Blind Ambition

When you look at what’s happening in Boston and Austin and New York City and Philadelphia, you’ll see a repetition of what’s gone before and what goes on today. This past June, for instance, at Minnesota Public Radio (part of a big consolidation, American Public Media Group), one Dale Connelly was thrown under the bus. The move was described in the blog “Baseball91′s Weblog,” in a piece entitled “Dale Connelly Composted, in High Definition,” a lamentation of interesting prose:

It ain’t over until the Fat Lady sings. She sang yesterday. About Dale Connelly.

After 34 years, with Minnesota Public Radio. Dale Connelly will be leaving KNOW, 91.1 FM. The last day was June 4th. Friday. On Radio Heartland. On digital radio. Where ever that is. And re-broadcasted on “Radio Heartland” on Saturday evening. On KNOW, 91.1 FM. And so it goes, MPR announced Wednesday. With the ax. In the conservatory.

It was on December 12, 2008. When “The Morning Show” on Minnesota Public Radio was first chopped up. The end had come to an institutions that I had loved, as part of the routine. Even then there there had been rioting in Greece. There seemed to be a question about how moral every day life would become. Without “The Morning Show.”

“The Morning Show” was not exactly canceled by MPR, upon Tom Keith’s retirement. Tom Keith was the sound-effects guy for “A Prairie Home Companion.” Connelly was to continue with an online version. To try to still affect the morning sound. With his soft quiet style. Or so the plan. Not quite put out to pasture. To the quiet pasture.

“The Morning Show” started 41 years and 6 months ago. This was where Garrison Keillor got his start, and moved on. That was the end, unless you had high definition radio. “Radio Heartland” was the morphing of “The Morning Show.” High definition radio. Some kind of recycling proposal. On the internet. Where the Prairie Home met the euphemistic pasture. Wherever that could be found. High definition radio had never had been picked up by sports bars.

The morning kindness. Dale Connelly and Tom Keith (with a stage name of Jim Ed Poole) had blended music and personality, before new fangled coffee companies ever thought of blending. When a good share of Minesotans only knew Mrs. Olson’s Folger’s coffee.

Dealing with change. Dale Connelly, “part of the fabric of what built MPR,” had not quite been put out to pasture. He was composted, with all the other coffee grounds. Minnesota Public Radio’s own private stash. Digitally removed, in less than 18 months. In the view of MPR, with the “cash for clunkers” program, it now was really over for Connelly’s 1976 gig. It was hard finding the old parts, on the internet highway.

It was now the end. The announcement touched on the aim for a sustainability which was not achieved. Though high definition radio would play on. With “Radio Heartland” producer, Mike Pengra, picking the music. Valerie Arganbright, senior director for MPR membership, wrote the announcement. “While we’ll be able to continue providing the wonderful music that you expect from Radio Heartland, we have cancelled Dale Connelly’s weekday morning show.”

So as the music heard on MPR’s Radio Heartland plays on, this would be the end Dale’s involvement with Radio Heartland. His own sustainability had not been achieved.

And so it goes. MPR announced Wednesday the end. The green movement in the new paradigm of public radio. The Current. With the ax. In the conservatory. After their most recently completed fund-drive. Perhaps a part of their own version of going green. While promoting composting and sustainability, in Minnesota. After acquiring that radio station in Northfield, but not being able to sustain the familiar on-air voices. More rioting was expected in Greece.

On the MPR website itself, the comments section ran a bit more unforgiving:

cb: Just one more shameful act on the part of a clueless management. There are so many substandard announcers/music hosts and broadcasters who should be let go and they choose to eliminate the best? Probably because his salary was too high. Why not fire Garrison who is old and doddering? We don’t plan on supporting a station that treats the best of the best in this way. And we hope Dale finds another venue to share his wonderful skills and wit. When he does we’ll be there.

Henny: MPR has indeed become mainstream. MPR, as in: Mainstream, Predictable, Routine. MPR, as in: Mundane, Pedestrian, Regressive.

First In the Loop. Now Dale Connelly. By sending rare, inventive and quirky programming to Siberia (aka: the web), and demanding Orwellian audience standards that cannot be met, MPR reveals its true self, that of an impersonal media conglomerate. This is not your mother’s MPR but an emerging Clear Channel of public broadcasting, a hydra headquartered in Minnesota. Doesn’t that make us all just proud? How ironic that critics claim MPR content skews liberal when the company itself becomes increasingly corporate, its public face at odds with its internal practice. “In the public interest.” Yes indeed. How long is the public going to keep buying this b.s.?

This is the new reality at our “public” radio stations, as they cast about for answers to flagging fortunes, making every wrong move — witness the boneheaded massive investment in HD radio (43% of those in service are at public radio stations, thanks to your largesse through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) — and only serving to alienate the prime listeners with their callous, cavalier attitude towards what has gone before. Remember, the average age of listeners of public radio is 54, with 90% over the age of 35. As station after station lusts after the elusive numbers generated by Arbitron’s Purple People Meter, wise old hands in the business chide them for their miscalculations. A few choice words from Jerry Del Colliano in his Inside Music Media are in order, speaking of the bean counters chasing after the formula that seems to be succeeding in commercial radio:

[S]hort playlists have been a staple of radio program directors to get ratings. When you sell out the listener for the audience research company’s methodology to win ratings, you wind up with unhappy listeners.

Don’t look now but the radio industry is doing it again – pandering to People Meter drive-by ratings knowing full well that listeners can find plenty of music on their own online and at the iTunes store.

In his own inimitable style, Jerry D. goes beyond ratings, taking the consolidators to task for all their grandiose schemes at empire building:

A solid FM brand does not need to be streaming on the Internet. Period. The very successful WBEB-FM, Philadelphia owner Jerry Lee stopped streaming because it was a poor return on investment (i.e., royalties). And, he was only picking up a very small amount of listening to add to his number one ratings. Over a year since Lee pulled the plug and WBEB is still number one in the Philly PPM. No stream.

Study a guy like Lee and I do because he was my first employer in radio. Lee in essence has become a mega millionaire many times over with essentially one radio station — 101.1 — not even a great signal. In fact, a lousy one. Lee flirted with owning WFIL-AM after its heyday and then dumped it. He returned to one FM station — over-the-air — and a license to print money even today. Even in a recession. Even while everyone scrambles around to dabble in new media. How could that be?

As he notes about radio listeners today: “In the real world, they are casual listeners at best just as station owners have in fact become casual programmers cutting live and local programming for financial savings,” so enamored of the “the high cume/high rotation/PPM hit radio format.”

This is what passes for “tradition” today at your public radio station as they seek to regain the glamor of a bygone era. At KUT in Austin, for one, an ambitious management team wanted badly to wear the big-boy pants, fawning over the corporate dictates for HD radio, an expansive local news agenda, professional fundraising and public relations, and, of course, PPM nirvana. Lee Cooke, one of three former mayors on the original saveKUTaustin committee, opined that Messrs. Vanderwilt and Mendenhall were just playing to the band leaders, set only on staying long enough to carve a reputation for calculated efficiency and then moving on to a higher-paying position elsewhere.

As with their fellow public radio czars elsewhere, their reach has far exceeded their grasp — of reality. In the end, pandering to the least common denominator in music is simply mining for fool’s gold.

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