Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Six Ways to Avoid News Fatigue

People who have known me for a long time will attest to the fact that before I had a car, I never listened to the radio. In fact, I hated radios; I don’t know why, but there was something about the disembodied voice that really annoyed me. But once I started driving, I started occasionally listening to KPFA, because it was easier than fidgeting with tapes with one hand on the steering wheel. Then came 9-11, and in my hunger for news and analysis of the changing political world in this country, I got hooked on Democracy Now! That first foray into public radio led me to This American Life, Against the Grain, As It Happens, and the occasional dip into Fresh Air. Somewhere along the line, I discovered the Sunday folk music shows on KPFA (Across the Great Divide is the best), followed by the Saturday afternoon lineup on KALW (Folk Music and Beyond, Thistle and Shamrock, A Patchwork Quilt, Bluegrass Signal), Michael Feldman’s What Do You Know and KPFA’s Voices of the Middle East and North Africa. Suffice it to say, I’m now a dedicated, if not consistent, radio listener.

A few years ago I started doing radio as well. So now when I listen it’s not only for the information they’re giving; it’s also to get ideas for stories (usually by noticing what gender angles or women’s voices are left out of the other shows), and to learn to do it better from people who have more experience and professional training.

But somewhere along the line, I stopped enjoying it so much. Of course, I still sometimes hear things that inspire, enliven, uplift or enlighten me, but more often, I turn it off feeling more despondent than I did when I turned it on.

What changed, the radio or me?

photo by 4rilla
 Probably some of both. When something is new, it’s exciting. I hadn’t known you could get all this information just by plugging in a little radio! How cool is that? It made me part of a community with my friends, who had been dedicated KPFA and KALW listeners for years. Learning to do radio has been one of the great privileges of my last few years, and since people kept criticizing my shows without giving any helpful advice, it was liberating to realize I had a classroom right on my desk at work. Now that I’ve been listening for a number of years, I realize I’m hearing the same people a lot, and I usually know what they are going to say.

But I also think that progressive community radio has been influenced by changes in the mainstream media more than we realize. Five or ten years ago, shows like Against the Grain, Democracy Now! and the KPFA Sunday Show used to interview a lot more activists than they do now. They’ve become more expert dependent, and the way you become an expert is generally by publishing a book or a New York Times op-ed or getting a Ph.D., and while you are doing those things, you’re probably not out organizing a social movement. As someone who’s trying to do both, I can tell you it’s nearly impossible.

In the first three days of last week, I probably heard or saw twelve hours of coverage of the debt ceiling deal, if you count Comedy Central. I heard eight economists, five reporters, three Congresspeople, the former Labor Secretary and the current press secretary (no partridges). I heard Dean Baker twice and Rick Wolff three times on two different shows. Not surprisingly, they said the same thing each time. Ultimately, none of them had anything to say I didn’t already know. It’s not that they don’t know things I don’t – they know a lot. But they all said the same things they’ve been saying for months because they’re being asked the same questions: why does Obama always give in to the Tea Party? (he doesn’t have enough experience standing up to bullies). What’s this going to mean for us? (bad bad bad). What would he have done if he were FDR or LBJ? (Tax the rich, create jobs, lay down the law to Congress.) Meanwhile the mainstream pundits kept repeating the mantra “You have to cut Social Security and Medicare,” without a peep from the likes of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.

No one said anything about what those of us who want to see a different strategy can or should do to bring it about. Democracy Now! interviewed Terry O’Neill of the National Organization for Women, who spearheaded a campaign to get Congress to protect the needs of women, but they didn’t interview her until after the deal had been approved in Congress. I interviewed her the week before, when at least people could sign the online petition, but I don’t have the listenership that DN! has. I don’t say that it would have made a difference if another few thousand people had signed a petition, but at least it would have given people some way to participate.

Along about Thursday, a phrase flashed into my mind. News Fatigue. I’m not sure where I first heard of it, but I sure know I’ve got it. At a party the other night, I mentioned this to a number of friends and acquaintances, and nearly everyone said, “Oh, yes, I don’t listen to any of those shows any more.” A couple people mentioned things they’re listening to instead. Then Sunday evening, I happened to catch part of New America Now: Voices from the New Majority (Fridays at noon and Sundays at 3 pm on KALW 91.7 FM San Francisco). They were talking about redistricting, and the part that I heard went into depth about how prisons are used to give disproportionate influence to some very small districts. It was fascinating. I’d never heard that, it made total sense and it explained some things I had never understood. I was so interested, I sat in my car for fifteen minutes after I got where I was going.

