Many listeners and supporters were surprised to learn last week that a brand-new half-hour daily news program was ready to take the place of Free Speech Radio News on the Monday just after its final program aired. It was just the Saturday after FSRN’s last airing that Pacifica made the announcement that Feature Story News Reports would be available to affiliates the following Monday, September 30.
Such a quick, apparently out-of-the-blue turnaround raised eyebrows amongst many in community radio who were already mourning the loss of FSRN. This was especially concerning in light of the fact that FSRN closed shop due to running out of funding as a result of Pacifica owing the program $198,000 is past-due carriage fees.
As it turns out, the deal to carry FSN really did come about very quickly and was not precipitated by Pacifica. Over email FSN president and founder Simon Marks told me that his organization had its first conversation with Pacifica and the National Federation of Community Broadcasters the Friday of FSRN’s last broadcast, September 27. He said things got started earlier that week when “various NFCB stations approached FSN, concerned about the imminent shuttering of FSRN’s daily production. At first, we were planning simply to make our 5 minute anchored news bulletins available to them…. but as the days went by, it became apparent there was a desire for more content than that.”
Janis Lane-Ewart, interim executive director of the NFCB, confirmed that things got underway that Friday when she first heard from a representative of FSN. She then called Pacifica executive director Summer Reese, since she knew that “it would have some significant bearing on Pacifica stations as well.”
Pacifica’s affiliate relations coordinator Ursula Ruedenberg emphasized that the decision to offer FSN was intended to help stations that were still looking for a daily news program to fill a schedule hole left by FSRN’s closure. She said that offering FSN “is not intended to be a long term statement about our news offerings.” Rather, Ruedenberg said that “our commitment is to work things out with Free Speech Radio News.”
FSN is offering the half hour FSN Reports at no charge to stations for the first thirty days. As of last week the terms for any future production and carriage of the program had not been worked out.
Marks said that production of the half-hour program came together in just 4 days. He explained that this could happen so quickly because “as with our anchored FSN World News bulletins, FSN Reports in large measure is created from (a) pool of existing content.” While he acknowledged there is a cost for producing the program, FSN will determine how to address that “once we have a chance to sit down and breathe.”
Molly Stentz, news director for Madison, WI community station WORT-FM, said that WORT has opted to replace FSRN with the BBC’s Newsroom and From Our Correspondent rather than FSN Reports. She explained that “We chose BBC because we already have an established relationship with them and are familiar with their editorial standards, production values and reliability of their distribution.” At the same time Stentz acknowledged that the BBC doesn’t have “the network of grassroots correspondents that FSRN did, nor is it the same ‘sound’ without the tapestry of voices that you’d hear on FSRN, nor do they cover all the topics FSRN touched, but it is solid, reliable, timely, generally interesting and often provocative.”
Stentz expressed concerns about FSN’s editorial guidelines and funding sources, noting that she could find no information about this on FSN’s website. She noted that “most major news outlets have these things written down,” pointing to statements published online by FSRN and the BBC.
Marks said that it is true that FSN does not have “publicly accessible–or even, privately distributed–editorial guidelines.” That’s because, he said, “frankly we’ve had no need for them. Until last Monday we weren’t in the program-making business.” Instead, FSN primarily offers individual story packages and similar content to TV and radio news networks. He said that the company honors the client network’s editorial guidelines.
“At some point as we wade deeper into program production ourselves, I’m sure we’ll develop some guidelines,” Marks continued. “But I don’t think they’ll differ vastly from those already promulgated by the BBC, NPR and PBS.”
Nathan Moore was formerly the general administrator for FSRN and is now the general manager for WTJU-FM in Charlottesville, VA, which is a Pacifica affiliate. He said that the station produces a one-hour news and public affairs program called Soundboard, during which they used to feature individual segments from FSRN, in addition to airing the whole program during the 5 AM hour.
Moore said he isn’t sure what the station will do with the loss of FSRN. He said that the station will review FSN Reports and that he is “glad they brought in Alice (Ollstein) to report out of DC.”
Alice Ollstein is the former Washington DC editor for FSRN and has joined FSN Reports as DC correspondent. She says she was offered “a one-month trial contract” with FSN on the Friday of FSRN’s final broadcast. But she is also “working with FSRN on brainstorming and strategizing on what our future could look like, what kind of model could be sustainable and what radio stations need most.”
Echoing Stentz’s concern, Moore noted that it is “not clear where and how they (FSN) get their funding, which always makes me wary.”
With regard to funding, Marks said that FSN is a commercial, for-profit business, that sells content to client broadcasters like SABC in South Africa, Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera America, FOX News (for which FSN provides Russia coverage from its Moscow Bureau), Televisa in Mexico and France 24 TV. Marks is the company’s majority shareholder “joined by a small number of ‘family and friends’ on the shareholder register.” He said that there is “no institutional financial support, beyond a revolving line of credit.”
Marks also underscored that at FSN “we’re not ingenues in the world of non-commercial radio. I worked for several years for Christian Science Monitor TV and Radio, back in the day when Monitor Radio provided 3 hours daily to public radio affiliates around the country.” As well, for the last 10 years FSN has offered non-commercial stations “a commercial-free, underwriter-free anchored radio news bulletin.”
Community station KEOS-FM in College Station, Texas is one station carrying FSN Reports. Station manager and chief engineer Lance Parr said the loss of FSRN was “a real cliffhanger for us.” While he said that there was good communication from Pacifica and FSRN about the end of the program, they had been “searching in vain for an equivalent program” that was available to them, without any success. Parr noted that KEOS doesn’t have the funding to subscribe to the BBC via Public Radio International, and the station staff was “concerned that this would be a financial hardship.”
He said that “there were concerns” about what the quality of FSN Reports would be. But KEOS staff were able to audition the program and found that while it is different from FSRN, “it’s not ABC News, (it’s) not just another mainstream broadcast.” Parr added, “if Pacifica and Ursula (Ruedenberg) are offering it, then it must have some merit. We can’t see them recommending something that isn’t at least a little in keeping” with what Pacifica normally provides.
Rudenberg said that she was calling Pacifica affiliate stations to get feedback about FSN Reports. Amongst the stations she had spoken with, “One station expressed the concern that we were going too mainstream,” although she said the station’s management understands that the decision to offer the program “wasn’t a policy decision on Pacifica’s part.”
“As the person who has to talk to the station manager (at affiliates), I haven’t been under any pointed criticism” over the decision to offer FSN Reports.
Ruedenberg stressed that “in the best of all possible worlds we would like to continue the tradition of progressive news, which is why we’re trying to work things out (with FSRN).”
Ollstein said that FSRN “has amazing resources that would be a tragedy to completely give up on.” In particular, “FSRN’s listeners have been incredibly generous and dedicated to us over the past 13 years and so we owe it to them to fight as hard as we can to stay alive.”
Lane-Ewart at the NFCB and everyone I spoke to at a community station emphasized that what they really hope for is the return of FSRN.