Raul Ramirez has been news and public affairs director at KQED-FM in San Francsico since 1991. He has worked as a reporter or editor for The Washington Post, Miami Herald, Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Examiner. He began his journalism career as an intern at the Wall Street Journal in 1969. He is president of the Board of the Center for Investigative Reporting and has won numerous awards for local, national, and international reporting. He also teaches journalism at San Francisco State University.
Raul Ramirez: A little bit of curiousity about radio and a lot of desire to stay in the San Francisco Bay Area. I had worked at two Bay Area newspapers, one of them twice, in fact, and I thought it was time to make a change. I came to live in the Bay Area and tried to work for a newspaper elsewhere or tried out this interesting possibility of working in radio. I should tell you the morning after I said yes that I would come to KQED and I resigned at the San Francisco Examiner, I woke up and felt like I had been hit by a two-ton truck. Every bone in my body ached. What had I done? I thought. I don't know radio, and radio is not that relevant and print has been my life. Being a reporter and writer has been my life. That lasted for about 12 hours. Then I came here and I met a wonderful staff. I was reminded and began to practice the great possibilities or expression that radio offers. It's such an intimate, immediate medium to work with. People don't think of writing when they think of radio, but in fact, radio is not just about writing. The writer in me is delighted to be in this environment where good writing, tailored for the ear, really goes that extra mile. I do miss print. I miss writing. I miss newspapers.
JournalismJobs.com: Do you feel any pressure to air stories that might not garner as many listeners because of the subject matter?
Raul Ramirez: That's the wonderful thing about working in public radio. The audience really becomes interested in any story that is interestingly and engagingly told. In some ways appealing to the lowest common denominator is the worst possible thing you can do to a public radio audience. They don't appreciate it. It really removes that kind of pressure to provide what is most appealing to the widest possible audience. We do ask ourselves questions such as: What relevance does this have to the lives of the people we serve? How important is it to them?...There certainly are no KQED corporate pressures that I feel. I suppose that over a long period of time if the audiences were turning elsewhere, we'd have to take a look at that. It's not a direct relationship between audience to profits that people in the commercial world have to contend with.
JournalismJobs.com: How has public radio changed in the past 10 years? How has it gotten better and worse?
Raul Ramirez: At the local level, and particularly the larger stations, I think that public broadcasting is getting a lot better. I remember when I first came to KQED 10 years ago, looking around the country, news departments were disappearing from public radio stations. Those were difficult times financially. But also there seemed to be a disengagement to the mission of covering the news. Today, particularly in some of the larger stations, you look at Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, the LA market, Minnesota Public Radio, WAMU in Washington, D.C., WHYY in Philadelphia, and NPR's own programming around the country, you see a lot of really inspiring efforts to strengthen and provide more news coverage. At that level there is a lot going on. There is a lot of interesting programming that is taking place.
What I do fear for are the smaller stations. There you have a decline in the news presence, not that it was ever that strong. But as it becomes more expensive to provide news and public affairs, there's been a turning away from that. In some ways, you could argue, the people who need public broadcasting the most include certainly people in those smaller towns and far away places where they have no alternatives -- where there is not even a commercially viable station providing news and information. So when those stations are unable to provide a service, and I think increasingly they are, that's a real tragedy. In terms of the networks, I think NPR has become a much more professional news organization. That is both promising and also in some ways -- too bad -- in the sense that NPR does what it does very well, very professionally, it doesn't experiment as much as it used to. In some ways that kind of branding of public braodcasting as a place where you would hear people making mistakes but also doing wonderful things by trying to push the envelope, you don't hear that on NPR as much anymore. You don't hear many mistakes, and that's wonderful, but also you tend not to hear the payoff which is when you do take a risk and succeed and that's too bad.
JournalismJobs.com: What makes San Francisco a great place for public radio?
Raul Ramirez: I think San Francisco is a great place for doing journalism period. It's cutting edge in terms of technology and science, demographics, you name it. It's a greatly diverse place, which makes it a great for radio because we have a nice range of voices and perspectives. We probably have the the most ideal demographics in the country for public broadcasting. A highly educated and diverse population. A population that is interested in ideas by and large that has engaged citizenry. All of those are fruitful grounds for public radio audiences. I think that explains why KQED has the largest audience of any public radio station in the country and why KQED Television has the largest audience of any public television station in the country.
JournalismJobs.com: How do you chose what stories to run? What is a typical workday?
Raul Ramirez: There is no typical workday. Mondays are meeting days. Tuesdays are crisis days. Wednesdays are planning days. You know, that kind of evolution. In terms of choosing stories, what goes in is a blend of a sense of mission; how does it fit with our mission to tell stories in depth and to tell the whys and therefores of the stories. That's one element that we look at. Then we have to look at what resources for telling the story. Do we have access to the people, the voices and the sounds? Do we have the reporters who can get access on this particular day? That's true of any newsroom anywhere. Then there's that perennial perplexing question that faces every news director, which is: What do we cover? How do we fill the air time with something that is meaningful, interestingly told, engagingly reported, and nicely written? Some days the answer resides with the stories you have available.
JournalismJobs.com: Critics say public radio has become too corporate, and that the need to increase listenership and revenues has made programming less in-depth and more commercial. Do you agree?
Raul Ramirez: I think you need to look at the editorial content and ask the question: Does corporate underwriting in any discernable way affect the content that is offered on the air? I'm not sure you can make a case for that. I know that critics are saying that NPR has become more corporate and so on, but I think that might be a reflection of what I was just talking about, which is its own sense of looking at itself, taking itself a lot more seriously. I really do not believe there is a corporate agenda that is having its way in public broadcasting, certainly not at the national level. That there is more of a commercial presence in underwriting credits that are longer and more explicit than they used to be, of course there is. What I'm concerned about is more in terms of whether that has any impact on content. Frankly, as far as I can see, the only impact is that there are more resources to provide more coverage.
JournalismJobs.com: What do you make of Minnesota Public Radio moving into Los Angeles and acquiring public radio stations across the country? Do you think that they are going to challenge NPR?
Raul Ramirez: I don't know what Minnesota Public Radio plans to do or will do. I do know that the local LA news coverage market has struggled because of the presence there, and that's wonderful. It would not be a great idea to create a very competitive environment where stations are devoting resources simply to fight each other. I don't think that is happening, and I hope that is not where they're going. The public broadcasting world is not big enough that we can afford to be just fighting each other. On the other hand, a little bit of competition and a little bit of different voices and different ways to come at stories and coverage is very good... MPR is becoming larger and they have quite a network in Minnesota itself and so on. I don't see why that should be a threat to us at the moment. If it resulted in the diminishing of voices then I would be concerned. I certainly haven't seen that in Southern California, where I'm familiar with. KPPC is a stronger radio station today than it was before Minnesota Public Radio became associated with it, and I would say that's a good thing.
JournalismJobs.com: Now having worked in radio for 10 years, do you like your job?
Raul Ramirez: I love my job. I could use a little less of it. In terms of volume, I really like working in public radio in this area. You're working with ideas. You're working with talented people. You're working with interesting stories. And you're working in a medium that magnifies all of that and makes it a pleasure to do.
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