Strong local media is the key to informed citizens

Engaged citizens require reliable, quality local media institutions. Our area has been fortunate to have a locally oriented newspaper, The Standard-Times. Say what you will about its news coverage, or its Opinion Page, from accolades to criticism, our local newspaper is the life blood of the region’s participatory democracy, and helps establish our region’s agenda. The Standard-Times reports, enlightens and doggedly asks the questions that move our region forward. Literally and figuratively, citizens handling and reading “the paper” is a daily tradition that goes back to the earliest days of our city.

Ninety years ago, radio stations began to change the way our citizens were informed of current events. A morning or evening newspaper, depending on the market, reported the news and shaped public opinion in regimented time frames, every 24 hours. Local radio had the ability to keep people informed 24 hours a day seven days a week. Since the early 1920s the citizens of New Bedford have had a local radio station to rely upon for news and entertainment. In the earliest days of radio, WNBH went on the air, and then in 1949, WBSM joined the airwaves. For the past few years, WNBH has been an ESPN affiliate, also concentrating on local sports, but WBSM has maintained a local studio throughout its existence.

During its history, when WBSM stated “news as it happens” it meant it. Its broadcasts are interrupted for a breaking local, national or world news story. Its news segment on the half-hour in morning drive time, and on the hour for the rest of the day, had the effect of a town square clock chiming the latest news in real time. As talk radio evolved, WBSM became the daily town meeting for the residents of New Bedford and our surrounding region. It also allowed anyone passing through our area to hear the dynamics of our public conversation and debate.

WBSM’s news department continues to shine. Unfortunately, however, over the past several months, Cumulus Broadcasting, which bought WBSM, eliminated much of our local programming in an effort to cut costs. They have eliminated five hours of local broadcasting each weekday, (a total of 25 hours per week, not including weekends) and substituted it with syndicated programming. Nationally syndicated programming is necessarily homogenized to cater to a nation’s worth of radio listeners. In recent times, it is also prone to specific ideological agendas and rants.

It is clear that Cumulus Broadcasting’s experiment to fill our local airwaves with national prattle has failed. It is time to bring back local radio. Local programming is just that, whether it’s Pete and Neil, Phil or Ken or Dick and Bob or anchors Jack or Jim, Taylor or Brian, we know them all. More importantly, they know us. They know our region, our city and towns, and our families. They understand the issues that face us and our neighborhoods. They help connect us through the radio waves with local news, relevant community information and interesting discussions.

Recently, it has been announced that WBSM is going to change hands once again with a sale to Townsquare Media. I suggest to Townsquare that the continued exclusion of the local flavor of WBSM won’t play well into the future for whoever owns the station. In order to be a successful radio station, people need to be listening. It is apparent that few find the nationally syndicated generic banter to be “must-listen-to radio.” Restore the local focus of daytime programming and you will bring listeners back to the fold. The combination of the morning Standard-Times “paper” supported by high-tech updates on The Standard-Times website, along with a local vibrant talk radio and news station, will ensure an informed and engaged citizenry for generations to come.

WBSM, let’s once again light up the control board for the local listening public.

This Op-Ed appeared in the Standard Times newspaper on July 26th. The original piece can be seen here: