At about 6:43 p.m. PDT on April 28, 2016, listeners to KOPB in Portland stopped hearing American Public Media’s “Marketplace” and instead, listened to about 15 minutes of buzzy static. When the program returned, the board operator didn’t make any mention of the technical problem. I’ve worked evenings and nights at a public radio station. I know that after quitting time, there is a skeleton crew, if any, in the building with you. I also know that problems with a network feed are pretty much out of a board operator’s control. At my station, there was a “B” line that we could switch to if there was a problem with the “A” line. I don’t know if the board operator tried that, or if that option was even available.
The point of this post, however, is about the non-comment over signal loss after the signal returned. And admittedly, I don’t know if there was any kind of explanation for the signal loss later in the evening. Maybe there is no protocol, i.e., no generic script in place for board ops to read in case of a signal loss like that. Though, anyone who has grown up with American TV and radio knows trouble slides and trouble music are as much a part of broadcasting in the U.S. as test patterns and the National Anthem. So, why no mention?
My suspicion, and it has been my suspicion for awhile, is that stations don’t want to draw attention to their problems, whether those problems are in or out of their control. It makes sense. Radio is an ephemeral medium, meaning it’s designed so that you only hear something once and then, it’s gone, on its way to Alpha Centauri, forever. Just like there is no crying in baseball, there is no repeating in radio. So a mistake made a second ago deserves to die there. The audience will forget it a second from now because there is always new stuff filling up their ears.
But, although that rationale might work with commercial stations that repeat formulated playlists every 90 minutes, I think the public radio listener is more of a challenge. And, ironically, they’re more of a challenge because they’re public radio listeners. We’re told they’re smart, they’re politically active, they have long memories. All of the things public radio stations wax romantic about during pledge drives. It’s why they wax romantic – public radio listeners are special.
So if they’re so special, don’t they deserve to know why stations have flubs? If they’re supporting stations with their hard earned dollars in tough economic times, if they’re constantly referred to as “shareholders”, don’t they deserve to know when the machinery breaks down and what’s being done to fix it?
When I lived in Utah, KCPW, one of several public radio stations that served Salt Lake City, went through a period when for up to half an hour at a time, the station would inexplicably play the same :30 second commercial over and over. Or, there would be long stretches of dead air. I was a loyal listener and contributor and I can’t remember hearing an explanation. Eventually, I had to contact the station directly, where they told me about a technical problem that involved their then sister station – KPCW. Anyway, even though the interruptions continued for months, I decided to keeping listening and giving because I understood the issue.
But that I had to call, and them not volunteer to tell me, really chapped my ass. And the thing about being taking for granted like that, over time, the effects become cumulative. One could start to feel like stations really don’t care about how their behavior affect the audience. And that is a mistake.
Someone said, “I’ve come to expect it. Stuff happens.” And yes, that’s true. Why should we care? I ask instead, what good, really, are calipers or scales or rulers or, for that matter, standards if they can be always be fudged?
Hey, I’m that loyal, smart listener, remember? Own up and start talking to me about everything I’m helping support. When stuff like this happens, tell me something rather than try to make me feel like it never happened.
It’s a little thing, but not really.