20 Year Celebration for RIPR Accessible to All

Torey Malatia, known for his work with Ira Glass on “This American Life,” is the president and CEO of Rhode Island Public Radio, which is celebrating 20 years on the air over the weekend of May 18 and 19 with an event called “20 Years of Sound and Vision.”

The celebration will start at the Steel Yard on Valley St. in Providence, where an iron pour generating a unique artwork and a performance by legendary punk idols Neutral Nation will anchor the

Torey Malatia

Torey Malatia

evening, which will feature art installations, special drinks by JR from The Avery in Providence, food trucks Hometown Poke, Red’s Street Kitchen and Portu Gallo, the band Lolita Black and more. Tickets to the first night are $10 each. The second night takes place at the WaterFire Arts Center and features many more performances with a focus on storytelling that includes local storytellers from different traditions.

We spoke with Torey about the upcoming celebration.

Mike Ryan (Motif): How long have you been with RIPR?

Torey Malatia: It’s going on three years in October.

MR: You’ve been in broadcasting a bit longer than that.

TM: I’ve been in it since I was a teenager, so yes, rather a long time.

MR: What’s changed at RIPR since its start 20 years ago?

TM: Well, it was originally an outpost for another station, WBUR. It was able during those years – about a decade – to tap into what was one of the largest budgets and resource pools around.

They started to face financial troubles in 2008, and they needed to sell assets to capture money. They announced on a Friday that they would sell the station on the following Monday, and over that weekend a group of people from the community got together to see if they could buy it, and they did. That was in 2008, so you could say we had a rebirth – the station’s really 10 years old twice.

MR: Is a community owned station unusual?

TM: There are other community owned radio stations, but what’s rare here is – usually it’s the other way around. Usually a community-owned station that’s under resourced gets gobbled up by a bigger station. In this case it was a big station looking to get rid of a smaller station.

MR: And no one had to sell to Sinclair. That’s great.

TM: (laughing) For a change.

MR: Any highlights or moments that the station’s especially proud of – especially from these last 10 years?

TM: My predecessor, Joe O’Connor was here during the WBUR times and … during the community not-for-profit times. What he decided to do was – and I think this was very smart – was invest in journalists…

So when I came, the structure was very much that. It’s not big – we’re small, but there are people here who are trying to do in-depth work. And they’re all focused on targeted areas. In a way, the station is not really a comprehensive news source. It’s selective. There are areas that it concentrates on and other areas that it doesn’t. So, for example, environment, health, politics, education – those are all focus areas. And then we have some general assignment reporting around that. So that was all good.

The not so good part was that evolution of listening in the marketplace went from AM to FM. This station was originally established on a pretty good AM signal, but then people weren’t looking to find public media on AM – they were thinking of it as an FM thing. So the institution tried to find ways it could develop an FM footprint. There’s no harder place to do that in the country than in New England because we are the oldest area – it’s where radio was developed originally, which means the spectrum is completely occupied. Everybody has a station. There are a lot of stations on top of each other. It’s very hard to find an open station to get some FM bandwidth, so that was a struggle. When I came, that was the first thing we spent a year and a half on … meanwhile thinking we also needed a digital footprint, which we hadn’t yet focused on.

I think Joe’s accomplishment was to make the right decisions to establish the station as a journalism center and my accomplishments are yet to come. All I’ve done, frankly, is try to get a better signal and position us so we can start to develop meaningful original content again.

We do now have a new wavelength – 89.3 – which is live now, but within a month it’s going to be optimized so it’s should be stronger.

One of the things that we’re doing with this 20th birthday is letting people know that we do have plans. We don’t want to take over the world, but we do think that we need more reporters to do more work in more key areas. Because there’s a whole bunch that we’re missing, and we want to talk about that at this event.

MR: Let’s talk about the state of journalism – in the nation, or maybe just in the state, if you want to bite off a smaller topic…

TM: Well, let’s talk about the philosophy there. I think the only way to address the state of journalism in the nation is to address the state of journalism in the local community. I think it’s additive. I don’t think that Journalism in local communities is the leavings of what’s happened nationally – it’s the other way around. Local is the primary ingredient in what makes for strong national journalism, and the problem is that we’ve given an awful lot of attention, time and revenue to these national conglomerates. Some are doing good work but some of them are just really savoring the ability to make money off of journalism. You mentioned one such broadcaster, but there are many broadcasters that try to position themselves as news, but what they are really trying to do is build audience and build listenership as a commodity, to try to maximize ad revenue.

If we realize that journalism develops – like with your publication – from a rooted place and that those stories help people become much closer to things around them, so that they can make decisions and do stuff and affect things around them. And if you do that in every community you end up additively having a strong case of journalism doing its work, on a national scale. But you have to start in communities.

MR: Thank you for indirectly validating my life choices.

TM: (laughs) Well it’s important.

