As a small and out-of-the-way place, we're fortunate to have our own public radio station in the form of KMUN in Astoria.

Public radio is capable of playing a unique community-building role, providing non-commercial news, entertainment and outreach that are simply not otherwise available. At their best, public stations combine personality with professionalism in ways that make listeners' lives fuller and more rewarding.

Well-run newspapers do a great job of conveying facts and opinions, while a good public station in addition has the ability to broadcast its community's voices and music. Printed words are capable of conveying great emotion and subtle detail, but a station like KMUN can do wonders when it comes to storytelling.

KMUN is distinctly a product of the personalities behind it. Former station manager Doug Sweet, helped by many volunteers, kept KMUN alive while striving toward some worthy goals, including inclusiveness.

As with many other small-town institutions, KMUN's reliance on volunteers enhances the community's sense of ownership. Just as with the many small festivals and other events in our area, the volunteers are absolutely vital. We're money-poor but talent-rich.

KMUN's new manager, Lisa Smith, arrives at an interesting juncture in the station's history. The directors who set policy at the station have realized, correctly, that it is time for the station to enhance its news content. Smith has set about successfully lining up grants to hire local hosts for National Public Radio's Morning Edition program, along with a reporter who will cover local news and events in Clatsop, Pacific and surrounding counties. These changes are set for around the first of the year.

This ambitious plan will make KMUN more valuable to a much greater cross-section of area citizens, who can use another objective news gatherer, along with the premier national and international news and commentary only NPR can provide.

There are only so many hours in the day for programming, and inevitably more news will mean less of something else, or at least changes in broadcast schedules. If KMUN has a notable weakness, apart from perennial money shortages, it is that too much of its current programming is directed at narrow niches of the local audience. It should be possible, however, to preserve the station's personality while simultaneously moving it more toward the mainstream.

By making itself more accessible, KMUN also stands to begin filling its budget gaps, acquiring new listeners among those who expect public radio stations to provide basic staples like Morning Edition. At its current time of 5 a.m. to 6 a.m., the show is little more than a symbolic presence on the schedule.

There always is some discomfort in making changes, but in this instance KMUN stands to make itself a more vital part of our communities by stretching beyond its old comfort zone.

Let's all voice our approval by tuning in, and by making contributions to public radio on the coast and the Columbia.

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