Tag Archives: Vermont Public Radio

VPR tries for diversity

Vermont Public Radio has begun a noble effort in upstream swimming that makes a salmon run look like a splash in the kiddie pool. The overwhelmingly-white-even-by-Vermont-standards service has launched the Diverse Voices Initiative, “a comprehensive approach to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.”

I wish them luck. They are not only battling a history of whiteness that goes back beyond the founding of NPR to the early concept of “educational radio”; they are also trying to foster diversity in a famously non-diverse state, and they are battling the rules of radio programming itself. Kind of a tall order.

Let me pause for a moment and state, for the record, that I’m an old white guy and I’ll probably get some stuff wrong here. What I do bring is experience in public radio that goes back to the late 1970s, which is not nothing.

Public radio has always been a preserve of whiteness. Specifically, of college-educated upper-middle-class whiteness, the kind of people who read The New Yorker and drink wine and do brunch. And listen to classical music, which used to be a mainstay of public radio before news/talk took over.

Many public radio licenses were held by universities. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, I worked for one such organization in another state; its programming largely consisted of classical music plus lectures and commentaries by university professors. That’s tape-recorded, full-hour classroom lectures. The station’s news department made a point of not covering its own community. It ignored campus protest movements that sometimes took place in the plaza below its fifth-floor perch. That would be demeaningly tawdry, and not of interest to their refined audience. (It also might upset university administration, which at the time provided much of the organization’s funding.)

Practically from the beginning, NPR stations were beset by criticism of their pearly whiteness. In 1977 — two years before the creation of “Morning Edition” — the Corporation for Public Broadcasting commissioned a task force on how public television and radio were addressing communities of color. Its conclusion: when it came to serving people of color, “the public broadcast system is asleep at the transmitter.”

And despite NPR’s stated commitment to minority outreach, the task force found that only thee percent of its budget was spent on programming focusing on the nonwhite U.S. population.

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The Necessary News Monster

The news of the day: Vermont Public Radio and Vermont Public Television are merging. Let me guess. the combined entity will be called “Vermont Public Media,” amirite?

In a time of media consolidation and droopy revenues, this move makes a lot of sense, but it also sets off alarm bells in my mind. The merger means one less independent entity in the Vermont media landscape, and the creation of a player with the resources to dominate the reporting of news — and the nonprofit world.

The latter is not my area of expertise, but I know that VPR has long been seen as a nonprofit monster that makes it harder for other organizations to raise the money they need.

And if you’ve followed my writing about VPR over the years, you know what I think. It’s an organization that does a lot of good work, but falls short in fulfilling its potential and maximizing its use of available resources. Or, in the words of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

After the merger, you can double that. If there’s any organization that’s played it safer than VPR, it’s VTPBS. I realize it’s harder and costlier to produce video programming than audio, but c’mon, Vermont PBS doesn’t do much to enhance our understanding of our state, ourselves, or current events.

For the new entity to serve us as it must, it’s going to need a significant injection of fearlessness. And generally speaking, the bigger an organization, the more self-protective it becomes.

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Sharing the scraps from VPR’s table

Today is Giving Tuesday, part of our ongoing parade of post-Black Friday “Days” for this or that. Eventually, every day till Christmas will be spoken for.

In honor of the event, our state’s least needy nonprofit is doing its best to cash in. Vermont Public Radio has a special two-fer-Tuesday deal: give your dollars to VPR and another, much needier, charity will get some spare change.

It’s Giving Tuesday, and for every gift to VPR today only, a generous supporter from Shelburne will donate 15 meals to the Vermont Foodbank.

Okay, this bothers me. And I’ll try to explain why.

VPR has an immense advantage over every other nonprofit in the state: a perpetually open direct line to its constituents. It can interrupt service at any time for fundraising messages.

Imagine if a nonprofit called you on the phone and you couldn’t hang up until they let you. Or it could interrupt your mail service until you read its latest pitch.

So here we are on Giving Tuesday, and VPR is generously lending its megaphone to a worthy cause.

Or it’s cashing in on the occasion and borrowing the Vermont Foodbank’s image for its own benefit. After all, who gets the bulk of the proceeds?

VPR does.

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I heard something on Vermont Public Radio the other day that stopped me in my tracks.

No, it wasn’t one of those famous “driveway moments” that keep you riveted in your seat. It wasn’t a world-shaking news story or a heartrending profile. What it was, was the opening line of a Commentary piece. It struck me as the very essence of VPR distilled into a single sentence. Witness in wonder:

While biking at sunset recently, I stopped for an impromptu visit with a neighbor, relaxing in a lawn chair overlooking her sweeping green meadow – a glass of red wine glowing in her hand.

