I went to a community listening session put on by one of our Yakima (Washington) TV stations today–KNDO-TV–at a senior center, but others attended. I’d guess the attendee count at about twelve, almost matched by nine station employees–an impressive turnout by the station: the manager, news director, three sales managers, a sales assistant (She wrote things down on a conference pad), a news anchor, a reporter, and a camera guy. I was suspicious it might just be eyewash for license renewal, but I looked it up; renewal happened last year. No, this was apparently a real, sincere effort to talk with the community. It comes at an interesting time, when all the major Yakima network TV stations have recently consolidated their local newscasts with their co-owned Tri-Cities, Washington, stations, about eighty miles away. I went to the meeting to agitate about this–“local” newscasts now contain stories from both places. Less time for Yakima stories on the Yakima station. Set aside for the moment the fact that the “local” news is mostly fires, murders and other calamities, with a trickle of community event coverage and almost no government affairs. The sincere folk from KNDO explained that they had to consolidate local production operations in the bigger town because they could only afford to buy new digital broadcasting gear for one location–it’s government mandated because our national digital conversion of TV must come in the next year (Does HDTV sound familiar?). Tri-Cities wins because it’s the bigger town. And Yakima (72,000 or so souls) has always been sold to advertisers as part of the Tri-Cities regional market. Thus, marketing-advertising determines whether a community actually gets what its TV licensees were required to deliver. The KNDO staffers’ serious but uncomfortable reaction to my question showed they understand that Yakima people could make their lives more “interesting” if we get it–that we’re being shortchanged. I give KNDO credit for getting out here to engage the activists who’d show up for such events. But I worry about the widening gap between broadcasters in the consolidated media business and the communities their licenses require them to focus on. Traditional radio and TV are under enormous pressure from new media–serious economic pressure. KNDO, KAPP, and KIMA– in fact, all significant Yakima radio and TV stations–are owned by non-resident companies. The daily newspaper is, too, owned by the Seattle Times Company. As these corporations focus on downsizing–KNDO has chosen to keep its local news staff, but squeeze their resources and consolidate operations–the stations are risking their hometown relationships. With these moves, the stations have increased their risk at a time when the cost of entering the media business has fallen radically–the Web has made it possible to mount a print-radio-TV “station” without FCC regulation, with minimal technical investment, with, potentially, total local and international distribution. It isn’t as simple as that sounds, but it can be done. Sooner or later local broadcasters must realize that they’re consolidating themselves out of business. As an economic center, Yakima is in trouble. But that’s an opportunity. Innovation is called for. But right now traditional broadcasters are in no condition to take advantage of opportunities.

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