Radio free D.C.: news, traffic, weather, whiny bureaucrats.
But that doesn't mean no one's listening. Federal News Radio (available online at federalnewsradio.com) is a three-and a-half-year old venture grandly billed as "the world's first Internet only all-news radio station and Web site covering world and national news with a particular focus on the Federal Government" Federal News Radio's sister station WTOP rebroadcasts some of FNR's segments. But the vast majority of FNR's approximately 50,000-70,000 listening each day through computers are federal workers whose bosses are often tuning into the same show down the hall. As a result, most feds resist the temptation to call in: Sounding off on the air may be good therapy, after all, hut it's probably not the best career move.
So instead, they work out their anger via email. Causey receives more than 50 messages in his inbox each day, most of them in response to whatever topic he's addressed in his daily column, which he discusses on air. Lately, most of the emails he's received have ranged from quiet worry to panic over the White House's plans to outsource many federal jobs--a move which would cost many of FNR's listeners their livelihoods. Over the past three years, the administration has instituted a system that identifies specific federal positions which are candidates for privatization and notifies their holders. "[Government workers] call it the yellow pages rule," says Causey. "If they can find your job in the yellow pages, then your ass is outta here" Roughly 450,000 federal jobs have now been identified as targets for competition from private companies, according to Paul Light, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of public service at New York University. Now, it's starting to actually happen, and workers in all corners of government are certain that they will he the next to go. The Halliburton contracts in Iraq have been a big item of complaint for feds writing into FNR: They're convinced, Causey says, that the administration is more interested in paying back political allies than taking care of their own. Federal unions have begun running anti-outsourcing ads, and the number of calls on the topic to FNR has skyrocketed.
On the air, Majerus is reading an email from a federal worker named Jeanne. In order to protect Jeanne, Majerus does not share her last name with listeners.
"I want someone to explain why outsourcing is such a great idea," Majerus reads, taking a sip of her water. "Government is complicated, and it takes years to gain the knowledge and expertise to do what we do. How can they be so willing to throw away or disregard the qualified work staffs they now have on board?"
There are about 400,000 federal workers and retirees in the D.C. metro area--and thousands more if you count employees at those agencies, like the C.I.A., that don't officially divulge the number of people on their payrolls. The station is most popular with employees at the Treasury Department, National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Defense. Pentagon workers are responsible for more of the emails hostile toward the administration than any other department, FNR officials say.
Snarky observers might speculate that those federal employees who have time during the working day to listen to a talk radio station deserve to have their jobs outsourced. Indeed, Federal News Radio's listeners tend to be the federal system's office managers and human-resource specialists--those concerned more with retirement plans and healthcare options than issues of high policy. And FNR knows how to serve its audience.
The station generates about 70 percent of its content itself, with the remainder coming from the Associated Press (small portions also being taken from WTOP and CBS Radio). The station runs short segments (in distinctive, rat-tat-tat "you give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world" radio-news ticker style) tailored to bureaucrats, with breaks for commercials similarly targeted to federal workers. (Geico offers special deals on car insurance to government officials.) This gives the station a certain quirky, charming obscurity, filled with the sorts of stories that are vastly interesting to federal bureaucrats, and some what less engaging in the rest of US.
Listeners tuning into Mike Causey's report on the Friday before Columbus Day heard him waxing poetic on the "drama and theatrical aspects of the year 2004federal pay raise."
A short news segment asked whether workers knew "that there's a federal agency designed solely to assist government agencies with the procurement process?" Not only is there one, the narrator intoned, but it's online at govworks.gov.
Then came a brief report reminding those federal workers who were planning on charging their superiors with discrimination that they needed to contact a counselor "within 45 days of the discriminatory events"--or else courts would throw the claims out.
Federal News Radio's undisputed star is Causey, a self-effacing, silver-haired 63-year-old with a deep baritone and an even deeper knowledge of almost everything of interest to federal workers. Causey, who wrote the "Federal Diary" column at The Washington Post for more than 20 years before coming to Federal News Radio, doesn't always take on the sexiest of issues--recently, he discussed the state of healthcare premiums and the intricacies of Office of Management and Budget Circular No. A-76 (Revised) on the air--but his straightforward, no-frills approach has resonated with feds.
"He's like a rock star for federal workers," says VUFOP Vice President Jim Farley. "They come up at conventions and can't believe it's really him."
Causey prides himself on not being alarmist: He's long been critical of the media for overstating the problems faced by federal workers. But he believes that his listeners are right to be concerned about privatization--and civilians probably should be, tool Light has stated' that there is little solid evidence that Outsourcing actually produces cost savings and that rashly made cuts can undermine the efficient delivery of services. Outsourcing does, however, yield one important Political result: It puts money in the pockets of private contractors, which can then kick some of that cash back to the politicians who gave them the contracts in the first place. To be sure, some sectors of the federal work force are rife with inefficiency and dead weight. But it has more than its share of dedicated public servants. Causey is dedicated to them.
"I think the typical fed wants to ask Tom DeLay why he doesn't replace the federal workers who guard the Capitol," says Causey. "That cop who was killed--remember that cop who got killed guarding the Capitol? He was a federal worker. He gave his life for the country. I don't know if some guy" from Brinks would do that. There's a patriotism in reds that people don't recognize."
Brian Montopoli is a Washington, D.C., writer.