Having been asked by the station’s general manager to offer suggestions as to the future of WPFW 89.3 FM (The Messenger, Pacifica Radio, Washington, D.C.) I came up with the following. Because WPFW is so important to so many people in the community, and these issues are broadly speaking so important to so many others, I figured I would make my thoughts public and give as many as would like a chance to respond, offer suggestions, criticism, etc. Most of this is not original to me nor is it the first time over the years that many of us have said all of this to station management. However, that so few of these ideas have ever taken root (as far as we could tell) says nothing of the quality of the ideas and more about whatever stagnation occurs at the top, be that stagnation legitimate or not. But, here we go again, and in no particular order (after number one which is precisely where it should be), just for the love of the people and liberated masses media!
1. BE MORE RADICAL AND COMMUNITY ORIENTED
Terrestrial radio is in trouble, and as some have suggested in various ways for quite some time now, Black radio and real community news radio is dead. But to me this is the salvation of WPFW. With a still largely Black, Latino, African diaspora community audience this station has a chance to take its 50,000 watt broadcast power to heights it should have reached long ago by becoming more radical and community oriented. By this I mean set a tone and encourage programming that is sound, quality, researched and prepared, but far more to the political Left. Push that line, challenge liberals and progressives to become more radicalized in their thinking. Offer more aggressively Left programming – for both public affairs and music shows. As news media become more and more consolidated in ownership and the music industry further consolidates good and radical sounds out of ear-shot of our audiences, that is, as we move further toward an apartheid state with an already-existing “apartheid media,” our best hope for survival is to program more news, more radical grassroots journalism and more radical musical content. That audience, one craving more radical/community-based news and musical programming, remains the most under-served audience in the world. Partnerships with Howard U. and other area schools and universities must be fostered, where their input, talent, and reach to our communities can be harnessed. These young people, journalism majors, school paper writers, artists, etc. could become the WPFW press corps, be given credentials and sent to cover politics, local and national, and could also become our station’s ambassadors. Mostly, they would help us develop truly relevant content that could become a model to be emulated throughout our network and around the world. It is also clear from recent reports of the state of the Pacifica network that some serious change is necessary and this is precisely the direction I think will bring a life to the station and network that neither has had in quite a while.
2. MORE HIP-HOP PLEASE!
Extending from point one, center progressive hip-hop and news-based programming that involves local high-school and college students as programmers, producers, editors, etc. The older jazz generations are passing on leaving behind no stable youthful audience to pick up their dwindling listenership and funding. Get younger programmers with more current cultural affinities, train them and get them on the air and targeting their communities ASAP. KPFA’s Hard Knock Radio should become a model for WPFW’s programming which in turn should become a model for national Pacifica programming – Democracy Now! as good as some feel it is, should never be the only national program Pacifica offers especially when so little of their time is spent covering the communities from which we come and to which we should be appealing. But HKR exists as a model, hip-hop and news-based, where omitted rap music can be heard along with the artists themselves and the activists with which they work. But having our Decipher hip-hop block relegated to 10p weeknights and not made a better and more central component of our station is a terrible mistake. In fact, I think all musical genres that the station represents should also include a journalism component that is relevant to the communities being represented by that show. Hip-hop is my own bias and one that I think would attract the largest, youngest and most diverse audience. Actually, I would argue that radical rap music has the most popular and most diverse audience in the world despite being kept from most of the world’s airwaves. WPFW could truly fill a void here by providing regular, organized, news/discussion-inclusive programming that has a heavy hip-hop bent to it. It would be dope and terribly successful. But shoot, have a show called “Crate Digging” where DJs, producers or just lovers of the art would guide audiences through rap music’s history and tradition of sampling in a way that would reveal the deep and profound connections to other genres of music and which would allow for one show to include rap, jazz, funk and everything else under the sun in an informative and fun way, bridging generational gaps and offering some damn good but rare radio.
3. FUNDRAISING/STATION PROMOTION
I honestly don’t know how exactly to make this better but I have always felt that fundraising should not be a job of the volunteer hosts, programmers, etc. Full-time and paid staff must have much more of their time spent cultivating relationships, engaging in public relations work, arranging for live broadcast events and so on. It is they who should assure the proper promotion of the station and its content and it is they who should spend more time promoting and raising funds for the station. Pledge-drives are demoralizing for programmers and a depleted and tired listening audience. Volunteer programmers, those who truly care about their shows, their craft and the station’s mission, already spend far too much time preparing for their once-a-week shows to then have so much of the fundraising fall on their shoulders. And thank-you gifts should never have to be in-hand before the drive. This is in many cases impossible and cuts us off from some great gifts. However, a better promoted station would not need to rely on thank-you gifts to get pledges as much as we currently seem to. The incredible commercial-free programming on a 50,000 watt station, which is as powerful as any other in the area (country?), should be more than enough of a selling point. Similarly, a cheap van should have long ago been purchased, covered in the WPFW logo and sent out everyday to parts of the city and surrounding areas doing live spots, covering events, hosting block parties, etc. We are not seen and almost no one under 40 listens to or has ever heard of the station in part because we are never they are. We are simply not seen or heard. It seems like a relatively small expense given the returns in audience and funding that could be generated.
The vibe in the station is too funky. Too few people know what is going on, too few people feel involved or appreciated and, therefore, from my outsider’s vantage point the morale seems low. I don’t know the details and cannot comment on them, but the vibe is palpable and there is enough whispering to know that all is not well enough at our beloved station. Leadership must do more to set a more convivial tone. I am not sure how, perhaps more open discussion, more clarity as to the decision-making process or the direction in which the station is to go, or more openness and honesty in discussing hires and fires. I understand that not all will always be perfectly happy but we are supposed to be the non-corporate, community-based option/alternative to commercial radio. I think this goes beyond programming and must include leadership and management style. Changes there seem sorely needed.
5. PROGRAM SCHEDULING
Democracy Now! must be followed up by a youthful, radical, news and hip-hop-based program that itself should become the model for many other blocks of programming (to lessen the negative impact of “appointment listening”). I love “Community Comment” and think it should remain somewhere in the schedule but it is too much of a vibe-drop after the highly popular DN. But if DN closes and is followed by energized, youthful and informed voices coming with some different news, news for the people, news for the world’s majority often excluded by DN, I think we would capture more listeners from DN and even more from those who couldn’t care less about that show and who never hear themselves covered, sought after or heard. There are at least 5 journalism/communication studies programs at universities in the area, some that are world famous, filled with students needing practicum and internship opportunities and many of them who come from all the communities excluded by so much of the mainstream and liberal media spaces, including to a significant extent DN and Pacifica Radio. These untapped human resources should have WPFW buzzing with more free help than it can handle in developing programming content, research, writing, production, promotional tools, editing, social media, and so on.
6. INTERACTIVITY/SOCIAL MEDIA
WPFW should be far more engaged online. The station should be tweeting and facebooking and producing youtube content of its shows – constantly – and this should all be handled by the full-time paid staff. Again, individual volunteer programmers should not be at all responsible for promoting their shows or the station. They should do promotional work and should find ways of incorporating other aspects of their lives into promoting their show and the station, but all of this should be in addition to the steady stream (pun intended) of station-driven promotion. The website must also undergo an overhaul and be made to look and feel more like a place where people want to go and stay. Everyday there should be countless tweets and facebook updates alerting people to the wonderful programming and each day mini-video shorts of various shows should be posted to youtube via WPFW’s website. Again, perhaps relationships with the infinite amount of students, activists and artists in the area could be developed where they would provide this kind of work for free or at a highly reduced cost.
These 6 points summarize my concerns and hopes. I look forward to responses, suggestions, critique, etc. Thank you,
Jared Ball – Host/Programmer/Engineer for The Super Funky Soul Power Hour (Fridays 10-11a EST on WPFW 89.3 FM/WPFW.ORG.)