What’s Wrong with WNYC?


Cutting through the vast confusion of information available to us—much of it unsourced and unverified—local radio station WNYC used to offer us, each weekday afternoon at 2 p.m., an extraordinary range of reliable investigative reporting from all over the world, as well as debates among participants in the stories and the reporters covering them. But now, To the Point has disappeared.

Originating from Santa Monica’s KCRW, a major station in the Los Angeles market, this national show, distributed by Public Radio International, is heard on more than 40 stations nationwide, from Washington, D.C., to rural Mississippi, and has a worldwide audience on satellite radio and the Internet.

A constant listener, I’ve also been a guest on the show, debating the torture president’s treatment of prisoners with the administration’s incessant defender, David Rifkin, who at first spoke sneeringly of having to deal with this person from—what is it, The Village Voice? After our first exchange, he was not eager for a rematch.

I’m also constantly learning new and unexpected facts from To the Point on such subjects as charter schools, Darfur, and the views of Washington insiders. Although I’ve been covering Africa’s Hitler, Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, for many years, on a recent To the Point I learned so much more from guest Grace Kwinjeh, a survivor of Mugabe’s bloodied, ongoing opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change.

So why are we New Yorkers suddenly deprived of this daily illumination of the increasingly volatile world we live in? One angr y listener, Barbara Gordon, called WNYC and was told that the station wants to increase its diversity—especially more women serving as hosts.

When I called WNYC’s public-relations department, “diversity” was again the talking point, with the addition of “We want new voices.” I also got a whiff of WNYC’s yearning for younger demographics—just like the commercial stations. That’s the reason for The Takeaway, the new alternative to National Public Radio’s invaluable Morning Edition, which used to be heard on both AM and FM. The Takeaway, a breezy but often marginal hour-long show, makes me jump ship to WNYC-FM at 8 a.m., which is now the only place to hear the far more invaluable and in-depth Morning Edition.

During my call to the WNYC publicist, I was told that a programming official would inform me of the reasons for dropping To the Point, which cannot be heard on either station. I’m still waiting for that call.

Its replacement, Tell Me More, hosted by Michel Martin, is a reasonably competent but basically undistinguished magazine-style show—sort of like “smooth jazz” radio in contrast to Newark’s WGBO-FM, where you can hear everything from Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus to Sherrie Maricle’s superb all-women big band, the DIVA Jazz Orchestra.

“Diversity,” of course, is as vitally essential in radio as it is everywhere else. A continually invigorating example of this is Amy Goodman’s national news show Democracy Now!, heard in New York on WBAI. I wonder if Amy’s full-strength fusion of breaking news and analysis—very much like what Warren Olney’s To the Point delivers—would be too strong for WNYC the way it’s begun to trend now.

Since the 1960s, Olney has been an investigative reporter and political analyst, first on TV and now on the radio. He is a deeply informed interviewer and, like Count Basie, knows how to keep the beat moving no matter how inflamed the controversies (or the guests) become.

Olney is on a par with WNYC’s masterful Brian Lehrer and Leonard Lopate, whose penetrating skills, I hope, will not become rarer on WNYC if the station management’s quest for lighter and more entertaining “new voices” intensifies.

Of the many angry letters to WNYC I’ve seen in recent days, a characteristic protest was addressed to Laura Walker, the station president and CEO, from John Phillips, one of the many “members” of the station who contribute regularly to its fund drives: “This is to protest, at the level of a scream, your decision to replace the meaty To the Point . . . with its grand array of experts and analysts zeroing in on topics of genuine import. . . . [The program’s] loss will make it far less my station than it has been for many years. This change . . . is clearly not prompted by a motivation to present solid analysis and informed opinion on your air, but something a good deal less.”

I still have WNYC on often, and I never miss the broadcasts of the BBC World Service at 9 a.m. and midnight. Much like The Economist magazine, the BBC’s on-the-ground reporters get into parts of the world that are still largely shadowy—at best—to most Americans. But perhaps the outrage of many New York listeners at the loss of To the Point may make WNYC’s management realize that somewhat higher ratings—even among what it clearly regards as a more desirable demographic—can lessen the essential value of the station. In the New York City area, WNYC has long been an anchor of what broadcast journalism can be and must be, if we’re to continue to enjoy freedom of the press as it was described in 1734 by Andrew Bradford, founder of The American Weekly Mercury, Pennsylvania’s first newspaper. Bradford defined freedom of the press as “a liberty of detecting the wicked and destructive measure of certain politicians, of dragging villainy out of its obscure lurking holes and exposing it in its full deformity to open day . . . of attacking wickedness in high places, of disentangling the folds of a wicked and corrupt administration, and pleading freely for a redress of grievances. . . .”

That’s what To the Point did every day.

Bradford went on to proclaim: “As therefore you love your liberties, my dear countrymen, support and defend the liberty of the press.” In the aptly named mass media today, do you find many examples of journalists delivering on Bradford’s mandate?

On To the Point‘s June 30 show, Grace Kwinjeh, the democracy activist from Johannesburg, told Warren Olney this: “Most of my colleagues . . . are actually in hiding now. . . . I believe that the response to the Zimbabwe situation is very slow, like we experienced before in Rwanda. . . . By the time the international community woke up, by the time our African brothers, sisters, and leaders woke up, it was too late.”

On this report on the naked truth from Mugabeland, Kwinjeh continued: “The violence is being normalized. It’s being made part of the political culture. There’s no condemnation of the violence. There’s no one in the government calling for the violence to stop. . . . I think that Africa’s time has come for us now to compete over dead bodies. . . . What are we saying about how we value the lives of Africans?”

Her desperate question, addressed to the world, was not heard on WNYC in New York.