Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Media: The Death of FSRN?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One day in the spring of 2001, I decided to scan the dial while walking home in the 6 pm hour. Normally, I would have been listening to WGBH TV channel 2 from Boston, Massachusetts for the airing of what was then called the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, but something caused me to turn to something else. I tuned in WMBR 88.1 FM out of Cambridge, the MIT radio station, expecting to find the Pacifica Network News, which I normally listened to off the Internet later in the day. I thought I had found it, but then I realized that the host was Verna Avery Brown, who hadn't been with Pacifica since late 2000--and that the show was just packed with content, which the Pacifica news had ceased to be. At the end of the half-hour, I discovered that I was listening to Free Speech Radio News, and it immediately replaced the Pacifica Network News in my listening habits.

FSRN was started by the reporters that had gone on strike against an increasingly corporate Pacifica in 2000. A worker-run cooperative, FSRN was a whole new way of doing radio news. Taking advantage of the Internet for gathering content and for producing the program in distributed locations, and decreased satellite feed costs for distributing the program, FSRN enlisted reporters all over the world to file stories when news of significance was happening locally. The program was so packed with content, clearly more substantive than the Pacifica Network News had been even before the strike, that it began attracting a serious following and direct donations from listeners.

By April 2002, the FSRN collective had effectively won. Verna Avery Brown became a leader at the Pacifica network, the Pacifica Network News was canceled, and FSRN effectively took its place on the network, with Pacifica providing much of its funding. Since then, FSRN has continued to provide coverage using local reporters based all around the world, leading to quite interesting coverage of world events. It's been a staple of my radio listening ever since I discovered it, and I was one of many thousands of individual financial contributors to the broadcast.

The recession changed all that. When people like me became unemployed, they quit contributing to FSRN. Pacifica starting running into financial difficult, and started making late payments to the FSRN cooperative. In the end, when Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding to Pacifica came through, FSRN would again be caught up. However, Pacifica is now in such a dire situation that it couldn't catch up with its commitments to FSRN or other programming (leading, amongst other things, to the current controversial situation with morning show at network-owned KPFA in Berkeley, California, in which the network canceled the station's top local fund-raising show).

As a result, starting on Tuesday, FSRN is no longer what it used to be. Reporters are no longer being paid to file stories, and none are airing. The program consists of the permanent staff doing two-way interviews with experts and a lot of filler talking about the crisis. If you are unfamiliar with FSRN's programming, don't listen to a show from this week--pick something out of the archives from the first ten years of its existence and listen to that. If money is not raised quickly, the program will no longer air at all after 20-December.

In its page on the crisis, FSRN reveals that it can air a week's worth of programming for $3600. (Imagine what the cooperative could do with the CBC's funding!) Will this programming resource really disappear for the equivalent of the salary of one business executive? Unfortunately, in the next two weeks, we may find out.

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