In the U.S. kingdom of corporate media, is there still a place for independent speech and creative energy in the world of radio? Not if you listen to Clear Channel. But all interesting and interested parties have not been silenced. I talked with several rising stars in the independent radio world at last year?s Third Coast Audio Festival and came away feeling that the future of non-commercial broadcasting was in good hands.
Audio expatriate extraordinaire Gregory Whitehead crafts sound in innovative and thoughtful ways for the BBC. His work is funny, intellectual and at times sheer genius. Whitehead says the way non-commercial radio is funded in the United States tends to encourage mediocrity. ?The problem with the funding situation in the U.S. is that as the pie gets smaller, mediocrity rises to the top. Why? Because producers hone their grantmaking skills more than their production skills, [and] those with genuine talent drift away to other media, leaving professional fundraisers as the last producers standing,? he says.
?The work that emerges is mediocre,? he adds, ?which in turn justifies shrinking the pie even further. There are, of course, many exceptions, and some great producers out there, but they are exceptions to a game set up to guarantee mediocrity.?
Whitehead himself works exclusively on a contract basis, but notes that ?radio is not the medium for someone cursed with the desire for vast fortunes.?
Jaime York, an independent producer in New York whose ?Sonic Memorial Project,? a poignant audio memorial collage from the World Trade Center and 9/11, has received critical acclaim, says it?s hard to finance independent projects. ?The Sonic Memorial was sort of a free-for-all,? he explains. ?There were lots of grants written all over for that. The one I got was an ?Emerging Leaders? grant from the Ford Foundation, but they had never done anything like it before, and they made it really clear that they weren?t going to ever again. This was an experiment for them. They took all the money and gave it to the loan officers? assistants to give away, not the loan officers. They thought that the younger staff would be more in tune with what was happening today, and so most of the money was given to social justice causes.?
New York producer Mallory Kasdan has had to finance her work with her own funds. ?I have been paid for the three pieces that I have had aired, but that money doesn?t really cover the amount of time and money I have put into the pieces,? she says. ?But that's what I expected to happen in the beginning stages. I have my job as a voice actor that pays my bills and gives me the time and flexibility to work on my radio pieces and get better at crafting them. Eventually I will develop a body of work that will hopefully allow me to obtain grants and funding.?
Kasdan says she?s been helped along the way by people who were willing to work with a very inexperienced producer?and by her own marketing skills. ?I have a background in publicity and in selling myself as a voice actor, so those skills have been helpful to me, she says. ?I think that in this business, if you have a lot of energy and are willing to learn, that people have a hard time ignoring you. You have to be persistent and I think always be involved in one project or another. But sometimes people still ignore you.?
Despite her outsider status, Kasdan?s work is funneled back into the same old public broadcasting channels. ?So far, I have crafted pieces knowing where they were going to go. So I guess I would go first to the shows I have worked with already: PRI/WNYC's Studio 360 and Radio Eye on the Australian Broadcast Corporation,? she says. ?But in the future, if I was trying to get interest for my work, I would probably go to Jay Allison's Transom or the upcoming Radio Exchange, or put things up on my own Web site, which I put up for the purpose of showcasing my work. And then, of course, try to get interest from other appropriate shows, like The Next Big Thing, This American Life, and the NPR newsmagazine shows. Also local shows here in New York where I live.? So much for ?independence.?
So, there are voices outside the corporate cacophony on the radio and on the Internet. But actually finding them is another thing. And if you are among those who feel that public radio has become too corporate, you?d better get a good soundcard, because the Internet is going to be the only place you will find audio to your satisfaction.