Letter to the Boss at NHPR re the Demise of The Exchange
Updated: Jun 6, 2021
Dear Mr. Schachter:
I write respectfully, as a fan of public radio since my college radio days in the 1970s, as a loyal NHPR listener and member since moving to New Hampshire in 1997, as a former member of NHPR's community advisory board, and as an occasional guest on The Exchange in my capacity as a state official, to ask you to reconsider your decision to cancel this important program.
News of this decision reached me via the Concord Monitor, whose story implies that finances drove your decision. Fiscal responsibility is obviously an important imperative for you and the Board of Directors. But if the financial model is inadequate to support the mission, changing the mission is not the answer -- updating the financial model is.
As New Hampshire's Consumer Advocate, I run a small state agency tasked with advancing the interests of residential utility customers. Since taking office in 1996, I have been featured on several episodes of The Exchange. Thus I can testify from personal experience that The Exchange plays a critical role in advancing the greater good of our state.
In no other setting -- none -- do I have the opportunity to participate in a well-managed public conversation with other key policymakers on the critical issues I confront in my official capacity (i.e., questions related to the future of our electricity grid, our natural gas network, our use of energy generally, and of course matters related to social and environmental justice). Yes, I testify frequently at legislative hearings, I argue before the PUC and cross-examine witnesses there, I grant interviews and accept speaking engagements, I attend informal meetings on a daily basis, and I even have my own column on the news web site InDepthNH.org. But The Exchange is unique because it requires me to be in public dialogue with other guests, not of my choosing, all of us having a conversation that is carefully and skilfully moderated so as to filter out any blarney, self-aggrandizement, and tangential material. That exact thing is not happening anywhere else in New Hampshire and it is really valuable.
As someone involved in energy policy, I toil daily atop the mother lode of unreported news. Every time I have appeared on The Exchange, I have left convinced that we had advanced the cause of public understanding of critical issues that usually go unreported and unexamined. Multiplying that sense across all of the other issues and controversies that The Exchange has explored over its long run, one starts to get a sense of how the demise of The Exchange punches a gaping hole through the center of public discourse -- indeed, arguably democracy itself -- in New Hampshire.
Of course the decision of Laura Knoy to step down after her distinguished run is an important opportunity to reexamine the use of resources and airtime devoted to The Exchange. Of course it would be impossible simply to swap in another host and expect the magic to persist; Laura's combination of insight, incisiveness, affability, and open-minded neutrality makes her one of the finest hosts in public radio. (Plus, I daresay nobody has ever accused her of being a workplace bully or sexual harasser.) You surely know these things better than I do. But I urge NHPR's decisionmakers to do more than just shrug and conclude: Well, Laura is irreplaceable, the program is expensive, it airs at a time when listenership is relatively low, and cancellation is a ready opportunity to ease some budgetary pressures.
I challenge NHPR to accept its emerging role as the center of New Hampshire's journalism universe, and to engage more earnestly with the reality that The Exchange is the heart of NHPR's public affairs programming. Conversations that begin on The Exchange have so many sequelae that one hears elsewhere during the broadcast day and via NHPR podcasts. Meanwhile, commercial broadcasting in New Hampshire has long since proven itself worthy of Newton Minow's "vast wasteland" epithet, the daily newspapers are withering before our eyes, and emerging nonprofit online news organizations like NewHampshireBulletin.com and InDepthNH.org are struggling to gain a foothold. In these circumstances, with the future of community and democracy arguably at stake, NHPR ought to forge a grand alliance with one or more of the online organizations that are the future of 'print' journalism at the state level, erase all the boundaries (broadcasting vs. podcasting, print vs. broadcasting, etc.) and cultivate a whole new paradigm. Throwing out the good elements of what we have now, because it's convenient, is not the way to build that new paradigm.
As a former high official of WNYC and, now, as NHPR's CEO, you have long stood on the shoulders of giants. NHPR is the best public radio service in New England in large part because your predecessor Mark Handley had the courage several decades ago to transition the station to a news and information service at a time when his counterparts in Maine and Vermont could not stand up to the elitist minority (including lots of wealthy donors) who favored the preexisting fine arts format centered on classical music. (Please don't misunderstand; I love Mozart -- I just don't need NHPR to deliver him to me.) Please be bold enough to be worthy of the people who gave New York its path-breaking municipal broadcasting service in the 1920s and 30s and the folks who later proved that public radio could be transformative in a relatively rural state.
I apologize for going on at such length but there are few things about which I feel so strongly. This is NOT one of those "if you don't do what I want I will cancel my membership" messages; I will remain a loyal listener and member. I acknowledge that you have access to information I do not, and you may well have brilliant plans in progress that will make this message seem foolish in retrospect. I just want to make sure you understand what a big deal this is.
Thank you for considering my views, may NHPR continue to flourish, and may your tenure at the helm of NHPR be long and successful.
[N.B. That's not me in the photo, it's my son being interviewed on NHPR about five years ago, talking about his upcoming lobbying trip to Washington on behalf of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.]