Listeners don't get much news these days if they tune into commercial radio stations. Coverage of national and global events is scant at best, while local news -- once the pride of many AM radio stations -- is now an endangered species. The remaining community news is usually the "rip and read" variety from wire services.
But let's give credit where it's due. In the United States, thousands of radio outlets are doing a good job of gathering one particular type of news. The coverage is often meticulous and dependable as stations devote substantial resources to providing reliable up-to-the-minute information: If you want the latest news about traffic, in all kinds of weather, turn on the radio.
Using an array of helicopters, mobile phones and other assorted information relay systems, radio stations keep listeners posted on vehicular fender-benders, glitches, snarls and alternative routes. Where I live, a local "all news" CBS affiliate -- owned by the giant Infinity broadcasting conglomerate -- hypes "traffic and weather together" every 10 minutes, round the clock. And the quality of the traffic reports is impressive.
But what if thousands of radio stations across the country were augmenting their fine reporting on the latest road conditions with comparable from-the-sky breaking news coverage of social conditions in local communities? The result might sound something like this:
"Now for the latest, we go to Dan in Skyview Copter One over downtown."
"Things don't look good from here. Already this morning we've seen several dozen homeless people clutching their blankets in the downtown area. Apparently they had no place to sleep indoors overnight, even when the mercury plunged below 20 degrees. Right now we're hovering near City Hall, with its gold-plated dome sparkling in the early light, and from this height we can see a number of children huddled on sidewalk grates along with some adults, apparently trying to stay warm. Now back to the studio."
"Thanks Dan. We go now to Skyview Copter Two, southwest of the city. Ben, what's the latest?"
"Well Jill, I can't say the news is positive. Looks like the homeless encampment in Maple Park has gotten quite a bit bigger since yesterday morning. Apparently the shelters -- public and private -- just can't keep up with the demand. And from here I can see that most people don't seem to have much to eat this morning in the area of the park. Some are simply wandering from one trash can to another, evidently searching for bottles to cash in for the deposits."
"OK Ben, sounds like a bad scene out there. Thanks for the update. Now over to Melissa in Skyview Copter Three, somewhere above skid row."
"That's right -- since just before dawn we've been circling over some of the most economically depressed neighborhoods of the city, and I wish we had some better news to report. But our informal Day Labor index is quite downbeat at this hour. Ordinarily by now most of the low-income people waiting on sidewalks and street corners have been picked up by the slew of independent contractors who cruise the main thoroughfares to hire day laborers on the cheap. But in an apparent sign of the slowing economy, many more men than usual are still standing along the curbs at this hour. Hands in pockets, they seem unlikely to get offered a day's work today, even at low wages."
"All right Melissa. And now, for a change of pace, we go to Skyview Copter Four, currently aloft and eyeing the upscale Buckingham Ridge neighborhood."
"Quite a bit of activity in evidence this morning, Jill, and I can tell you the mayor has just stepped into the sleek black limo that's been parked in front of his house since he staggered home late last night. He's headed to a news conference to announce further plans for the tax-supported downtown Convention Center complex being built by a team of renowned Italian architects. Now back to the studio."
"Thanks. And please keep your eyes open up there for the comings and goings of the rich and famous this morning. We could sure use some upbeat news."
Norman Solomon writes a syndicated column on media and politics.