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domingo, febrero 12, 2012

Stalking The Specter Of The Eternal Fund Drive

WAMC began its winter fund drive early this past Monday morning, February 6. Today is Sunday, February 12, and the fund drive continues on day 7. The goal is $1 million; today almost $600,000 has been raised. That means that the drive will in all likelihood stretch out into the middle of the coming week. And that, in turn, means that the main on-air activity is the fund drive (the “Fun Drive” if you insist) and that regular programming is extremely limited. Fine. I’ve contributed. I’m a member. But today as I check in and hear that the drive is continuing, I’m worried. I’m worried by the specter that at some time in the future —it will not happen on this drive— the station will find itself locked into an eternal, fruitless fund drive. The fund drive will be all there is, and it will never end. And the station will eventually run out of funds and go off the air.

How can that happen? I am concerned that WAMC may be yet another dinosaur on its way to the boneyard. I’m worried that community supported, over-the-air public radio is an idea of the past, and that the Internet and personal devices are slowly going to render it irrelevant. And replace it. I expect that as soon as personal devices interface with sound systems in a majority of cars on the road, FM radio slowly will be abandoned by its listeners. This abandonment will mirror what happened decades ago to AM radio; maybe somebody will find another use for FM.

How, I wonder, can FM not end? Isn’t the end of over-the-air media where we’re inevitably headed? I’m not saying that the present fund drive will never end. No.It may seem like that in the dark times, but it’s not the case. That will not happen this fund drive. It won’t. But how many more of these fund drives can there possibly be before the number of listeners to over-the-air radio shrinks to a level where continued support at this multi-million dollar level is no longer possible, and the fund drive, once started, continues eternally, becoming the sole programming, gobbling up everything else?

Northeast Public Radio is now no small operation. It covers a huge geographical area. It has a large engineering infrastructure and many transmitters and repeaters (23 stations heard in 7 states). It has grown enormously and in predictable response to listener demands. And desires. And changing tastes. It began as the dying radio station of the Albany Medical College some three decades ago. That station was saved by the group that would evolve into the present WAMC staff and Board. And over time the station has grown in quality and in scope. And its staff has grown. It transformed from a tiny, local Albany, New York station to a large, regional one. It has followed the FM radio trend from music to talk. It has moved from local news to regional news. It has expanded its listener base. It has preserved the Saturday Opera. It continues to report on New York State Government. And it’s the source of NPR news for this area. In other words, this is a very, very good Public Radio Station. It may be the best of Public Radio in the US. Somehow, though, that doesn’t matter.

It’s nobody’s fault that it takes several $1 million fund drives per year to keep the station on the air. The fund drive is something to endure because right now it’s worth it to have WAMC and to keep the station running.

But at the same time, mobile media are now growing rapidly. And that growth may signal the end of WAMC as it presently exists. WAMC’s function is primarily over-the-air radio. Yes, it’s streaming online as well. But when all those personal Internet devices replace the FM radios in cars, all of the infrastructure for over-the-air transmission will no longer be required. It won’t be necessary to broadcast signals with transmitters from towers. There won’t be a need or a desire for FM radio any more. The Internet will render FM radio extinct, and WAMC, as we currently know it, with it. WAMC may endure in some other form, but it won’t be what it is now, an FM (or HD) public radio station.

I do hope listeners will carry WAMC through its present fund drive. I’m sad it’s taking so long to end it. As it goes on and on and on, I fear that this drive foreshadows the end, the loss of a good and constant companion. To be completely honest, when I listen to the fund drive, with all the usual shtick and the rewards and the thank yous and the repeated stories and the begging and pleading and the traditional yodeling and banjo music, I think I hear the beginning of a death rattle. I didn’t hear it last fund drive. But this time, I hear it. I wish it were otherwise. Really I do. But it's just not true that this drive has the same vitality as the previous ones.

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