Urban Media

Public radio is like a city.

The pledge drive for St. Louis Public Radio ended yesterday. (And it's not too late to pledge!) And I just spent the last two days, as I often do on weekends, listening to roughly eight hours of programming. Actually, that might be a conservative estimate. So I have public radio on my mind, you could say.

I listen to public radio not only to get my news--although it is my primary news source. I listen to get different perspectives, to expand my horizons and to see the world from a new point of view. I listen to On the Media so I understand the broader implications of mainstream and alternative media portrayals of events. I tune in to This American Life to hear how other people live and connect to one another.

Public radio provides something that few other media outlets can, or do anyway. It gives perspective. A local newspaper or broadcast may focus narrowly on nearby events. A lot of times these are sensational stories like murders that absolutely deserve to be covered but are teased out like twisted candy to attract visitors. A national paper or broadcast casts a wider net and tells you what is happening to people around the world and about the political machine marching toward new legislation that will affect you. And the network alternative, cable news, caters itself to self-selecting political ideologies or, like CNN, simply stoops to reach the lowest common denominator.

But public radio can offer a wider perspective. Partly because of its funding model, which at least for KWMU is about 50% individual donors with the remainder from corporate sponsorships, government funding and foundational support. This leaves public radio stations a good deal more independent and capable of covering issues with fewer conflicts of interest. And partly from what I can only assume is tradition. Or another way of phrasing that: choice.

Public radio chooses to provide a human narrative to many of the stories they cover. You hear people in their own voices, beamed into your home from another city or the other side of the world. You hear the pain when they describe loss and their joy when they overcome it. It is an intensely emotional medium.

Public radio is like a city because it provides you with those new experiences you only get from other people. Happening across an engaging, moving story on the radio is like running into a stranger at a coffee shop and striking up a conversation. You didn't know it was going to happen, but by being at the coffee shop, by surrounding yourself with new people, you let it happen. And it enriches your day, maybe even impacts your life.

When I put on the radio on Sunday afternoon I'm always hoping for those same experiences. To hear about problems and solutions and suffering and triumph and the bizarre and wonderful ways that my fellow human beings live grounds me in the wider society. I find this diversity invigorating, much as I do city life.