Radio Free D.C.: News, Traffic, Weather, Whiny Bureaucrats

By Montopoli, Brian | The Washington Monthly, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Radio Free D.C.: News, Traffic, Weather, Whiny Bureaucrats


Montopoli, Brian, The Washington Monthly


Every Monday morning for the past 18 months, Mike Causey and Marlis Majerus have sat down in a small studio on the third floor of a nondescript office building in Northwest Washington to broadcast a live show on Federal News Radio. Causey and Majerus's show, "Your Turn," is, in theory at least, a call-in program. But five minutes before show time on this early October morning, it's clear that Causey and Majerus haven't had much practice working the phone lines. There is no sound coming through the pair's headphones, making it impossible for them to hear callers. Despite her feverish efforts, Majerus hasn't been able to figure out how to adjust the knobs and dials in front of her to fix the problem. Eventually, a studio technician comes to her aid before the show" begins. Says Causey: "We don't get many calls."

But that doesn't mean no one's listening. Federal News Radio (available online at federalnewsradio.com) is a three-and a-half-year old venture grandly billed as "the world's first Internet only all-news radio station and Web site covering world and national news with a particular focus on the Federal Government" Federal News Radio's sister station WTOP rebroadcasts some of FNR's segments. But the vast majority of FNR's approximately 50,000-70,000 listening each day through computers are federal workers whose bosses are often tuning into the same show down the hall. As a result, most feds resist the temptation to call in: Sounding off on the air may be good therapy, after all, hut it's probably not the best career move.

So instead, they work out their anger via email. Causey receives more than 50 messages in his inbox each day, most of them in response to whatever topic he's addressed in his daily column, which he discusses on air. Lately, most of the emails he's received have ranged from quiet worry to panic over the White House's plans to outsource many federal jobs--a move which would cost many of FNR's listeners their livelihoods. Over the past three years, the administration has instituted a system that identifies specific federal positions which are candidates for privatization and notifies their holders. "[Government workers] call it the yellow pages rule," says Causey. "If they can find your job in the yellow pages, then your ass is outta here" Roughly 450,000 federal jobs have now been identified as targets for competition from private companies, according to Paul Light, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of public service at New York University. Now, it's starting to actually happen, and workers in all corners of government are certain that they will he the next to go. The Halliburton contracts in Iraq have been a big item of complaint for feds writing into FNR: They're convinced, Causey says, that the administration is more interested in paying back political allies than taking care of their own. Federal unions have begun running anti-outsourcing ads, and the number of calls on the topic to FNR has skyrocketed.

On the air, Majerus is reading an email from a federal worker named Jeanne. In order to protect Jeanne, Majerus does not share her last name with listeners.

"I want someone to explain why outsourcing is such a great idea," Majerus reads, taking a sip of her water. "Government is complicated, and it takes years to gain the knowledge and expertise to do what we do. How can they be so willing to throw away or disregard the qualified work staffs they now have on board?"

There are about 400,000 federal workers and retirees in the D.C. metro area--and thousands more if you count employees at those agencies, like the C.I.A., that don't officially divulge the number of people on their payrolls. The station is most popular with employees at the Treasury Department, National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Defense. Pentagon workers are responsible for more of the emails hostile toward the administration than any other department, FNR officials say. …

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