Tracy Jake Siska

No Community Voices Wanted

The campaign for the "professionalization" of radio is surreptitiously removing community voices from the dial. National Public Radio affiliates nationwide have been devouring locally produced community and university stations as educational institutions seek to end financial support for their stations.

The use of the takeover form known as a "local management agreement" is growing nationwide. Minnesota Public Radio, for example, has used these to take control of two college radio stations in California. Carol Pierson, president and CEO of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, believes that the takeover of these small community stations "is sometimes a good thing because [NPR affiliates] will bring in a lot of money and be able to upgrade the operations." In practice, however, upgrading operations and bringing in money often means elimination of community programming, because these shows rarely raise as much money from individuals, and especially from corporations, as standardized NPR-style programming.

WYMS radio in Milwaukee is licensed to the Milwaukee Public School System. For decades it has been broadcasting locally produced jazz, news and ethnic community programming. Recently, WYMS was almost given to a local university's NPR affiliate, WUWM, in a secret deal between Milwaukee public schools superintendent Spence Korte and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. According to published reports (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, DATE), under the deal, the school system would pay the university $375,000 the first year to operate WYMS, with declining payments over the next five years.

When the terms became public, the deal was killed and Korte was publicly chastised by the board of education; he later resigned. However, instead of returning the station to the community produced jazz and ethnic programming, the school board decided to air Jazz Works, 24 hours a day of satellite jazz. The school board convened a committee to study what should be done with the radio station; a report is due in October.

Milwaukee Public Schools "has a $30 million deficit and we want to make sure our kids can read, write and do arithmetic," said schools spokesperson Don Hoffman. But a source involved in WYMS operations (who asked not to be named) noted, "We had just completed our spring fundraiser during which we were able to raise over $100,000 dollars ... This had nothing to do with economics; it was purely political -- they did not like the individuals running the station."

"There are already two other stations that air NPR programming in Milwaukee; why is there a need for a third?" asked Jim Denomie, a WYMS producer and member of the Bad River Chippewa band. Denomie's program, the only show that deals with Native American news and issues in Milwaukee, had been serving the community for five years. The station's ethnic programming serves very distinct sectors in the Milwaukee market: German, Ukrainian, Polish, Italian, Jewish, Irish, Latino and Native American. Nowhere else on the dial are these communities' voices heard, particularly in their native languages.

Voice of Diversity

Chicago's Loyola University currently owns and operates WLUW, "Loyola’s Voice of Diversity," as the station is known. In the 1990s, Loyola's communications department decided to stop broadcasting non-stop dance music and instead directed the station to engage the very heterogeneous community that surrounded the university and become a social justice advocate.

WLUW currently broadcasts to Vietnamese, Guatemalan, Polish, Haitian, Bulgarian and Native American communities in native languages. The station also carries Radio Nation, FAIR's CounterSpin, Making Contact, Labor Beat and Free Speech Radio News -- programming heard nowhere else in Chicago.

In December of 2001 Loyola's president, Father Michael Garanzini, announced that the administration had decided to "de-fund" the station. The administration, he said, had come to this decision because the university is running a $20 million deficit, but TV and film professor Jeff Harder sees another agenda: "The conservative administration has never appreciated the pro-social justice curriculum put forth by our department, and by removing the radio station the administration removes our department’s connection with these communities."

On June 27, 2002, the administration notified the staff at WLUW that the radio station was in preliminary discussions with WBEZ, Chicago's NPR affiliate, to complete a local management agreement and take over operations. The administration also notified the staff that after the end of August their services would no longer be required and that a new format would be put into place.

"We lose the only outlets these communities have to local media," says Craig Kois, station manager at WLUW. "Because of concentrated ownership in the media in Chicago, our function at WLUW becomes even more important."

Tracy Jake Siska is a freelance journalist from Chicago. This article was published in EXTRA!, a magazine published by the media advocacy group FAIR.