The Long Goodbye of Free Speech Radio News

We’re about to lose one of the most important independent voices in grassroots radio journalism. Free Speech Radio News announced late last week that it would cease production on September 27th.
In a nutshell, the problem is money, and the writing’s been on the wall for a while. Free Speech Radio News has been hurting in that department since the fall of 2010, when it first raised the spectre of going dark. Saved by a last-minute crowdfunding campaign, FSRN’s been teetering on the brink ever since, held together by creative management, another emergency fund drive, and the passion of its crowdsourced production base. That can only take you so far, it would seem.
The distributed nature of FSRN’s production made the program uniquely diverse in several ways. There was no central "newsroom," just a handful of coordinators who lined up stories and segments and provided refreshingly stringent editing oversight. Segments were produced in the field and/or at a variety of community radio stations around the world, then stitched together in the United States for air. FSRN had an amazingly wide range of contributors from all around the globe, many of whom are front-line in every sense—mobile, fearless and drawn to stories that befit the program’s mission.
Free Speech Radio News grew out of a community radio affiliate-strike against Pacifica in 2000—one of the many tumults for that particular organization (more on that in a moment). Adopting the ad-hoc production model was a stroke of necessity: how to build a functional, half-hour network news program on the fly, without access to the traditional infrastructure? FSRN’s move to embrace the internet, still in its relative infancy, as a platform for collective newsgathering and distribution turned out to be ahead of its time.
FSRN did this all on less than $500,000 a year—more a single-thread budget than a shoestring one. To put that in perspective, NPR pulls the equivalent in grants and donations every couple of days, and Clear Channel Communications makes that much money every 90 minutes. A half-hour is a lot of news to produce for radio every day, and FSRN’s consistency and quality has been remarkable.
Shortly, it will be gone, and for this you can ultimately blame Pacifica. As a condition of ending the affiliates-strike in 2002, Free Speech Radio News completely replaced Pacifica’s own network newscast. Pacifica is obligated to pay FSRN to help cover its costs, but over the last few years—as Pacifica began what may be its own terminal slide—that support has withered away. Affiliate and listener contributions can’t cover the bills, and foundations and angel-funders have all but abandoned the medium of noncommercial radio (save for NPR).
Free Speech Radio News is the first notable collateral damage from the ongoing implosion of Pacifica, and I can’t help but wonder just how far its fallout will spread. It’s a shame it had to end this way, and here’s hoping something good can be made of this horrible loss to the world of independent media.

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