Thursday, January 24, 2008

Local group lobbies WOUB to carry progressive news show

By Jim Phillips

A local group of media activists is stepping up the pressure in its campaign to persuade WOUB, the public TV/radio station at Ohio University, to pick up a hard-hitting progressive news show.

Station officials say that while they consider "Democracy Now!" (DN) a quality program, they think it carries a left-wing bias, and isn't better than the news programming they carry now.

They also argue that while supporters of the program are passionate, they probably represent a small activist minority in WOUB's broadcast area.

Members of the Athens Free Press group say they believe DN could attract a wide audience on WOUB TV and/or radio if it got a chance, and would help open the airwaves to a wider range of views.

"Basically, our position is that WOUB and NPR is great, but it's not adequate," explained Robert Stewart, a member of Athens Free Press and associate director of OU's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. "We don't want it to go away - we want more."

Last summer the group met with WOUB decision-makers and made its case for picking up DN, which is hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez. Station officials politely declined to add the show, citing a variety of reasons in a letter to Athens Free Press.

"In radio, it's pretty simple," Tim Myers, WOUB's director of radio and online services, explained Friday.

He noted that Athens Free Press asked to have DN added to the FM schedule. But to make a slot for it in the 5 a.m.-7 p.m. weekday schedule would require bumping something from the current lineup, which already includes such news and commentary programs as "Morning Edition," "BBC Newshour," "The Diane Rehm Show," "Talk of the Nation" and "All Things Considered" - any of which, Myers suggested, is at least as good as "Democracy Now."

"We just don't think the program compares in quality to what we already have," he explained. "At this point, content-wise, (our news programming) is better than what's coming out of 'Democracy Now.'"

Though WOUB TV's evening schedule is less heavy with newsy shows, the other objections still hold, according to WOUB staffers: DN is slanted, and might not appeal to a wide enough swath of the WOUB audience, which includes people as far afield as Portsmouth and Ironton. This is important to a public broadcaster that relies on donations, they say.

On its Web site, DN boasts that it "provides our audience with access to people and perspectives rarely heard in the U.S. corporate-sponsored media, including independent and international journalists, ordinary people from around the world who are directly affected by U.S. foreign policy, grassroots leaders and peace activists, artists, academics and independent analysts."

Stewart argues that DN offers not so much a left-wing as an anti-authoritarian slant.

"I think it could come off as seeming anti-right, but the reality is, it's anti-power," he suggested.

Athens Free Press member Robert Sheak, an emeritus sociology professor at OU, recalled that the group first approached WOUB as a result of a conference on media reform held at the university.

"They said (DN) didn't measure up to journalistic standards of objectivity, balance and fairness," he recalled.

After the first meeting with WOUB officials, Athens Free Press members contacted Scripps College Dean Gregory J. Shepherd to enlist his help.

Shepherd sent an e-mail Oct. 12 to Carolyn Bailey Lewis, director of the WOUB Center for Public Media, in which he stressed that it's not his job to make programming decisions for the station.

He also, however, asked Lewis to consider putting an Athens Free Press member on the WOUB advisory board, and to set up a time frame for reconsidering the DN proposal.

"Perhaps we can... have WOUB consider a new request in six months time, or so," he suggested, adding that it would probably be good for Athens Free Press to come up with some new material by then, such as more information on what stations now carry "Democracy Now," and how those stations' fundraising has gone after picking up the program.

Lewis said Friday that this is where she thought the process was at - both sides gathering more information to prepare for reviewing a new request. "We continue to do our research," she said, and the latest push by Athens Free Press - which has included letters to the editor and opinion pieces in local newspapers - came as something of a surprise.

Myers said he understands the motives of Athens Free Press members, who want to reform media they see as dominated by corporate viewpoints. However, he said, WOUB may not be the best place to start attacking that problem.

"We feel kind of caught in the middle of this stuff," he said. He also warned that "if we appear to carry the show because of some pressure from a particular group," this sets a precedent that could be exploited by groups with right-wing political agendas.

WOUB officials also suggested that Athens Free Press might do better trying to get the show onto a local public-access TV or low-power radio station. These types of outlets host the show in many localities, they said.

Stewart said he finds it hard to put much stock in the political-bias argument, considering that the Scripps College last year accepted a large donation from OU alum Roger Ailes, CEO of FOX News, which is on the conservative side of the political spectrum.

"One of the first things we heard from WOUB on this matter was, they were worried that 'Democracy Now' was kind of a left-wing version of FOX News, and we couldn't have that," he noted ironically.

Stewart also noted that WOUB could try out "Democracy Now" for a year free of charge, and argued that the station can't know how the program plays with its audiences unless it's given a try. While WOUB staffers suggest much of their audience won't like it, Stewart maintained, that claim is largely based on an impressionistic idea of what that audience is like.

In a written response to some of WOUB's objections, Athens Free Press has cited the testimony of a supporter of the show from conservative northeast Tennessee, where "Democracy Now" reportedly does quite well on WETS radio. Stewart said some stations that carry DN report that "this is the show that produces the largest number of pledges...While (WOUB) might lose some people, they would gain many, many more," he predicted.

Currently in Ohio, DN is carried by five TV stations, most or all of which appear to be public-access cable shows, and six radio stations, in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Delaware, Gambier, Kent and Kingsville.

Both sides in the debate stressed that they respect the other and want to keep the debate civilized.

"We're really not trying to back them into a corner," Stewart said, but want to make sure that WOUB truly takes public input into account in its programming decisions.

Meyers noted that many of the Athens Free Press members are friends and supporters of WOUB. "This is not enemy group," he said.

The next meeting of the WOUB advisory council is scheduled for Feb. 19.