MR: You’ve picked up a few journalists from other papers. Scott MacKay

TM: Well Scott came from The Journal. Ian Donnis came from The Phoenix, of course.

MR: We inherited a few writers from the Phoenix: We were really the next closest match for them.

TM: It was really a great publication.

MR: A lot of people think we were happy when it went away, because it was a competitor, but actually I was terrified. [we felt] It put a lot more on our shoulders than we really wanted.

TM: It’s interesting that you say that because the notion is that people are interested in hearing local journalism more, and yet many sources of local journalism are weakening. And the truth is that’s not a good thing, for lots of reasons. We try to structure ourselves so we can do deeper stories. The categories we mentioned and the ones we want to add, like economy and justice and arts and culture – we don’t have those concentration areas yet. But if there’s no daily paper – if that goes away – guess what! You don’t have the luxury of doing that any more. You’re in a position where nobody is covering events – every little thing. The nice thing about having a lot of journalists in a community is then you don’t all have to cover the same stuff.

MR: You can focus in on more specific topics.

TM: It allows you to supplement each other, rather than trying to gobble each other up. I don’t think we think about that very carefully.

MR: As a journalistic community?

TM: The task is bigger than any organization can really address. So what most of them do is cookie cutter, conventional wisdom pieces then run it out, like owner’s manual stuff. Who needs that? The audience deserves better. But you need to be working with other people to do more, to have the muscle to really do something.

MR: Absolutely. Returning to this week’s event – is that mostly a fundraiser, an awareness raiser? Tell me about the event.

In past years we would have a fundraiser – one big one, where everybody would wear fancy clothes and all of that. This year we knew we wanted to do it around the birthday. The notion was, let’s bring in famous people and big stars and do something flashy. But then we said, “Hold on, slow down. We are the area’s community radio station, and after 20 years the very fact that we’re alive is amazing. We don’t owe that to anybody except the audience.” The audience is what keeps us afloat, and the reason we exist is to reflect what’s going on in the community. Why don’t we instead celebrate what’s right here, and instead of looking backward look forward. Say, “Here’s what’s around us, and here’s the sort of stuff we’d like to cover in the future.”

So we decided to do two nights. The first night is really open to everybody. It’s not a lot of money to get in – low ticket price. It’s called the art of rebellion and there’s all sorts of art taking place and live music…

MR: Neutral Nation!

TM: Yeah, and the iron pour. All of that – that night’s really for everyone. Then the next night it’s a slightly higher ticket price but it’s still affordable, and there’s storytelling and dance and more music. They’re all performers and artists and craftspeople from our area and they’re all being highlighted. We’re pointing to them instead of pointing to us because that’s what we’re going to be doing in the future. We hope to be pointing to what’s around us. Art. Education issues. Environmental issues. Transportation. All of that. We hope to raise money with it, no question, but the whole notion is to point outward, not inward – in a way that reflects what we’re supposed to be about… It will definitely be unlike your standard annual fundraiser.

So you ask if it’s awareness raising. If it works, what people will leave aware of is, “Oh, we have this institution here and the job of that institution is to keep us informed about all this neat stuff.” We’re never going to be the biggest, most powerful news organization, and we don’t want that. We just want to do what the community needs us to do, and right now we need to do a little more to get there.

MR: What do you hope people will take away from the weekend?

TM: You have this amazing canvas that you can experiment on with community radio, and really wonderful ideas come forward. We would love to find more people who want to do the kind of work we’re doing – I believe in homegrown talent. That’s really important. That’s one of the things we’re trying to do with the event – the more subtle message we’d like to get out. That we aren’t above the community. We’re part of the community, but more importantly we’re the mirror, we’re trying to get the word out. We’re this kind of public relations tool that the community can use. And the best way for us to do that work is to understand it and interact with it and be immersed in it.

Public radio has this reputation for relying on academics and scientists and the like. And I love academics and scientists! But we also need people from other walks of life and with other perspectives – other age groups and backgrounds and cultures to talk about what’s going on. Otherwise we’re talking to just a sliver of our population.

I worked in classical music radio for a while. And I hate classical music radio. I love classical music, and I have never found classical music itself to be without its appeal to anybody, anywhere, any age, whether they know music or not. There is nothing in the music that is selective about who gets to listen to it. But with classical music radio what often happens is that there’s this unsaid club with a set of club rules that dictate how people introduce it and talk about it, which communicate, “if you’re in the know, this is for you, and if you’re not, go away.” I don’t want journalism, which by its mission needs to be useful to everybody, to go that way, where pundits say, “We know more about this than you, and we want to talk about it among ourselves now.” I want every conversation to feel like a conversation for all to hear. Otherwise journalism fails, I think.

20 Years of Sound and Vision takes place Fri, May 18 and Sat, May 19. For a full schedule of the event and to get tickets, check out riprsoundvision.com

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