Media Culture in Delaware Shifting, Thanks to NPR-Member Radio
Delaware First and WDDE aim to provide thoughtful local, national and international news and information in the ever-evolving world of journalism.
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“We knew we wanted to make an impact immediately, no matter what form it took,” Boudreau says. The Internet was an obvious channel. As a digital news service, DFM didn’t need hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of broadcast equipment. With the University of Delaware’s help, it started streaming news less than a year later. Then CNN came to UD to televise DFM’s debate between U.S. Senate candidates Chris Coons and Christine O’Donnell in October 2010, moderated by Karibjanian and the network’s Wolf Blitzer, solidly putting DFM on the map.
The attention proved to prospective donors and underwriters that having an NPR station in Delaware was viable. It turns out NPR was hungry for news from here. When Boudreau told an NPR vice president that DFM was starting a station, her response was, “At last, we’re finally going to get news out of Delaware?” For the first time, someone from Delaware could supply good coverage of big stories like Joe Biden’s nomination and election as vice president in 2008, the awarding of Race to the Top education funding to Delaware, and the infamous 2010 U.S. Senate race.
“We’re mindful that we’re covering Delaware for the country,” Boudreau says. “We are creating an accurate picture of Delaware for the nation. We’re not just comedy and talk show fodder. If we’re not doing this, who is?”
“That kind of coverage is now expected,” Ahl says. “We’ve made it part of our mission. This is who we are and this is what we do.”
That mission appealed to news director Tom Byrne. A 20-year veteran of WILM, he survived the cutbacks in commercial radio. He signed on with DFM News in 2010 and helped launch WDDE.
“Public radio feels a little different,” says Byrne, voice of “The Green.” “The pacing and style is a little different.” But it’s also different philosophically, he says. WDDE can leave police and fire reporting to the commercial stations, so reporters can delve deeper into issues. Education, government, environmental issues such as sea level rise—one of WDDE’s big franchises—business, the arts and entertainment all get deeper coverage. WDDE has even had local bands play live, emulating NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts.
“Micheline has a great vision and a plan, but hasn’t been married to it,” Byrne says. “As things have become available, we’ve been able to pivot. If you had asked me in June 2010 if we’d have a radio operation, I’m not sure I could have predicted that.”
Public broadcasting is supported by donations, which ebb and flow. WDDE’s $800,000 operating budget is supported by corporate underwriting, some state grants-in-aid funding, help from the universities and personal donations. Its attitude that reporters and coverage are more important than gear has kept a sharp focus on producing top-notch content.
“That makes things challenging. Donors want to fund capital improvements, not staff,” Boudreau says. “We started with one mike, then started adding bit by bit as we could afford it. We never had that magic check, like many others. We never had this glamorous moment of tah-dah.”
Still in start-up mode, the staff has dug in to make sure WDDE succeeds. Everyone wears many hats, from reporting and editing stories for air to writing for wdde.org. Reporter Ben Szmidt, a former intern and a musician, composed and recorded the music WDDE used in its launch video.
At the heart of it is a depth of feeling for the state. “Everyone here really cares about this community,” says digital media producer Karl Malgiero, another former WHYY staffer and the only Delaware native on the four-person news staff.
The team looks forward to deepening its coverage. That includes making “The Green” a daily show. It takes money, so even as the board looks to expand and shift focus from starting the business to sustaining it, the members will continue to convince Delawareans that NPR is a valuable service.
“I’m so excited about the future,” says Ahl. “I see everyone being able to tune us in in all parts of the state in a couple years. I hope that in five years we’ll say, ‘Can you believe WDDE didn’t exist before?’”