30th Anniversary - 30 Years of "Painting" the News
In 1974 Rich Bradley was 34 years old and considering what he saw as the opportunity of a lifetime. A 14-year veteran radio news reporter, Rich had become increasingly frustrated with commercial radio’s dwindling commitment to delivering substantive news.
The Top-40 station he had long worked for was moving toward a headline news format that was tremendously stifling for this mid-career journalist with a passion for using sound and voice to paint news stories for his listeners.
“Even in the early 70s, there was a lot of competition in commercial radio. We had a five minute news break every half-hour and commercials took up a minute-and-a-half of that. A programming consultant recommended there be no fewer than 11 stories in the remaining three-and-half-minute newscast, and that left very little room for the use of audio actualities or voice reports,” explained Rich.
Although National Public Radio (NPR) was a relatively new and largely untested news radio format in the early 70s, Rich found its philosophy and open ended news approach enormously appealing. And when he learned that a new public radio station would soon be established on the campus of then Sangamon State University, Rich wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to become involved.
“From the first day I got into radio at Southern Illinois University in the 60s, it was always my goal to build a news department from the ground up, and this was my dream job.” Recruited by founding General Manager Dale Ouzts, Rich was among the station’s first employees.
He walked into what was literally the shell of a newsroom. It was an empty square space, carved out of the middle of what was then referred to as Building L, a temporary structure that would become the permanent home for the station. The only inhabitants of the space were the six drop-well desks, specially designed to cradle the manual typewriters of the time. Although the number of available desks would long outnumber the newsroom employees, Rich soon began to build the foundation of his news department and hired Peggy Boyer as the station’s first part-time reporter.
“I took a big chance because she had no prior radio experience at the time. Peggy had done a lot of print journalism, and I was very impressed with her writing. She had heard a little about public radio and was interested. I told her I could teach her how to do radio if she could translate her journalistic skills from print into audio.” Peggy was soon hired on full-time and became the station’s first statehouse bureau chief.
With public affairs as the primary mission, station leaders wasted no time in establishing a statehouse bureau. Crafted from plywood and countertop material and outfitted with second-hand equipment, the first WSSR statehouse news bureau would have been more appropriately dubbed a news cubicle with 8-foot walls, no ceiling, and a steady stream of background noise that flowed from the bustling statehouse cafeteria across the hall.
Regardless of the primitive conditions, WSSR was positioned to become a statewide news leader in government and public affairs reporting, and it proudly took its place alongside other major media organizations in the state capitol building.
Looking back on the past 30 years, Rich notes that the gathering of news hasn’t necessarily changed but the philosophy of public radio news reporting has. Once viewed as more an alternative news outlet, today public radio is a mainstream news source. It enjoys a much larger share of the listening audience, which has proved both tremendously gratifying and enormously demanding.
“Our listening audience expects more from public radio news than they did when I began. When I started, the philosophy was let mainstream media take care of hard news and headline reporting. Public radio would explore in-depth, thoughtful, and tangential topics.”
While the thoughtful and analytical approach to news reporting remains the cornerstone of public radio journalism, hard news and headline news have their places as well. The responsibility brings both opportunities and challenges, notes Rich. “It’s good that more people are turning to us, but it’s bad in that we don’t have the funding and the staff to do the kind of news reporting that is expected. Funding has always been the number one challenge. It always will be. Although listeners have been remarkably responsive, and they’ve really stepped up to bat as our budget has undergone significant cuts, that source of money hasn’t increased to the level we really need to meet the listeners’ demands as a primary news source at the state level.”
As it has for 30 years, the WUIS news department will continue to maximize its limited resources to provide both today’s headlines as well as paint a complete picture of the stories behind the stories.
If the resources were available, Rich knows exactly where he would allocate them. “I would hire more reporters to enable us to do a better job of reporting on local issues that come up. I would establish a presence in the Hoogland Center for the Arts downtown that could be used for both cultural and arts reporting and news reporting.”