Less radio news is bad news for listener

MICHAEL OLESKER

August 02, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

As they used to say in radio: Don't touch that dial.

Where would you turn it?

The news about radio news in Baltimore: There is none.

If Galen Fromme were alive today, this would kill him. Eddie Fenton would be spitting invective into his microphone. Boy, are the angels getting a mouthful from them.

A town that once boasted of news operations at all the major stations, where the voices like Fromme and Fenton, and Lou Corbin and Ted Jaffee, and Ron Matz and Alan Berrier and Ted Beinart, were as familiar as family members, is now reduced nearly to the sounds of silence.

Who said no news is good news? In Baltimore radio, no news is simply the state of current affairs.

There's WBAL, which has a news staff of nine reporters, three of whom actually venture outside the studio for stories.

And then there's . . .

Well, there's . . .

"I know, I know," says Mark Miller, shaking his head sadly. "I hate it."

This sounds a little ironic, since Miller makes his living as news director at WBAL radio. But he's talking as an observer of lean times, and not merely an executive with one eye on the ratings books.

"Competition," he says. "You need competition, and we don't have any. As a reporter, it's tough to maintain your enthusiasm when you're the only one out there. The newspaper reporters go to file their stories, the TV people go off with their photographers, and you realize, you're the only radio reporter.

"I'll tell you something," he says now. "It gets lonely out there."

Miller is 33, which is old enough to remember when radio was different: All the big stations with reporters on the street, phoning in breaking stories, covering beats, helping to keep the adrenalin pumping among all local media.

Outside of Miller's operation, here is the state of Baltimore radio news today:

WPOC-FM has four full-time reporters, two of whom work in the morning and two in the evening. One person sits in a studio and reads wire copy, while the other attempts to cover the entire metro area. Mostly, this means holding up a microphone at a press conference.

And that's it.

No other commercial radio station in Baltimore, AM or FM, has any reporter who leaves the studio to cover actual news. Broadcasting the news consists of nothing more than someone reading wire service copy over the air. Most stations don't even do that, and the few who bother with any newscasts do so only occasionally.

On FM radio, for example, WPOC does four-minute morning reports on the half hour from 5:30 to 8:30, then nothing until a five-minute report at noon, then nothing until three-minute reports on the half hour from 4:30 to 5:30.

"Sometimes," says WPOC reporter Marian Koubek, "you'll do some real digging and put together a great story. You'll want to give it a real good run. Maybe, you know, a minute-and-a-half. But how do you fit that into a three-minute newscast?"

Beyond that station, there's no one else on the commercial FM dial broadcasting even a hint of local news reporting after 9 in the morning.

And, on the AM dial, WBAL is the only operation with actual reporters, and not merely voices from a sound booth reading wire service copy at the top of the hour.

"It's sad," says Ron Matz, who was at WCAO when that station turned to gospel music eight months ago and eliminated the remains of its news operation.

Matz, as good as any radio reporter of the last quarter-century here, is still looking for full-time work; no station's hiring, since almost no station's doing news.

"You know," Matz says, "I still have people who say to me, 'Man, I heard you reporting live stuff during the City Hall shooting.' That was 1976. In those days, every station had people covering the big stories.

"Today, consultants tell stations what to put on the air, and the last thing they recommend is news. It's too expensive. They say people aren't interested in news. They say it's cheaper just to do music. When I started out, I never thought we'd get to the point we are today."

Give WBAL some credit: Despite the cost, despite the consultants, they hold onto the last remaining serious news operation in local radio.

It's not overwhelming. Of nine people, six are required to read the wires, rip the copy, process tape, then broadcast without leaving the studio. The other three are stretched pretty thin going after stories.

"But we still have our moments," Mark Miller says. "Like the day Ross Perot dropped out. He made the announcement shortly after 11 in the morning, and we had the story, plus analysis, plus reaction from 12 different news makers, in time for an expanded noon show."

"Days like that make you feel worthwhile. Or the Amtrak crash, the Pride of Baltimore sinking, the Colts moving . . . you know, people want to know what's going on in their community."

It's a shame they can't get it by turning on the radio and simply flipping the dial.

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