionate and driven to create a newscast that told global stories rooted in local communities from around the world. And they produced this show more or less out of thin air.

From the beginning, FSRN was at the forefront of digital technology. FSRN distributed its daily newscast as an MP3 file for anyone to download even before RSS technology enabled what we now know as podcasts. FSRN staff was a decentralized worker collective, making editorial and organizational decisions together while based all over the U.S. and the world, before VOIP communication and cloud storage made virtual offices more common.

I wasn’t there at the beginning of FSRN — I worked with FSRN as Pacifica Radio’s National Programming Coordinator in 2007–08, and I worked as FSRN’s General Administrator from 2009–11. My involvement taught me a tremendous amount about the very challenging but creative and meaningful work that goes into sustaining an organization. Especially one built out of thin air.

Like all organizations, FSRN had its weaknesses. But its great editorial strength was always its emphasis on boots-on-the-ground reporting by people who really knew the textures of their communities, covering stories that helped envision a better world. That’s hard to come by in the media landscape, and it’s doubly hard to sustain.

Former FSRN Producer (and my former co-worker) Catherine Komp phrased it well: “The small staff worked magic with a small budget, figuring out ways to make it stretch when funding was cut and anticipated checks didn’t come in.” During its 17-year run, FSRN produced some 3,300 half-hour newscasts, including more than 50,000 voices of everyday and extraordinary people from around the globe.

In practical terms, the shuttering of FSRN’s Weekly Edition probably won’t be felt on radio program schedules as deeply as the end of the daily newscast was a couple years ago — though it certainly does represent the end of a reliable source for local voices speaking to global stories.

For community radio stations, FSRN was more than just a newscast to air. It was also an accessible avenue for both budding and veteran station-based journalists to report for a national outlet, to tell their community’s on-the-ground stories to a much wider audience.

FSRN was one of a very small number of syndicated programs that really knit together the fabric of community radio stations around the country. These community stations do tremendous work at enriching their local places and serving their communities. But connecting these communities to one another, learning from the experiences and hopes of one another, is tough.

FSRN kept it going for 17 years, which is a pretty good run. But finding ways to sustain, nurture and grow institutions that fill this role is a challenge. I hope we can do better at sustaining and growing the other current and future institutions that knit our communities together in genuine, authentic ways.

Nathan Moore is GM of WTJU in Charlottesville, Va.

  • Brad Deltan

    I do wonder why this wasn’t something NPR couldn’t have assumed the back-office responsibility for?

    Yes, yes, I know. It’s Pacifica and therefore terminally toxic. Whatever. FSRN was a lot more “reality-based” than most of Pacifica because it had to be: it had bills to pay and it actually tried to pay them.

    Even if you discount that, the underlying concept of FSRN…a network of worldwide freelance journalists providing a local perspective on international news for a US audience, every day for 30 minutes…is one that should not be discarded too cavalierly. It was a decent counterpoint to Marketplace and was the only other daily 30 minute program that filled out the hour (unless you just decided to only air one half-hour of ATC that hour).

    When member stations are all but screaming for NPR to invest more in content for member stations, it seems a little offensive that NPR is letting a proven concept that should be sustainable, if not successful, wither on the vine for want of a surfeit of elitist attitudes towards Pacifica’s dysfunction.

    • MarkJeffries

      Politics aside, isn’t the problem a lot of public radio stations had with FSRN and have with “Democracy Now!” is that the production values were/are a little to be wanting and not having that “sound-rich” quality that provides “driveway moments?” (Not to mention Goodman’s people consistently using vocals for music buttons and more-or-less daring stations to slip in funders, promos and traffic reports during the breaks.) Supposedly, the reason Pacifica didn’t stick with NPR was because they thought the network was too pre-occupied with production and not with content.

      • Just anecdotally, my impression has been that the show’s political leanings are a bigger roadblock for most NPR stations. I think FSRN would probably encounter similar resistance getting into station lineups. Considering that some stations air the audio feed of “NewsHour,” derived from TV mics, I don’t know that audio quality is always a major concern.

        • Brad Deltan

          Given how far the newscast audio quality has dropped since NPR dropped engineers from them, I agree that audio fidelity/quality wasn’t really the problem.

          I also think people have enough knowledge to understand that Pacifica, Democracy Now, and FSRN were all relatively distinct entities. Yes they’re all quite “lefty” but you can’t draw too many inferences about any one of them from the behavior of the others.

