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Why We Are The Public's Radio

A message from our CEO, Torey Malatia

Please be patient through these few paragraphs. I want to explain the process of our thinking that led to our decision to name ourselves, “The Public’s Radio.” Along the way, I hope I can also share a little wisdom we’ve discovered through this thinking, something we should have known instinctively: when you pull back the camera, you see differently.

“We value the press in the precise degree that it sustains public life, that it helps keep the conversation going among us. [We should] devalue the press to the degree that it seeks. . . to turn us into silent spectators.” – James W. Carey, 1991

Why we are The Public’s Radio | by Torey Malatia

Last winter the staff and board began thinking about the confusing scrabble of names by which Rhode Island Public Radio is known. 

Are we WRNI, the call letters of our original 1290 AM station? 

If so, why not WELH, the call letters of 88.1 FM?

Are we RINPR, “Rhode Island’s NPR?” 

Is so, why not RIBBC, “Rhode Island’s BBC?” 

Or are we just “not the other one,” you know, not “Boston Public Radio,” not “Rhode Island PBS?”

Thinking it through, it became clear that our community was struggling with our name as much as we were. For example, when folks say “NPR” in referring to us, they actually don’t mean National Public Radio, the production company based in Washington DC. They mean, in a generic way, “public radio.” “NPR” has acquired this common, but secondary meaning as one of several catch-all phrases, a metonym. It’s like “Silicon Valley” which is often used, not as a place reference to California’s Santa Clara Valley, but as a generic term for the whole of West Coast-based technology sector, from Seattle to San Diego. 

Thinking it through, it became clear that our community was struggling with our name as much as we were. 

Anyhow, some time ago, we at Rhode Island Public Radio decided we can’t and shouldn’t use those “big outside brand” names from now on. We can’t because BBC owns the copyright to BBC just as National Public Radio in DC owns the NPR trademark. We shouldn’t because this amounts to subsuming our identity into identities of other remote institutions. And as for the “not the other one” approach, no institution should be defined by what it is not.

So our name has been simply “Rhode Island Public Radio” or as some say, “RIPR,” during these last few years. Yet this still is not the right name for our future, and here’s why.

One year ago, we purchased 89.3 FM, a broadcast frequency that now serves 300,000 folks in Rhode Island who have never before been able to hear any of the other frequencies on which we broadcast in the state. Not 88.1, nor 102.7, nor 91.5. Again, 300,000 new Rhode Islanders. 

In addition, broadcasting on 89.3 brings our service to 400,000 more people who have never been able to hear our broadcasts, but these individuals are not in the Ocean State, but are across the imaginary line that separates Rhode Island from Southeastern Massachusetts.

So, now our name once again seems oddly awkward. Are we really Rhode Island Public Radio? Or Rhode Island Public Radio Plus? Maybe Rhode Island, Southeastern Massachusetts, and South Coast Public Radio? How about Southern New England Public Radio?  

That’s when we moved the camera back. Because we were missing the forest; we were definitely too close to the trees. 

We thought about founding principles: our mission and our mandate.  We reasoned that if we reflected on the execution of our mission fully, and how that should be perceived in the community as a service, it could help us find a way to articulate our identity based on what we do as opposed to our zip code.

Our final insight came from this little passage below. It was written by the staff of the FCC—of all people. It’s from a now obscure document issued just after the end of the Second World War. It reads as follows (the word “entire” in the text below is reproduced exactly as written in the original):

“The entire listening public within the service area of a station is entitled to service from that station. . . In a sense a broadcasting station may be regarded as a sort of mouthpiece on the air for the community it serves, over which its public events of general interest, its political campaigns, its election results, its athletic contests, its orchestras and artists, and discussion of its public issues may be broadcast.”

(FCC, Public Service Requirements of Broadcast Licensees, 1946)

I play trumpet—alas, pretty badly—and so I know what a mouthpiece is. It’s nothing more than a funnel. It produces no sound itself; it collects and concentrates the sound put into it by the player. Likewise, the rest of the trumpet—all that coiled brass piping--amplifies and transmits this sound, but creates none. All of the sound originates from outside the horn.

If public radio is a mouthpiece “for the entire listening public within the service area of the station,” then we should be the way in which those listeners are heard, amplified, and transmitted. In the most basic sense, our public media service is not about what we want to say, but what is being said around us in our community. It is not about our beliefs, concerns, creativity, ideologies, or even our taste. Our content should be a reflection of the variety of beliefs, range of concerns, scope of creativity, corpus of ideologies, and multiplicity of taste that we reflect and amplify in our service area.

In the most basic sense, our public media service is not about what we want to say, but what is being said around us in our community.

It was all boiled down into an essay we composed based on these notions. It articulates the standards we believe in:

If you are looking for a news outlet without an agenda, you can stop.

Because you will never find one.

Every organization serves somebody. Including us.

Fortunately, the people we serve are, well, you. We are public radio after all.

We don’t answer to shareholders, political interests, ratings, or clicks. We answer to our community.

A group with endlessly different backgrounds, ideals, and perspectives—all facing issues too important to be summed up in soundbites and tweets.

Yet that’s exactly what’s happening. Complex issues are being misrepresented as simple and, in turn, our community’s beautiful shades of grey are being painted black and white.

But the world isn’t that simple.

Luckily, neither are you.

That's why we don't tell you what to think. When a news organization does that they aren’t serving you, they’re serving themselves.

Instead, we give options, not answers. We provide data, not conclusions. Our stories are not the end of the conversation; they are the beginning. And these conversations are the connective tissue that shapes our community.

That’s why we must ensure that all of our community has a voice.

After all, to truly serve the public we do not get to choose which parts to serve.

Because we aren’t just Public Radio; we are The Public’s Radio.

The analysis process was at last complete. We came down to earth. 

Of course, “earth” turns out to be this very place--to be sure--Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts. Not “earth,” this place, as a slice of topography—with a name like “Southern New England Public Radio,” for example. 

But this place as defined as where we, your public service journalists, can be face to face with you.

Our identity should be about more than the geography we all share. It should be about the sharing itself. About the stories of the people around us. All of the people here. 

Our mandate is lucid and our name should reflect that clarity: we must always labor to encounter you, our public, to find your stories and to collect and share them with all who live in our service area, and beyond: 

“We must ensure that all of our community has a voice. 

Because we aren’t just Public Radio; we are The Public’s Radio.”

Why We Are The Public's Radio
Why We Are The Public's Radio