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Commentary :: Media
Nobody pays us to do this...
07 May 2008
Modified: 11:25:04 AM
When people ask what I "do," I tell them that I'm an independent radio producer. When their eyes glaze over, I add "freelance journalist." When they ask "what paper do you write for," I give up.
Proving my value to society, if you will, is not made any easier by the fact that I walk, talk, and work just like a real journalist but only get paid for a tiny fraction of the audio and written stories I generate. Most of my imagination and creativity is poured into the weekly public affairs program "RADIO with a VIEW," which I co-produce at non-commercial college/community radio station WMBR, Cambridge.

Because WMBR is all-volunteer and no one gets paid... well you see where I'm going with this. Adding up all my expenses - gasoline, AA batteries, phones, insurance, rent on my tiny studio office, etc. - I've been paying quite a bit out of pocket over the years, to do, or be, a radio producer.

[Mother's Day approaches, so at this point, neglecting to mention the debt I owe to my wife Jeanne Goodman and forgetting to recognize her enormous patience with me and my career, would be tantamount to declaring my intent to commit suicide.]

A major challenge and one I've been grappling with for more than 20 years, is the expectation in community radio that people should simply "be happy to be on the radio." The idea that they actually might be considered "workers" deserving of salary and benefits has been anathema amongst both station managers and financial benefactors.

Most producers, disc jockeys, technicians, writers, copy readers, and others, are expected to willingly join the "volunteer culture" that persists throughout community media.

Despite many, many individual testimonials to the stress and crushing pressure of trying to hold down a day job (several in some cases), and change the world through radio, this culture of "everyone else first, you last" maintains its grip on the "industry."

There are some obvious and compelling reasons for this. Community media would be hard-pressed to survive if everyone was paid a living wage. In recent years for example, the Women's Technical and Industrial Union has issued reports that estimate it takes $54,000 to support a family of four living in Boston. That's with no luxuries at all, such as restaurant dining and going out to movies. It's hard to imagine (W--- or K---, insert your favorite community station here) paying even a small staff that amount.

Funders, seeing and hearing the passion of community and student members of these stations, have learned over the decades that volunteerism is "the way" and the only way. I'm not suggesting that volunteerism is a bad thing inherently; just that there are other ways of assessing what constitutes work and fairness. And that an evaluation of the impact on people who love what they're doing but can't live financially in a primarily capitalistic economy, MUST become part of the culture of non-commercial and independent media.

When asked who our heroes are, many community radio people start by listing Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! Over and over, I hear producers as well as listeners cite Amy's work ethic as the pinnacle of journalistic enterprise. Believe me, I have no doubt she works hard - she and her staff are paid salaries, as they should! - and that she has many remarkable accomplishments to boast about. (Disclosure: about 12 or 13 years ago, I applied for a job as producer with Democracy Now!)

But based on interviews I've read, her life is so completely devoted to the radio and TV versions of her program and her book tours, it's easy to imagine Amy living within a caged existence, devoid of pleasures found in family, recreation, and travel outside of work.

And yet, Democracy Now! is the standard by which me and all my colleagues in community radio are judged and expected to meet. It is demanded of us in countless ways. I have no problem staying up all night on the Saturday before my Sunday morning show. But for the volunteer "wages" I get paid, I just can't suppress the idea that I'm being exploited.

This summer, my hope is that the FCC will rule in favor of a non-profit organization I am helping to start a new non-commercial, educational radio station. We're competing with five other applicants so our prospects are somewhat mixed. But my vision includes paying workers--content makers, technicians, support staff--a living wage. I also want to erect a wind turbine and solar panels as a way of supporting the environment and our business in a sustainable way.

I figure, if you can't dream big, why dream at all.

[Reposted from David's blog:]
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