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The Seattle Times

The Local Voice of Radio Has Been Muffled by Greed

Bill Wippel

Local radio stations, left independent, are the best examples of freedom and democracy. Most are located in small markets where they mirror the community's image.

Take Pullman. Station KOFE in 1964 decided to turn over the entire station's proceeds for one day to the local chamber of commerce. Chamber members bought spots and wrote their competitors' commercials and read them over the air.

Seafirst Bank wrote: "Pullman National Bank has a clock out front because inside they won't give you the time of day!" And, Pullman National bank wrote: "You think that thermometer out front gives the temperature? No, it's Seafirst's rate of interest." (The broadcast was made in July when the thermometer read 85.)

In all that fun, including newscasts read by chamber members complete with botched pronunciations and laughter, $4,000 was raised. It bought most if not all of the Christmas decorations for the town.

Earlier, in Pomeroy, Garfield County, which does not have a radio station, KOZE in Lewiston, Idaho, broadcast a play-by-play description of the Pomeroy Day Parade. The big news was that an area farmer had paid cash that day for a new Edsel. Interviews of local folks made them "famous" in that small farming community!

Genesee, Idaho, never had a station, either. But once a year, Pullman's KOFE did a broadcast from the farming community from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. for Genesee Days. No other commercials were broadcast except those from Genesee. Crowds were huge. Interviews with city leaders, farmers and business owners told of the small town's pride and joy: wheat farming and soil conservation.

Owners of large radio conglomerates today would call this "hokey." They would also call this exercise "looking back, when we should be looking forward." Today, many broadcasters exhibit just the opposite of community resourcefulness. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between.

There are radio stations located in the Seattle area that have left their original city of license. Stations that used to broadcast the hometown news and community events of suburban King, Pierce and Kitsap counties now involve themselves almost solely with Seattle or some other nonlocal focus.

None of this is illegal, thanks to the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC has watered down what is required to receive a radio broadcast license. Each station can renew its license by just a postcard. No promise of news, community involvement or public service is necessary to renew its license.

Proponents of further relaxation of FCC broadcast rules argue that we have so many news venues that democracy is in good health.

Not when a few own so much of the media.

Imagine if Rupert Murdoch, coming off his acquisition of The Wall Street Journal, added our local press or radio and television stations to his worldwide stable of traditional and new media. Where would we turn for diversity of coverage in news, sports and opinion? It would be a catastrophe for the Puget Sound region.

We have allowed greed to replace enterprise. We have allowed the local voice of radio, for all intents and purposes, to be stifled.

Guglielmo Marconi must be rolling in his grave. The voice of democracy and independent thought on radio are all but dead.

Bill Wippel of Normandy Park has been in radio for 58 years and is a former owner of KOFE in Pullman. He now directs Tape Ministries NW, a nonprofit lending library of Christian books on tape for blind and sight impaired people,

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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