          That said, I imagine Mike hits the nail on the head: there’s a broad-brush tarring done against any entity even remotely associated with Pacifica when it comes to their “political leanings”. I think FSRN definitely has them but it wasn’t as hard-core “left-wing” as DN! or the rest of Pacifica was. It’s still definitely more “lefty” than NPR usually is, but I think the value of having a rather different perspective on international news was enough to outweigh that problem. And it’s entirely possible that NPR could shift the editorial tone to “reign in” some of the more hard-left stories. Since FSRN is just an amalgamation of indepedent freelance reporters, it’s not hard to pick and choose whose stories you acquire and broadcast, and thus shift the editorial tone as needed. If anything I’d be worried that NPR would shift it TOO far to the center-right. Again: the chief value of FSRN is that it provides a different perspective on things.

          • “I also think people have enough knowledge to understand that Pacifica, Democracy Now, and FSRN were all relatively distinct entities.”

            Considering how often listeners (and even mass media) refer to the “NPR show” This American Life, I wouldn’t be so sure of that!

            Your suggestion about NPR taking on FSRN is an interesting one, but considering that NPR’s overall direction in recent years has been increasingly away from acquired content, it’s probably pretty unlikely. PRI, though?

          • Nathan Moore

            Just a quick note to say that FSRN did explore possibilities around absorption, merger, partnership, etc. with a number of other media entities. Obviously, it didn’t work out. Not to get too much into FSRN’s weaknesses, but conversations of the merger sort make a person pretty quickly realize one’s issues around branding.

            FSRN often got painted with the same brush as DN and Pacifica, which is understandable since we had shared roots and were usually aired on the same stations. But FSRN’s slant was not in being didactic or whatever. Our slant was in what we chose to cover — what to shine a light on in our 29 minutes per day — and in whose voices we considered worthy of telling those stories. Every newsroom makes decisions like that, but FSRN’s answers to those questions weren’t the same as NPR or DN or any other newsroom. Within stories themselves, FSRN was always factual and actually remarkably fair in presenting multiple perspectives.

          • Paul Cook

            FSRN was …actually remarkably fair in presenting multiple perspectives
            Seriously?

          • Brad Deltan

            Yes, quite seriously.

            That’s the problem with being a right-wing ideologue Paul. You lose any credibility in objectively analyzing content.

          • Ann Alquist

            I’m not a right wing ideologue, far from it, and I find that statement ridiculous. You can share all the perspectives you want and still not be fair.

          • Brad Deltan

            Was keeping the FSRN branding a stumbling block? I don’t really see a screaming NEED for any vestige of the branding to continue. What was really needed was the editors and the freelancers filing their stories.

            Not to say that this was an issue, but just hypothetically:

            If the FSRN people wouldn’t be involved without the FSRN branding, I think that would speak volumes about the objectivity and whether or not they should’ve continued to be featured in the show.

            If, OTOH, the FSRN brand was all going away and it was re-done as something else, that would seem to largely mute the issue of being painted with the Pacifica brush. Of course, it could also be that potential merger/acquisition partners were just using that line as an excuse to turn you down, too… :-(

          • Ann Alquist

            How many CEO’s of multinational corporations did they interview again? Those perspectives rarely included. The show was intellectually lazy – like a lot of news outlets – about probing complexities of any kind.

          • Brad Deltan

            Sorry, you’re absolutely correct that John Q Public out there has, in general, no clue of the distinctions between each entity.

            I meant the people at NPR/PRI/APM/PRX etc, who really ought to know better.

  • Ann Alquist

    When I was the News Director at KFAI, no one ever reached out to me to talk about growing a station based, reliant on freelance editors daily show. I got calls about holes to fill from Aaron Glantz, but ultimately the show failed because it was tethered to a financially mismanaged institution and it was never very good to begin with: I had no idea what was going half the time because the script writing was focused less on the story and more on a left of center political agenda (which is essentially, rich people are bad, poor people are good. I get it.) Also, it wasn’t a good counterpoint to NPR programming. It offered nothing. You couldn’t pledge it, it didn’t build an audience, the quality (if it was ever there) was mediocre at best and even that’s a bit of a stretch. And they missed the digital bandwagon a few times over. It’s amazing it lasted on the fumes it had for as long as it did!

    • Brad Deltan

      Wow. Don’t hold back Ann, tell us what you REALLY think. :)

      I’d agree…perhaps not as strongly, though…with a lot of your points but I’d make one suggestion: FSRN wasn’t a great counterpoint to NPR but it wasn’t a bad counterpoint to Marketplace, which has drifted rather rightward (by public radio standards) over the years.

      • Ann Alquist

        Why would you think I wouldn’t tell you what I really think, Brad? It’s incredibly dismissive to write that as a response.

        We spend so much time in public radio dancing around what sucks without saying, you know, it sucks. FSRN sucked – just in case you didn’t get it, Brad.

        No way FSRN was a counterpoint to Marketplace. Marketplace is eminently listenable; FSRN was not. Marketplace tells stories about people making economic decisions and the effect it has on their lives; FSRN talks about people as victims of global capitalism.

        The real issue is that these little community stations don’t have many options. National programming from the large producers can be tough for those stations to insert without straying too far from their “community” sound. There was an opening for Pacifica and FSRN to develop a sound that was more in line with them and they blew it. What would be great is if the powerhouse community stations could incubate programming that goes national – much like NPR stations incubate shows that then get put on the network. It’s a tried and true model.

        • Brad Deltan

          My apologies for my attempt at levity. I’m not used to anyone in public radio speaking so refreshingly honestly.

          I don’t know that I entirely agree with your analysis, but I think it’s good analysis nonetheless. For example, in recent years to my ears, Marketplace is increasingly more about how great big capitalism is no matter how much destruction it wreaks. Whereas FSRN was (at least when it was a daily show) very much exposing how much destruction capitalism can indeed wreak. Sure, it had an agenda: showing people in America how decisions made in their name were having real consequences outside our borders. That’s not a bad thing, IMHO.

          But we’re drifting from my original point: FSRN was, at its heart, an incredibly simple concept. One host/editor, and a bunch of freelancers reporting in from around the globe.

          Right now NPR’s international news coverage is decent, at best, and the system overall relies very heavily on the BBC World Coverage for international news. That’s not a bad thing; the BBC is excellent overall. But what I liked about FSRN is that it was international news with very different perspective on things. That’s something NPR could badly use.

          This does not seem, to me, a terribly hard thing to replicate within the existing NPR framework. It doesn’t have to be FSRN in name nor in action, but re-creating the underlying concept ought to be relatively cheap and easy. One host, maybe two or three producers, and a bunch of freelancers. Maybe some of the same freelancers. Maybe all of them. Or none of them. Whatever ultimately floats the boat works for me.

          Hell, it doesn’t have to be NPR. Seems like this could be right up PRX’s alley, too, although it would involve PRX more expressly becoming a content creator rather than a content distributor. I’m sympathetic to the idea that it’s not a trivial difference.

          Either way, I envision it sort of like Bryant Park Project or Vocalo: a public radio venture designed at the outset to leverage public radio’s strengths but play to a different audience by leveraging non-public radio content channels.

          • Ann Alquist

            So there are platforms that are operationalizing the sort of process you’re describing. Minnesota pioneered Public Insight Network; Jennifer Brandel took the values of community engagement and infused it into Curious City, now Hearken. I think focusing on the concept was the problem – and is still hugely problematic at places that say they put a premium on “community” voices, like FSRN did. They never operationalized those values the way Michael Skoler of Jennifer Brandel did – and more significantly, lacked the vision to think about how to build out platforms that would create interaction instead of transaction. That’s what makes it so sad: the politics of the show put it into a vise that froze any innovation to do the work that it sought to do.

          • Brad Deltan

            I like Hearken a lot, but to me it seems to fall under the “teach a man to fish” concept, where FSRN was just giving out fish.

            It’s important to have the knowledge and tools to *make* content, but at the end of the day, a lot of stations don’t need tools…they just need the content.

          • Ann Alquist

            I’m not taking about the stations using Hearken. FSRN could have innovated as an international news program and used Hearken. But because they think like you – stations need to fill a hole! – they didn’t take any risk and just did business as usual. They used an antiquated model for news production and distribution, which works fine to scale, but when you’re scrappy, you can’t think like the New York Yankees. You have to innovate.

            Also, there’s plenty of talent at these little station who could have collaborated with FSRN on using Hearken to beef up their reportage. But focusing on the short term fill the hole mentality is what eventually will kill these stations. Their demise is being prevented by the gift that keeps on giving, the Trump administration, but these stations have been atrophied for years by the very mindset you are espousing.

    • Nathan Moore

      As I pointed out in the article, like all organizations, FSRN had its weaknesses. My description would be more charitable than yours, but yes, you aptly describe FSRN’s weaknesses. Way to beat it while it’s down. Or gone, in this case.

      Pretty sure your series of posts here are much more about your personal enmity towards me, for whatever reasons you have for that. So carry on with your grudge and enjoy yourself.

      • Ann Alquist

        No grudge. And not personal. But giving accolades where none are deserved is a bit much. We’re in the business of service, not patting ourselves on the back when we fail.

        • Nathan Moore

          We all try to build something meaningful and good. None of us do it as well as we aspire to. When something fails, we remember the good stuff, and those who try to build something again learn from what could’ve been better. But you don’t go to a funeral and shout out all the ways that the dead guy was a jerk.

          • Ann Alquist

            Journalism isn’t dead. International coverage isn’t dead. And I do call out the dead guy who didn’t take care of his family or pay his bills on time.