So here are six shows I’m going to listen to instead of the daily news-oriented shows, and if you have News Fatigue, you might want to try them too:

1.  Fresh Air (KALW 9-10 am, repeated 6-7 pm; KQED 1-2 pm or 7-8 pm; podcast available): Terry Gross asks great questions and has interesting people on. It’s usually upbeat without being fluffy. Her guest on Monday was Charles C. Mann, author of 1493, which documents how Columbus changed the world by introducing Europe and the Americas to each other’s crops, animals and diseases. She's more progressive on most issues than you might think.

2. Your Call (KALW 10-11 am, repeated at 8-9 pm; available for download): Maybe it’s because it’s a call-in show, but they almost always have a more grassroots angle on whatever issues they’re covering. They bring in a lot of local folks you hardly ever hear elsewhere. (One week, their Friday media roundtable even included a guy from Socialist Worker!) A recent show I heard was “How Are Magazines Surviving” with editors and publishers of Bitch, Utne Reader and The Sun.

3. Are We Alone? Really cool science show on KALW (Tuesdays at 1:00 pm), also available for podcast or download. The last show, “Written in Code” explores “ENCORE Genes – what are they good for? Absolutely… something. But not everything. Your “genius” genes need to be turned on – and your environment determines that. Find out how to unleash your inner-Einstein, and what scientists learned from studying the famous physicist’s brain.”

4. This American Life (KALW Sundays 1:00 pm, KQED Saturday noon and 10:00 pm or by podcast): With rare exceptions, it’s interesting, funny and unexpected. The last one I heard (I podcast it, but I often forget to download the podcasts and they’re only available for two weeks) was called “When Patents Attack!” and was about patent trolls. Don’t know what that is? You want to find out!

5. Making Contact (Friday 1:30 pm on KPFA, or on the website): Unfortunately it’s only half an hour a week but they sometimes have extras on their website (they even put a piece of mine up once, though I can’t find it now). Last week’s show was called “Remixing Revolution: Art, Music and Politics”, excerpting a panel discussion called “The God’s Must Be Crazy: Reviving the Black Supernatural Experience.” Before that they had a two-parter on the Wisconsin workers’ revolt. Irresistible.

6. Rock en RebeliĆ²n (Sundays 5:00 pm on KPFA; check website for archives): I love this show ’cause I get to practice my Spanish by listening to people who often are not native speakers so they speak slowly. Plus it’s bilingue, so if I get lost, I can generally catch up when they drift into English, and the beats are great.

What are your suggestions to break out of news fatigue? What shows or other experiences do you love? (If you’re getting this by email, don’t email me your ideas! but go to the blog and post them as comments so other people can see them too.)


  1. It's not radio but I like Rachel Maddow! You can stream her show the day after or watch on MSNBC. She's smart, irreverent, and funny.

  2. I like her too, but I'm kind of tired of her. She goes on the list of okay while I'm cooking (see but I get tired of how much she cheerleads for the Democrats. And she never has activists on, which really bugged me when we were trying to build a movement for single payer because she could really have helped us to get on the map, the way Fox helped the Tea Party, and she didn't.

  3. News fatigue: I've got it in spades. And I don't listen or watch, I read. A lot of mainstream journalism (is that what you'd call the NY Times?) and a sampling of blogs, including this one.

    For me what's fatiguing is the bold and bolder reliance on lying in the service of winning. I know, it's an old old old story in politics, but there are so few places now that it's not the dominant mode of "discourse." And the places where it's not? They're niche news venues, and they don't seem likely to swing either elections or revolutions.

    I'd like to tune back into news. But it's hard to watch a culture go down in flames, and feel helpless to do anything about it.

  4. For alternative news sources, I like blogs: yours, janinsanfran, mrzine, the rag blog, war times, etc. But that doesn't really cure news fatigue. Only a news fast does that for me (for a while).

  5. i'm a news junky but i balance that with LOTS of music,along with the eclectic music on kpfa i listen to jazz on kcsm. spending time out in the sun, when you can find some, isn't a bad idea.