Wanted on Drivetime Commercial Radio: News and Public Affairs

Last Updated May 17, 2010 4:30 PM EDT

If Americans today can't find Spain on a map, and have no idea who their Congressman is, part of the problem may be the friendly neighborhood commercial radio station, which has long since stopped giving commuters news or any type of public affairs in morning and evening drivetime (the major spikes for radio listening).

But considering the popularity of right-wing talk radio for the daily commute, maybe these stations are missing out on a potential audience. I can see a market for a fast-paced, balanced news hour targeted at drivetime on commercial radio -- challenging National Public Radio (NPR) on turf it has long owned. It may not earn number-one ratings, but it might retain some listeners now tuning out of commercial radio entirely. And it would offer an alternative many commuters -- stuck in their cars and scanning sound-alike formats -- would take.

News and public affairs blocks were once common at maximum in-car times such as 8 to 9 a.m., and 5 to 6 p.m. Most of that's gone. Today, according to the Media Access Project, 25 percent of broadcast stations offer no local news or public affairs programming at all. Top 40 stations such as Long Island's WBLI do maintain a vestige of their once strong news commitment, but not at a time when anyone (let alone motorists) is actually listening.

WBLI, a Cox station with top drivetime ratings, runs "Plugged in to Long Island" (ex-Governor Pataki has been on, along with the county executive) from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. Sunday morning -- a total dead zone. Morning commuters five days a week get "Dana, Randy and Drew," a show that keeps up on the latest Britney spottings and runs domestic sting operations called "To Catch a Cheater."

Jeremy Rice, WBLI's program director, points out that many of his competitors are automated, while his drivetime shows are locally originated and refer frequently to Long Island locations (especially malls). "We still feel it is part of our duty to be a Long Island radio station and serve the community," he said. "We run [public service announcements] for local events such as benefits for muscular dystrophy all through the day."

Led by major owner Clear Channel, radio has tightened up formats and jettisoned both local programming and most forms of news. One result of that has been a defection from commercial radio listening in favor of satellite, iPods and podcasts. A last bastion for objectively produced drivetime news is NPR. According to senior manager Anna Christopher, NPR pulls in 13.3 million listeners weekly for "Morning Edition" and 12.4 million for the afternoon "All Things Considered." "The audiences are huge, and because the shows are on when people are starting or ending their days, a lot are listening in their cars," she told me.

According to NPR spokeswoman Dana Rehm, 67 percent of "All Things Considered" listeners are tuned in "out of the home," a category that overwhelmingly favors car radios. ("Morning Edition" has 37 percent "out of home" listeners because many people tune in over breakfast.)

It's not all serious discussion of the European economy on NPR, of course. Just as NYT media critic David Carr notes the dumbing down of online headline writing in search of traffic numbers, many of NPR's listeners get turned on by the network's coverage of celebrities and other fluff. The most popular story on NPR when I checked was "Plummeting Marijuana Prices Create A Panic In Calif." A primetime radio news show would have to recognize that trend and create fast-paced programming.

The abandonment of prime-time news and public affairs accelerated after the FCC stopped observing the 1949-enacted Fairness Doctrine (asking for differing points of view and some commitment to the public discourse) in 1985. My twin brother had a brief career as a radio newsman in the mid-1970s (working at the first station to employ Howard Stern), when even 24-hour rock stations ran news blocks. He bailed out for print when it became plain that the handwriting was on the wall. "By the time I wrote a story on it in the 1980s for the Columbia Journalism Review, the profession had already taken a nose dive," he said. "Now, it's dead."

There are just 27 commercial stations in the U.S. with all-news formats in 2010, according to a new "state of the media" report from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Congress attempted to bring the Fairness Doctrine back in 1988, but failed to override a Ronald Reagan veto. Public affairs discussion, of course, does make it into prime time -- in the form of right-wing talk. According to communications law scholar Steve Rendell, "The most extreme change [post-Doctrine] has been in the immense volume of unanswered conservative opinion heard on the airwaves, especially on talk radio."

The left-leaning Air America broadcast network was an attempt to counter that trend, but folded early this year after failing to find a large drivetime audience. The evidence suggests that some drivers like to pound the steering wheel on the way to and from work, and Air America (which tended to long, windy and arcane discussions of health policy) just didn't stir them up enough. But maybe there's an audience for people who want to nod thoughtfully.

Photo: Flickr/Dsearls