I heard that, nodded my head, and thought, “Yep, that’s VPR.”

A wake-up call to Vermont Public Radio

What follows is a tough assessment of our state’s public radio outlet. First, let me make clear that VPR is a strong organization that does a lot of good things. It’s my #1 spot on the radio dial. But in the words of Uncle Ben:

With great power comes great responsibility

VPR occupies an outsized space in our media landscape. It is the only media outlet that is not seriously strapped for money. It is deeply resourced and amply staffed.

VPR occupies a King Kong-sized space in the nonprofit landscape. It is a fundraising machine. It barely has to even ask for money*, so loyal and responsive is its listenership. When it does have to ask, it has a monster-sized megaphone at its disposal. I have no idea how VPR’s success impacts other nonprofits — especially those with parallel missions, like VTDigger or the Vermont Symphony Orchestra or the Vermont Humanities Council — but I do know that VPR rakes it in.

*Its spring fund drive was cancelled after listeners responded overwhelmingly to brief pre-drive pitches; its summer drive was whittled to practically nothing. Most public radio stations would kill for a response like that.

Numbers? Well,in FY 2013 (the most recent figures available), VPR’s total revenues were $8.27 million. Its neighbor to the east, New Hampshire Public Radio, which serves a population twice as large, took in $6 million that year. Of course, NHPR has to compete with other public radio services in all of its markets; with the exception of the Connecticut River Valley, VPR has a public radio monopoly. Plus, it’s the only NPR affiliate that reaches the Montreal market.

Anyway, that gives you a taste of VPR’s financial might. Now, remember the words of Uncle Ben:

With great power comes great responsibility

By that standard, VPR falls short.

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VPR and Sorrell: It got worse

Okay, so Vermont Public Radio got my worst grade for its coverage — or should I say “complete absence of coverage” regarding the campaign finance scandal threatening to engulf Vermont Eternal General Bill Sorrell.

VPR didn’t even send a reporter to Tuesday’s Senate Government Operations Committee hearing, at which Sorrell reversed course and endorsed the idea of an independent investigation of his campaign activities. Something he had consistently refused to do since the fall of 2012, mind you.

And then today, the big guest on “Vermont Edition” was none other than Bill Sorrell himself.

I gave VPR its bottom-of-the-barrel grade before I head the Sorrell interview.

Now I have. And VPR just fell below the bottom of the barrel.

First of all, having devoted no perceptible airtime to the allegations against Sorrell, they give him the VPR platform for a solid half hour?

And then, even worse, they spend the first 20 minutes of the interview NOT talking about campaign finance, but the GMO labeling law and this week’s developments in the case. Jane Lindholm’s intro didn’t even mention Sorrell’s troubles; there was a single passing generic reference to “campaign finance.”

Talk about ignoring the elephant in the room. We have one of our top elected officials having to accept an independent investigation of his activities — something that has rarely or perhaps EVER happened in Vermont history — and you don’t lead with it? You didn’t even mention it?

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Somebody’s ethical compass needs a tune-up

Congratulations to Governor Shumlin for finding the time in his busy schedule to do something about Eternal General Bill Sorrell.

Like Sorrell, the Governor couldn’t see the seriousness of the situation on his own; he had to be dragged kicking and screaming. I hope his moral compass is truer in other areas, though I fear not.

Also, the next time he pleads a lack of time to deal with an inconvenient issue, we’ll know it’s bullshit.

But that’s not my primary topic for this missive. No, that would be the Vermont media’s widespread failure to address the Sorrell story until it smacked them between the eyes.

Not all are equally guilty, and I’ll offer a ranking below. But their failure in the Sorrell case is sadly typical of the Vermont media’s myopia when it comes to the foibles of the powerful. There’s a presumption of innocence, a reluctance to challenge, that’s uncharacteristic of the media at its best.

Let’s take John Campbell, for instance. In late February, Seven Days’ Terri Hallenbeck wrote about the Senate President Pro Tem having “quietly increased his office’s staffing and more than doubled his payroll.”

The response from the Vermont media? Crickets.

Admittedly the dollars involved are not large — we’re talking roughly $55,000 before and $110,000 after — but big stories have been spun out of smaller stuff. Usually involving a nameless functionary, not an elite officeholder. (Anybody ever hear of William Goggins until this month?)

Why did Campbell get a free pass? I have no idea, but it reflects poorly on our fourth-estate watchdogs.

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