Oles working in the 21st century,
by Carole Leigh Tillisch
St. Olaf Magazine, April 1999
"The ANEM people are some of the most courageous I’ve ever met. Their journalists continue to try to report honestly, from different perspectives, from places like Kosovo in the face of constant danger and government harassment"
"My passion for radio started when the Dodgers left Brooklyn," said Rich McClear ’68. "I was a big dodgers fan and I wanted to listen the national league baseball, so I got up on the roof of my house and put up a long wire antennae so that I could pick up the national league cities. Then I started sending letters to radio stations, to their engineers, giving them hints on better reception. I became radio-crazy because I started out being baseball-crazy."
McClear remembers loving the expressiveness of the people whose voices he heard on the radio. "I studied their delivery style, their use of language, pauses and phrasing. How they talked in pictures. Radio has always been a marvelous medium."
What began as a childhood obsession in New Jersey has taken McClear down a road he would never have anticipated when he came to St. Olaf in 1964. A political science major who had planned to go into law, McClear pursued his passion for radio by going to work for St. Olaf’s public radio station, WCAL, first as a student in 1965 and then as a part-time news reporter and engineer through 1974 while doing graduate work at the University of Minnesota. By the time he graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from St. Olaf in 1968, McClear knew that radio, not law was his true vocation.
"WCAL had a tremendous impact on me and on the way I looked at radio. It was a pioneering public radio station and it stood for something other than making money. And it was very important for me to work in a station that stood for something," said McClear. "When I was at WCAL, it was managed by professional staff and almost completely student run, although we students were held to professional standards. Working with people like Paul Peterson and Milford Jensen was very formative."
When WCAL became an FM station, McClear – who had met his wife Suzi, a Carleton College student while working at the station – learned first hand how to put a station on the air. Jensen shared with him all the FCC paperwork, showing McClear how to do applications, including the ascertainment of community needs required by the FCC.
The experience at WCAL enabled the McClears to begin building their own radio stations, beginning in Grand Rapids, Minn., with KAXE-FM, then to Juneau Alaska, with KTOO-FM, and continuing to Sitka, Alaska, where they planned, built and managed KCAW-FM, the public radio station. Although their roots were in Minnesota, Alaska became home to Rich and Suzi and their two sons, Brian ’95 and Kevin ’99.
In 1993, the Germen Marshall Fund awarded Rich McClear a grant to train radio journalists in Albania and to develop an independent press. Suzi McClear received a grant to serve as consultant and human rights monitor for the Albania Helsinki Committee in Tirana. In 1995 and 1996, both taught at the University of Tirana, McClear as a Fulbright Lecturer, until they were evacuated from Albania. It was during this time they were recruited by ProMedia. A professional media assistance program managed by IREX (International Research and Exchange Board) and funded by USAID (United States Agency for International Development), ProMedia is based on the premise that democracy is improved by a better informed citizenry making decisions. Its programs provide assistance to independent media in Slovakia, Hungary, Belarus, Ukraine, Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Albania, Bulgaria and Romania.
Working conditions are different in each country, McClear explains.
"In Albania, the government started out liking us but then as things went to pieces, the idea of an independent media became more and more frightening to them. In some countries the government doesn’t like what we’re doing, although they want U.S. aid so they tolerate us. In other countries the government actively works with us. In Serbia they don’t like us a lot. In Slovakia, the old government didn’t like us, but the new government is quite cooperative, so the atmosphere has changed.
As a ProMedia trainer, McClear works with all independent media to improve the quality of journalism, the legal and regulatory environment, and to monitor the state and private media for fairness and balance. Their goal is to work with independent media as opposed to state media. To achieve this, the ProMedia programs include extensive journalism education for university students as well as improving the overall quality of journalism, improving the financial viability of independent media, improving the legal and regulatory environment in which independent media work, and improving the technical facilities.
"There’s no cookie cutter approach to how we work in each country," continued McClear. "The programs are designed to try to meet specific needs in each country that will, if met, help independent media develop and thrive, and give voters and citizens a better chance of getting information. And it will also help build a civil society."
People in Eastern Europe are hungry for news. "We worked with the association of independent radio stations in Serbia, ANEM, to develop a nationwide association. There were over 30 stations in ANEM right now. They do three major newscasts a day, and thanks to the BBC, who put them up on their satellite, the ANEM stations are the main independent source of broadcast news in Serbia and Montenegro. They have a listenership in the millions," McClear said. "The ANEM people are some of the most courageous I’ve ever met. Their journalists continue to try to report honestly from different perspectives, form places like Kosovo in the face of constant danger and government harassment."
It’s been a rewarding year for McClear who, with Suzi, has worked with several non-profit and non-government organizations to monitor state and private media during this time of transition in Slovakian government. McClear found it particularly exciting to watch professional media associations grow, to watch the way the citizens have responded to the negative propaganda of state-run Slovak television, and to see the non-government sector pull together to make independent media a reality. And while some believe media assistance programs should deal exclusively with national politics and government, McClear strongly believes otherwise.
"In Slovakia we’ve been working at a local level, dealing with issues that are particular to communities." McClear explains that in one community there were children afflicted with dwarfism. "The local programmer followed the kids around and did a program ‘We are who we are,’ to explain to the community what the lives of these kids were like. Another local television cable station took on the problem of violence against children for the first time. Still another did coverage of issues of dogs running loose and the local organization trying to start an animal humane center. These are important issues, but they’re not the issues that change governments. They’re the issues that build democracy at a grassroots level."
© 1999, St. Olaf College