Guess which progressive news service produced 1,730 stories that aired more than 100,000 times last year on 2,320 mainstream and alternative stations across the country, from Pacifica to Clear Channel. Air America? Nope. Democracy Radio? Uh uh. It's Public News Service -- perhaps the most widely used independent news service you've never heard of.
PNS began as Northern Rockies News Service in 1996, the brainchild of journalist Lark Corbeil. A veteran of international television news, she had returned to her home state of Idaho in the early 1990s and volunteered at a public radio station. Taken aback by the amount of ultra-conservative content available to broadcasters, she started thinking about how to help offset it by getting more alternative voices into mainstream public debate. Her solution was to offer the media balanced news stories written and edited by professional journalists. The stories would examine the effects of policy on areas that received little coverage, lift up marginalized voices and make greater journalistic breadth available to broadcasters and publishers.
From NRNS, Corbeil's vision has expanded to a network of 12 independent state-based news services providing high-quality public interest journalism to both mainstream and alternative media daily, from Washington State to New York State. Corbeil manages them from Boulder, Colo., under the Public News Service administrative umbrella. California, Ohio and Wisconsin are on the horizon, and a bilingual radio news service in New Mexico debuts this year.
In 2004, PNS racked up the impressive numbers of stories, airings and stations mentioned above. The average story aired on 20 to 60 stations. Funding comes from grants, gifts and support from more than 250 non-profit and non-governmental organizations.
Jeremy Maxand is the executive director of the Snake River Alliance, "Idaho's nuclear watchdog" and a supporter of Northern Rockies News Service. "A news report on compensation for nuclear fallout victims went out from NRNS this spring," he says, "and eventually got picked up by over 700 stations nationally -- that's a lot of coverage. It takes our message not only to Idaho but to other places across the country."
When the FCC held hearings in Rapid City, S.D., last year, Greater Dakota News Service plastered the state (42 stations) with coverage. The GDNS script put the issue in context by saying the hearings were held in response to public concerns about FCC's relaxing media ownership rules and allowing more station consolidation. Then came sound bites from a Free Press spokeswoman pointing out that people don't know that the airwaves are a public resource and broadcasters have an obligation to serve the public interest. Her interview was followed by the state broadcasters association director, defending his stations' public service record. Thousands of listeners, perhaps the majority, learned about Free Press and the issue for the first time.
Sometimes Public News Service moves a story from the bull's-eye to the periphery, as it did in April, when Congress revised federal bankruptcy laws. When a coalition of progressive groups held a press conference on Capital Hill denouncing the proposed bankruptcy bill, PMS ran the story with local tie-ins in 11 states. More than 1,700 stations aired stories.
"Nationally, progressives are trying to figure out how to get their perspective into mainstream media on a daily basis," says Cortney Harding, a PNS fundraiser. "Working in the 'red states,' we had to figure it out much earlier. "We're a progressive media provider that bridges the alternative-mainstream gap to reach multiple and quite different audiences. While we believe in reaching out to an organization's base, we also believe in casting the net as wide as possible with the resources we have."
Harding adds, "There's something the national movement can learn from the state-based groups that have demonstrated success in some tough environments. Look at the recent election victories in Montana, Nevada (minimum-wage increase) and Colorado -- local public interest communities there are also supporting our independent news services."
By delivering news from these communities in real voices over radio airwaves to thousands of people, PNS stories introduce listeners to new ideas and perspectives in a non-threatening way. Over time, they can change hearts and minds.
It happened in a most unlikely spot last year.
On Nov. 3, 2004, Nicole LeFavour awoke as a newly elected Idaho state representative. The 40-year-old had run on a platform of adequate education funding, affordable health care and a tax system that rewarded businesses for providing jobs with decent wages and benefits -- all issues important to voters in Boise, Idaho. She fought off an ambitious young white male in the Democratic primary, then a Republican placeholder in the general election, taking a healthy 67 percent of the votes cast.
