A Long Day’s Journey Into Irrelevance

The website Network Awesome recently put up a documentary filmed at WNEW-FM in New York City in the summer of 1982. There’s a lot that’s interesting about it, but the biggest thing might be this: how much news the album-rock giant carried back in the day. The documentary was shot just days before a major nuclear disarmament rally in New York, which was to feature a concert starring several prominent artists. But it wasn’t just the music that had WNEW covering the rally; it was also the fact that the station’s core audience featured a large cohort of the activist generation of the 1960s, who would either be participating in the rally or interested in it.

The idea that a music station might have good reason to cover hard news is a foreign one nowadays. There’s lots of celebrity gossip and novelty items masquerading as news, but it took an event as awful as the September 11 attacks to get hard news on the majority of music stations. And that was a decade ago. Imagine how horrific an event would have to be to break through today.

Last spring, after the governor of Wisconsin and his legislative allies rammed their union-busting “budget repair” bill into law, the Capitol protests, which had been going on for a month already, spiked. Tens of thousands of people descended upon downtown Madison the morning after. As it happened, I was scheduled to be on the air on two stations in our group that day. On one of them, we broadcast a handful of special reports from one of our news people on the scene, even though we did not normally do news outside of morning drive. During my midday shift, I put on a few listener calls from people who were downtown. On that day, we engaged our audience in a historic event, something they were interested in and that mattered to them, and it was exhilarating to be a part of it. Local radio: public interest, convenience, and necessity fuck yeah.

Then I walked down the hall to another of our stations to do afternoon drive. There, we executed the music format like we did every other day. In the middle of a transcendent event everybody was following and had an opinion about, and which affected thousands of listeners right in the pocketbook, we went on with more music, less talk, world without end, amen.

It probably wasn’t the most uncomfortable afternoon I ever spent on the air, but it’s in the semifinals.

The latter station has since changed both its management and its programming philosophy, and were the same sort of galvanizing event to happen now, I have little doubt that we’d cover it and talk about it. But it’ll be a long while before I forget that day last March. I understand that success in any endeavor, radio or otherwise, comes from remaining laser-focused on your objectives so as to accomplish your goals, and surely that was the idea driving the station on that day. But there are days on which the goalposts move, and on those days, what can possibly be lost by moving with them?

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