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Democracy… later?


Internet streaming, for the time being, will be the only way Rochester-area residents can watch or listen to the award-winning independent news program, Democracy Now!

            The show, hosted by journalists Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, is broadcast on more than 225 Pacifica, National Public Radio, and community stations throughout the country. But WXXI won't be picking up the program anytime soon.

            The show is too biased for the station, according to Radio Vice President Jeanne Fisher.

            "It's a format issue," Fisher says. "We're an NPR station; we're not a Pacifica affiliate. Our program policy at WXXI calls for balance and objectivity in our news coverage and neutrality in our host."

            Twenty-two NPR stations do air Democracy Now!, however --- in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New Mexico, and Wisconsin. And three of them are in New YorkState, including WSQX in Binghamton. WSQX airs the program weekdays at noon, directly following a show that is public radio's most popular, according to NPR's website: Morning Edition.

            WSQX programming administrator Kathleen Cook says audience response to Democracy Now! has been positive. "Generally, people have been very happy to have it on," she says.

            WSQX, which calls itself Binghamton's "jazz and news alternative," is a low-wattage station, and the availability of airtime there, Cook says, is part of the reason Democracy Now! could be scheduled. But it isn't carried on WSQX's partner, WSKG, which serves a much larger region.

            "If we only had our main station to put it on, we might not be playing it ourselves," Cook says. "It's a controversial program."

            Cook also says the show's audio quality sometimes varies, and that could be another reason some stations shy away from the show.

            Democracy Now! Development Director Karen Ranucci says the show has had no problems with audio quality. "It's all digital," she says. "We get thousands of e-mails a week from our listeners, and they haven't complained to us. It hasn't been an issue for millions of other people."

            And, she says, it's easy for stations to pick up the program because it's on the Public Radio Satellite System distribution network. That, she says, "enhances our standing among NPR stations and makes their receiving the program technically easy."

In New Mexico, KUNM 89.9 FM began broadcasting Democracy Now! when the show was in its infancy. (In the beginning, it was a 10-week special program that preceded the 1996 elections.)

"The response was extremely favorable," says Richard Towne, general manager of the Albuquerque-Santa Fe station. The show airs on KUNM at 4 p.m. each weekday, alongside NPR shows like Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and the classical music program Performance Today. Four o'clock, Towne says, is one of the station's "biggest hours."

And Towne supports airing the show. "The whole idea of advocacy journalism: there are no issues in our community about it," Towne says.

"People like the show or they don't like it, but they can tell by themselves that it's coming from a different point of view," says Towne. "So what? The value of the show is that it's bringing points of view and information not available anywhere else."

In Buffalo, it took activists nearly two years to get Democracy Now! on the local airwaves. It plays now, but not on either of Buffalo's NPR stations. "We were deniedby our NPR stations and are still being denied," says Brian Brown-Cashdollar, treasurer and member of the Buffalo Coalition for Progressive Media.

            Officials at the stations, WBFO and WNED, say that's not because of content but because of packed program schedules.

            The Buffalo Coalition's answer, at first, was to bring Goodman in for a fundraiser. Supporters gave $9,000 within a two-hour span.

            The $9,000, Brown-Cashdollar says, would have been enough to support Democracy Now! for two years on an NPR station. It was only half what they will need to broadcast for a year on WHLD, the low-powered station with whom they now have a relationship.

            "The response [from NPR stations] is they don't like either the point-of-view journalism that they characterize Democracy Now! as, or they don't like the production values of Democracy Now! --- both of which are no longer true," Brown-Cashdollar says. "Democracy Now! has grown a lot in the last few years."

At a public forum on media consolidation March 8, an audience member broached the subject of adding Democracy Now! to WXXI's lineup with panelist and WXXI President Norm Silverstein.

            Silverstein responded that he would need to see that the community wanted the program. Greenbaum and other Metro Justice activists saw the comment as a green light.

            "We mobilized 200 e-mails and hundreds of phone calls to WXXI during their membership drive," Greenbaum says. He suggests that WXXI play Democracy Now! from 9 to 10 a.m. weekdays, because "they play Morning Edition three times in the morning."

            Despite the show of support from listeners, Greenbaum says, WXXI refused to add the program to their lineup.

            "You have this odd thing when [Goodman] has been accused of not conforming to their list of ethics," Greenbaum says, and yet Goodman won an award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists in the early 1990s. Goodman has also won the prestigious George Polk Award and Robert F. Kennedy Prize for International Reporting.

            "We are willing to work with WXXI, and we are puzzled about this whole thing," Greenbaum says.

            For Brown-Cashdollar and the Buffalo Coalition for Progressive Media, creativity was the only viable solution.

            "I think the key is, stop begging NPR, because they're not going to say yes," Brown-Cashdollar says.

            "The only way that they're going to listen is to know that their supporters want this news," he says. "They're going to know that when [those supporters] send their checks to us [at WHLD] and not to them."