Smart, politically savvy and armed with two years of experience lobbying on economic issues, LeFavour was endorsed by the Idaho Education Association, Idaho AFL-CIO and the Idaho Statesman, a Gannett-chain newspaper. That LeFavour, an out lesbian, could win in Idaho, even in its most liberal district, surprised many longtime observers. Even more noteworthy was the fact that neither of her opponents raised sexual preference as an issue, either directly or indirectly.
LeFavour's race was a far cry from another election just a decade earlier, when an anti-gay ballot initiative inspired Idaho's most virulent outbreak of homophobia since the famed "Boys of Boise" case in 1955.
In 1993, conservative Christian organizations intent on defending legal discrimination against homosexuals vowed to gather 32,000 signatures to land an anti-gay proposition on the 1994 ballot. The referendum galvanized Idaho's gays and human rights advocates. They organized "Idaho for Human Dignity," "Your Family Friends and Neighbors" and, ultimately, the "No On 1 Coalition." Brian Bergquist, manager of the Boise State University student union, was a gay leader and prominent spokesman. His partner, John Hummel, recalls the situation after they failed to convince enough voters not to sign referendum petitions:
The thing that sticks out in my mind is our grave disappointment and concern during the summer of 1994, when the results of our professional campaign opinion research and focus groups came back. It showed that folks in Idaho would not respond positively to a campaign message that focused on how Prop. 1 was discriminatory and unfair to gay people. This was because, first, most Idahoans at that time had no awareness or any perception that they knew any GLBT people, and second, to the extent that they thought they knew GLBT folks, they actively despised them, so discrimination was ok. To make a long story short, we thought we were screwed.The following November, voter turnout was 420,000 -- "tens of thousands of voters more than anticipated," according to unpublished research by Snake River Alliance's Maxand, then a Boise State University master's degree candidate. "About 11,700 voters skipped the Proposition 1 question altogether. Proposition 1 lost by a mere 3,098 votes."
LeFavour was active in No On 1. During the campaign, she recalls, "we had to work first and foremost, over and over again, just to educate the media to write a story that didn't use the most negative anti-gay language possible. Typically, stories used right-wing message phrases like 'special rights,' and that made it hard for us to really educate people as to what we faced everyday in our communities, libraries and schools."
"When we first started -- in Idaho, the most conservative state in the country in terms of most Republican lawmakers -- broadcasters there wouldn't pick up a GLBT story," Corbeil says. "But we kept covering the issue in a way that helped make it easier for them to run the stories. In a couple years, stories on these issues started getting the same pickup as any other."
Corbeil knew what journalists were up against -- consolidation was wiping out radio newsrooms but stations still had to broadcast news -- and she also saw good stories generated by the nonprofit sector going uncovered. NRNS married these two needs by providing quality news that covered perspectives "under the radar" of most reporters.
The question was how to fund the newsgathering. Corbeil decided to invite individuals, organizations and foundations who wanted to support specific interest areas to become members and pay a sliding-scale fee. It hasn't always been an easy sell.
"Most folks don't know what a news service is when we start talking with them about funding one," Corbeil says. "We are not doing PR or distributing news releases. We explicitly inform contributors that they cannot control the news content. So we're deeply grateful to our funders, who support a mission-driven news entity that they can't control."
"We are up against a serious obstacle to progressive thought all over the U.S.," Rep. LeFavour says. "That is exactly what Northern Rockies News Service has worked to provide: stories about us in our own voices. Many times when we've wanted to make people better understand an issue like harassment, bullying and threats to the safety of LGBT students in Idaho schools, Northern Rockies would call us up and ask for our perspective. It made a huge difference to have parts of rural Idaho hear stories of out gay and lesbian students, or parents afraid for their teens and their ability to learn in a safe environment in a local schools.
"Nothing matters more than putting a face on a community that faces prejudice and discrimination. To tell stories in our own voices is powerful."