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Have life support ready to keep editorials alive.

IF A BOOK WERE WRITTEN on radio editorialists, I just might take the prize for having the shortest reign on air -- not a title I'll list on my resume. But then, the rest of my editorial board ended up "on the beach" when new management took over the radio station.

However, this is not a story of how mean old bosses fired everyone. No, the death of our radio station editorials came almost before birth. In my view it was bad planning.

It seemed like a great idea at the time. Talk radio station WRC in Washington, D.C., was going to start airing editorials.


Low-rated talk radio station seeking to shake up the nation's capital (and our ratings) by airing editorials. Unique opportunity to influence public policy leaders. No pay. Looking for knowledgeable community member to join three white males on the editorial board. Must be willing to do research, to consult with other board members, to write, and to pay own transportation expenses. Familiarity with broadcast delivery helpful.

Of course, that ad never ran, but I answered the call when my phone rang. I was flattered to be invited and I fit the bill -- female university journalism professor with 18 years in broadcast news and anxious to publish. It wasn't required, but I even liked the other members of the editorial board.

In the summer of 1993 we aired our first editorial, which I researched, wrote, and went to the station to record. I was a happy camper as the announcer said: "Now here is WRC editorial board member and American University professor Jill Olmsted. . . ."

I was happy with the editorial topic: lowering blood alcohol limits to get tougher on drunk drivers. I was happy to use my vocal cords professionally, and I was happy with the publicity for my university.

We aired a second editorial that I didn't feel strongly about, but I voiced the copy just the same.

A funny thing happened on the way to the third editorial -- the editorial board went into a coma. The editorials died because they didn't have a life support system.

Station management had decided they only wanted to air hard-hitting, fresh editorials -- no wimpy, wishy-washy dribble advocating support of motherhood and apple pie. Editorials would only be written if board members felt strongly about an issue and advocated specific action. We had no regular time schedule set aside for board members to brainstorm ideas; it was laissez-faire advocacy journalism. The theory was that if you ran across something you wanted to talk about, you'd just write the piece and run it by the rest of the board.

Looking back, I've made a Top Three list of where we went wrong:

1.) Advocacy versus commentary. I never bought into the theory that opinion writing must always advocate specific action. In fact, some of the commentaries I like hearing most are those that cause me to think about situations in a new light. I don't believe the editorialist who always has the answer.

2.) Regularly scheduled editorials. Listeners tune in to radio shows at specific times because they know what to expect. A radio station interested in having community impact would be better off giving the editorials a regular time slot for the station's view and for listener feedback. For a station interested in ratings (and who can afford not to be?) it could help build an audience.

3.) Rotate editorial duties. Most journalists have a mindset that requires a deadline: I don't get done today what I can put off until tomorrow. Give me a deadline, however, and I'll never miss it. I think broadcasting editorials would have worked far better if the four editorial board members knew they were the primary researcher/ writer for one editorial a month. Not one of us had the luxury of being just an editorial writer; it was added to already full-time jobs. In staff-short radio operations today, that's the norm, not the exception.

WRC radio's now defunct editorial beard also did three things very right.

The first was having the guts to try the venture.

Having input from a community member, someone who didn't draw a paycheck from the station, also worked well.

Finally, I like the idea of more diversity in voices. Male voices dominate the radio talk shows and any mix of gender, race, age, and other demography can only help contribute to a better mix in discussion of the issues.

Here in the nation's capital, it's more than a shame no radio station has picked up the mike thrown down by WRC, and built upon a good idea that died prematurely.

NCEW member Jill Olmsted, an assistant professor at The American University in Washington, D.C., teaches broadcast journalism and reports from Capitol Hill for WGN-TV and WGN Radio in Chicago.
COPYRIGHT 1994 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Olmsted, Jill
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Dec 22, 1994
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