How could it have been better? Radio Days Europe are over. These three days are working themselves into being one of those annual celebrations that mark my calendar, in a way like the Winnipeg Folk Festival or the Sitka Festival. It’s a celebration of many things I hold close; radio, free press, good journalism, storytelling, meeting friends and, this year, Ireland.
A celebration it was, but with a sober start. We all stood for a minute to honor the 200 journalists killed in the line of work since the last Radio Days. Twenty seven of them have died in the first 12 weeks of 2014 and an astounding 24 of the 200 are radio journalists. These are our friends and colleagues. I thought of the four journalists with whom I’ve worked closely who’ve been killed in the past 20 years.
One of the exhibiters included a set of handcuffs in the conference swag bag. “We help you develop bonds to your listeners.” (I’m not sure I want such bonds.) They are serious handcuffs, with locks and keys. In her presentation a Syrian journalist made effective use of the cuffs, starting her speech in shackles
But mostly we celebrated radio and storytelling. Back 40 years ago when I attended early Public Radio meetings material from the BBC, CBC and German broadcasters was played as the exemplar of good public radio. Twenty two years ago at my first European radio conference, Americans were recognized as the best in commercial production, pop music formatting, jingles, sales and lobbying government. But those interested in “serious radio” looked down on American public broadcasting. We said to our well-funded public broadcasting cousins, “If we only had the money.”
This year at Irish Radio’s session on storytelling “This American Life” was held out as an exemplar. For newswriting it was the way NPR turned a phrase. At a second story telling session the radio star was Jay Allison’s “Moth Radio Hour.” One of the co-producers said “this is embarrassing, I mean we’re in Ireland.” When it came to web development no one can touch the BBC for scale, but for creative use NPR was cited over again for its on line archive and retrieval system, reformatting stories for the web and use of social media. When the Irish Taoiseach himself (Prime Minister Enda Kenny) cited the great radio we celebrate his first reference was to Garrison Keillor. What’s happened? US Public Radio has gone from stepchild to leader. It’s not that we have any more money from the government. We have less, in absolute tax dollars, than in 1992 when I attended my first European Radio Meeting.
When a colleague asks me the same question I asked twenty years ago “Why can’t we have radio like that?” my answer is, “If you only had less money.” After a decade’s struggle, the funding cuts have made us stronger. They caused us to work smarter. Most importantly they forced us to depend on and develop bonds to our listeners. Our listeners took up the slack. The Taoseach said “Attend to your listeners, as they attend to the radio.” That’s what happened. That was my great epiphany from these Radio Days. I’ve known it for a while but never framed it as well as an Irish politician. I’m not advocating cutting public broadcasting further, but we are stronger for the cuts we suffered. That’s hard to say having lived through them, having laid off people and cut programs. Now Public Radio is the most powerful force in American radio. We have a certain toughness and efficiency to offer back the rest of the world.
There was one surprising area where America came off well. (Surprising since the US NSA did the spying.) Paul Johnson, Deputy Editor of the Guardian who handled the story talked about the Ed Snowdon case. The Guardian was threatened with closure by the British Government. “National Security Trumps Free Press.” He was forced to take grinders and drills to his computers in front of the security agents, to assure the agents his reporters could no longer use them. Never mind, there were copies in the States where they were not threatened. The New York Times was never threatened with closure. The British government said “absolutely no” when the Guardian offered to cooperate on identifying information that could be harmful if released. “It will all be harmful, Security trumps free press.” The US government was willing to negotiate when the Guardian sought guidance on releasing certain information. “Would it endanger anyone?” He said in the US Snowdon sparked a healthy discussion, in Britain the government will not engage in that discussion and many of the other media will not take up the story. “National Security trumps Free Press” and James Bond is a national icon. The First Amendment works. We always have to fight to maintain it, but fundamentally it changes the playing field.
So I heard a lot of great radio, was involved in thoughtful discussions and met friends. How could it be be better? Ireland — Ireland made it better. Most conferences I’ve attended could be in any city, really, the hotels are all the same, the speakers come year after year, the venues are cookie cutter. Of course there is the city tour at the beginning and the opening reception in some fine historic hall. But at this conference you knew you were in Ireland, you knew it all the time, and not just because of the Kelly green lanyards that held our credentials. The evening events were not in a fine historic hall but in either a huge pub or in the grandstand of the dog races where I placed my bets with Seamus Farrell an Irish bookie, in the rain under a big beach umbrella. Traditional live Irish music filled the opening reception and accompanied the dogs. We had dancing lessons, and the convention hall had live music.
There was an emphasis on story telling. Irish Radio stations compiled an Irish music CD, with complete broadcast permissions, from all genres currently on different station playlists. And the food was anything but convention food. Colcannon, Irish stew, beef in Guinness, Irish Salmon, and Guinness for lunch if you wanted it. We each got a bus pass and even instructions for a treasure hunt to take us throughout Dublin if we wanted to play. Last year in Germany the sessions ran late, there were long lines at registration, buildings didn’t open on time. In Ireland they operated with what could be called “German efficiency,” food lines ran quickly, sessions started and ended on time, registration was quick, lines short and it was all done with a smile and a joke. The convention center’s acoustics and the sound systems were exceptional. I didn’t need hearing aids at all. The seats were comfortable, even in the breakout rooms, and the writing surfaces in the conference hall popped up in a way that did not hinder left handers. Last year 1,200 delegates seemed crowded, this year a hundred more than that felt comfortable, with enough room to move, meet in small groups and chat, it was – intimate. Next year Milano will have a hard act to follow. http://www.radiodayseurope.com/.
It’s over. We say good-by to friends and wonder how many sets of handcuffs security will confiscate from hand baggage at Dublin Airport. We have two more days here with a free public transport pass and comp passes for the hop on hop off tours courtesy of the Association of Irish broadcasters. Ireland really wanted this meeting and deserved to get it. Usually after a conference I write a letter to the organizers on how they could improve things. I’m kind of famous for it. This year I honestly cannot see how they could have done it better.