|Q & A with Scott Shafer, host of The California Report
How did you decide on a career in radio?
I was studying at Cornell University in the late 1970s. It seemed like it would be fun to work at the college radio station. I started out spinning records at two in the morning -- good training for getting up early to do The California Report! I had a DJ job offer in Boston, but decided to move west. When I got to California, I transitioned toward news rather than music, since I was always a news junkie. There were a few curves and bends in the road -- I left radio to work in politics, government and consulting. I was also guest-hosting Forum, our daily call-in program. That's when The California Report job opened up.
In a crowded media market with an increase in "MTV-style" delivery, what role does public radio play in today's media?
Well, there's certainly lot of competition for listeners' and viewers' attention. I think public radio is kind of a main course, rather than an appetizer -- a substantive take on the most important issues of our day. It's always been true, but even more so since 9/11, that people are really hungry for information that doesn't insult their intelligence. Because public radio isn't driven by ratings (although let's be honest, we're happy when more people listen to us), we can take more risks and take more time to explain complicated but very interesting stories. Commercial media is now dominated by a few mega-companies, like Disney and AOL/Time Warner. Public radio is much more independent and insulated from the pressures of stockholders to turn an ever-increasing profit. Those demands lead to news coverage that brings in the biggest ratings. Public broadcasting is relatively free from that.
Within that framework, what do you see as the role of TCR?
California is such a huge place -- one out of every eight Americans lives here. Because of our size, and partly because we're so diverse, we hardly get to know each other's stories. We rarely have any statewide conversations where people from Redding listen to folks in San Diego or San Francisco. The California Report is trying to bridge that gap. We hope we are contributing to a broader understanding among California's vast and multicultural residents.
TCR's goals seem quite ambitious in covering the entire state of California. What are some of the issues you're able to cover?
Wow, where do I start? There are the obvious issues, like energy, politics, health, the environment and education. But then we also cover things that highlight California's unique place in the universe. Just recently, we've covered how California revolutionized skateboarding in the mid-'70s, how the Rodney King riots are being taught to college students at UCLA, and how the Sacramento Kings and the Golden State Warriors have had such completely different luck on the basketball court. So it's a pretty broad range.
How did TCR's Health Dialogues series come about?
Like so many issues, health care has many unique fault lines in California. The diversity of our population, the early acceptance of managed care, and HMOs and the emergence of biotechnology are just some of the things that make California a leader in health care innovation. But we are also a kind of "canary in the coal mine," in that problems the rest of the country will eventually face crop up here first.
We worked with The California Endowment to develop a statewide call-in show on health topics that also increases local reporting on these issues. In addition to the monthly program, we give small grants to public radio stations throughout the state to assist their local coverage of issues we highlight on Health Dialogues.
What is the most interesting or unique interview you've conducted or story you've covered?
Just recently I've been examining how the death penalty and the actual execution affect the lives of family members of the criminals' victims. So I've been talking with some extraordinary people, folks who've lost children to the most heinous murders imaginable. It turns out they have very different reactions to the death penalty. Talking with them and listening to their stories has been a remarkable experience.
Are there any new or exciting future developments or plans for TCR?
We're planning extensive coverage of the November elections. I'll be hitting the road to hear what's on the minds of Californians as the election gets closer. We're always trying to add new and interesting voices to the program.