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As Important as Air

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad

The same day that Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas and the Board of Trustees announced that Tri States Public Radio will "become a self-funded department within the University structure and will be responsible for generating its revenue needs, including personnel expenditures, effective March 1, 2019," the lead story on the WIU website lauded the accomplishments of its nationally award winning Broadcasting and Journalism students.   What??!!??   

My immediate reaction was one that cannot be aired on public airwaves, but suffice it to say I think that this is one of the worst decisions ever for both Western Illinois University and the listening area.  I understand the fiscal reality of the world that WIU inhabits but this decision is, in my opinion, short-sighted and counterproductive.  WIU cannot strive to be a strong regional university without supporting a strong regional informational infrastructure.  

Let me give you three examples why I think that the decision to defund Tri States Public Radio should be reversed immediately.  

  1.  We live in a place called Forgottonia.

Coined by Jack Horn and Neil Gamm in the late 1960s and the early 1970s,  the phrase Forgottonia is a protest against inequalities in state and federal funding of infrastructural necessities like transportation, communication, and economic development beginning in the region after the second World War.  For those of us who live in Forgottonia we know these inequalities continue to exist.  Pulling the funding for Tri States Public Radio will only exacerbate the problem.  Like the twice daily Amtrak to Chicago, Tri States Public Radio provides access to intellectual and cultural resources to nearly a quarter of million listeners in a largely rural tri state region. Macomb has been my home for the last eighteen years and I like it here.  One of the things that makes this community so special is a strong and vibrant public radio station that delivers not only reliable news but also a multitude of services.   For forty years the Audio Informational Services has  provided a regional radio reading service for print-impaired individuals in the 20 counties in west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. On the cultural front the Concert Series hosted in the Vallillo/Holtz Performance Studio regularly brings the very best in folk, Americana singer-songwriters and other diverse musicians to our region to perform live in concert at a minimal cost to the public.

2.  Reliable, intelligent news.  

In an era in which “fake news” looms large, you know that the news you hear on Tri States Public Radio is reliable.  The word media comes from the term intermediate - meaning between the powerful and the public.  According to Robert Reich, responsible media holds those in power accountable by asking them hard questions, correcting misstatements, and reporting on what they do.  National Public Radio does this and so does our local station.  Whether it is an interview with local politicians, or the president of Western Illinois University, Tri States Public Radio reporters ask difficult and often unpopular questions.  This is what an informed and intelligent media does.  For many households, my own in included, the first thing that goes on in the morning after the lights and before the coffee is Tri States Public Radio.  Before we head out the door to work and school, we listen to our local station so we can begin our day as informed citizens of our community and the world. 

3.  Public Radio = Public Education

When National Public Radio launched in 1971, it promised to be an alternative to commercial media that would “promote personal growth rather than corporate gain” and “speak with many voices, many dialects.”  Tri States Public Radio’s dedication to providing access to voices and views and fostering personal growth is displayed through their commitment to airing local commentaries and by providing internship opportunities for university students throughout the region.  

While Tri States Radio has always encouraged the listening public to submit commentaries, they have been especially supportive of a diverse group of women from the region who for the last three years have offered their opinions and viewpoints on issues that are important to them.  In response to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions June 14th use of the Bible to argue for faith-based obedience to the government, Reverend Dr. Monica Corsaro, a United Methodist clergyperson from Galesburg, reminded listeners of one of the fundamental tenets of our nation - we are a country founded on religious freedom, not a country based only on Christian beliefs.  That is public education. 

Another frequent contributor to our airwaves Beth Howard, is an author from Iowa whose commentaries are often connected to a cultural tradition with strong ties to our region - pie baking.  Her reflections about how the art of pie baking can heal and comfort and teach us how to live more meaningful lives are a welcome reminder that so many of the world’s problems could be solved if we would simply sit and eat together over food that has been prepared with love.  

Public education is at the core Tri States Public Radio.  Every public university I have ever attended from Ohio to Florida has supported its local public radio station.  As a commentator (on TSPR) I have personally learned how to write more succinctly.  This makes me a better teacher.  Hundreds of students throughout the region have interned at Tri States Public Radio.  Some have gone on to win national awards like those in the WIU department of Broadcasting and Journalism, while others use their newly acquired skills in other careers.  This is public education. 

These are just some among the many reasons why I stand with Tri States Public Radio and call for the WIU administration and the Board of Trustees to immediately reinstate its funding. 

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.