It's not at all rare for Paul Birmingham to add more awards to his résumé, as he did recently. After all, he's received at least a half-dozen major honors in his decade-plus career.
What's far rarer is Birmingham's job: He's an actual radio news reporter in the Tucson market, for KNST AM 790.
Radio is the only one of the three major traditional media--newspaper, television and radio--that has largely scrapped any semblance of actual news coverage, especially in markets of Tucson's size. Newspapers, of course, are built around the concept of hiring reporters to track down news. For television, news coverage provides a good local connection that can lead to ad revenue, though to make the commitment, stations must hire anchors, reporters and a production staff to put the news on the air. Even KMSB Channel 11, which runs only one local newscast a night, has four local on-camera reporters (two for general-assignment news and two for sports). In terms of actual reporting, that's more than you can say for the Tucson commercial radio market combined.
Many radio decision-makers long ago decided that local news coverage isn't worth the effort and cost. Stations in larger markets can afford a significant radio news commitment, but that sort of effort was deemed too cost-prohibitive years ago in Tucson.
A distinction needs to be made here: You've probably heard someone read local news on your favorite Tucson radio station, but more than likely what you're hearing is someone who actually gets paid to do something else (usually a DJ on another station in the building) engaging in what the industry used to call "rip and read." That person accesses an Associated Press feed (or whatever news service the station subscribes to), scrolls through the stories, perhaps hunts down a news-service sound bite and reads the story on the air.
What Birmingham and a couple of others (like Nicole Cox at KJLL AM 1330) do is take the reporting further. Without getting into a debate about where the story was first generated, for the purposes of this discussion, Birmingham is one of the rare few in Tucson radio who actually makes a phone call or two, goes out into the field, cuts an interview and packages it into story form.
"I'm just happy I have the opportunity to do it," Birmingham said. "It's a great medium. It's the greatest medium out there. We can be the most immediate, far-reaching and compelling. It's one of those things where you just have to hear it and have a sense of what it would be like to actually be there (at a news event). It takes a lot of imagination on the part of the audience, so to the extent that I'm able to capture that, it's a privilege for me to do that."
The way that local radio covers for its lack of news reporting is through talk programming, but even those outlets have declined over the years. Jim Parisi handles morning-show duties at Clear Channel-owned KNST, so when he interviews a local guest, for all intents and purposes, he's a news reporter, even if he does bring an editorial slant to the discussion. John C. Scott, who currently broadcasts during two one-hour slots every weekday morning at KVOI AM 690, has done the same thing for decades. Jon Justice tackles similar morning-show responsibilities at KQTH FM 104.1.
"It's not necessarily on the part of the management to make you do (cover local news)," said Birmingham. "It's just something that needs to be done. You sort of owe it to yourself, and you owe it to the audience in the community, to make sure these things are covered properly. I'm fortunate that I grew up here, and I have a lot of contacts here, and they can come to me first and trust me to get the straight story out there.
"It's very telling of the makeup of our audience that they welcome KNST and me into their homes, into their cars, into their lives, to allow them to continue to be informed. So it's not necessarily anything on the part of the market. The management at KNST is incredibly supportive, and there are a lot of people I work with who are outstanding reporters. I don't know if it's anything I can take credit for individually. KNST as an entity has always been committed to that."
Birmingham's two most recent awards--an Edward R. Murrow Award in the small-market radio category for Region 3 (which covers Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming), and a regional Associated Press Mark Twain honor--were won for his use of sound in a troop-deployment story from Fort Huachuca.
"It's great that the folks from Fort Huachuca and Davis-Monthan have been so open in our ability to cover these things," Birmingham said.
In addition to his news responsibilities at KNST, Birmingham also spends time in the KOLD Channel 13 newsroom.
"Both are fantastic mediums, and both have qualities the other doesn't have," Birmingham said. "I love the immediacy of radio. I love the fact that in television, you're dealing with a lot of different senses on the part of the audience--sight, sound. There is a little more editorial input in television. You don't necessarily have the ability to cover all the stories you want, because you're limited in time, and you're competing against national stories as well, whereas in radio, I can focus solely on local in a newscast I'm doing."