The Sundering of the Social Contract

To those who feel compelled to pledge to Paul Ray and John Aielli because of the egregious wrong done them, we say, “But of course.” They’ve been ill-treated by the current regime and deserve far better, given what they’ve done for KUT and Austin. Larry Monroe is no longer with us in the main because of the way he was manhandled. Pledging to Paul and John now is a legitimate way to “vote” for a fair treatment in their reduced roles.

That said, a number of good reasons present to sit out this fund drive otherwise — chiefly, do you support what Stewart Vanderwilt and Hawk Mendenhall have done to KUT? Do you believe they have ably and fairly managed Larry Monroe, Paul Ray, and John Aielli — the three “legends” who have been the station’s rainmakers for decades?  Is it right that you pay fellow outsiders an arm and a leg more than you pay the stalwarts that have built KUT to come in and supplant the local experts, then claim economics for justification? (For a detailed look at the pleas of poverty, see “Fuzzy Math: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics,” here, and “How Much Is Enough?” here, at the saveKUTaustin website maintained by Gary Etie.)

This perhaps is the crux of the biscuit when examining the VanderHawk years — management by mendacity, a bald duplicity in their dealings with the public. First off, the party line through the public relations firm hired by KUT was, “It’s hard times. We feel bad too, but it’s all about the money.” This, despite a tripling of the budget in ten years. Then, when that position became untenable, it was: “No, it’s all about ratings. It’s what the ‘people’ want.” Throughout the crisis at KUT and into the botched media campaign on the Cactus Café, the public-relations bent morphed as needed into the next contrived pretense.

And just where has this management led KUT? Well, we now have two barely attended HD channels featuring canned content bought and paid for with your dollars (at the cost, the online résumé of former employee Richard Dean says, of a million dollars a year).  We have a burgeoning news department in line with what the powers that be upstream in National Public Radio have decreed (see “All Things Beggared,” here). We now have basically for music a Triple-A repeater station with managed playlists — despite management protestations to the contrary — that often sounds like every other pop station in town, sculpted to secure ratings to attract advertisers (errr . . . underwriters) via the Arbitron Purple People Meter. We additionally have paid rainmaking companies to entice more corporations with their big-money accounts to get on board, obviating the need for those pesky individual contributions, as well as PR people to convince any “public” that’s still donating that everything’s hunky-dory in Hawkland.

These are at best surmises about the finances at “your” public radio station because maybe worst of all, the question that never has been answered is a big one: Where does the money all go? Despite contributions from the public as well as taxpayer funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the like, KUT management has steadfastly refused to disclose completely how this money is spent. Oh, you can get a sketchy brief online for 2008 that says, basically, “We made this much, and we spent this much,” but the bean counters have shielded their blunders and outright profligacy behind a relationship with the University of Texas that doesn’t require disclosure. If they have nothing to hide, then . . . what are they hiding? It’s not whether they can refuse to disclose; it’s whether they should, given the “public” nature of the enterprise. KUT is not in any way being held accountable to the public they ostensibly serve. Full disclosure of finances should be required of any public institution supported by federal funds and public pledges — the spirit of the law if not the letter.

Do we advise abandoning public radio? No. We believe it’s worth fighting for. But realistically speaking, public radio in Austin is not going to go away if you don’t pledge this time. One fundraiser will not make or break public radio here.  But a fundraiser that has to be extended once again to meet goals sends a clear message. You can support public radio but not current management only by not contributing. Former mayors and politicians, a host of local musicians, local Austin businesses all joined in peaceful, organized protest last year and accomplished — what? The dean’s response after the fundraiser a year ago made its goal: “They’re toast.”

So what else can you do to register your disaffection?

Stewart’s hand-picked “advisory council” endorses his management style. That and his “Leadership Circle” represent the best in Austin’s limousine liberals — they of the anonymous $5,000 matching pledges — and they blithely pony up the big bucks to support the NPR flagships, “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” They’re so enamored of the hard-charging hubris of VanderHawk, let them foot the bill this time. That describes what is most galling: the sense of entitlement radiated by these interlopers, the presumption they know better “what’s good for Austin” when what they’re really exhibiting is what’s good for business — their business, their résumés, their careers.

When push comes to shove, truth is, the only say you have in the direction your “public” radio station is taking — your only opportunity to register a vote of “no confidence” in the direction management is taking — is in your pledge, or, in this case, withholding your pledge. Send a message. As local jazz guitar god Michael Barnes stated over and again last year, “Don’t support bad management.”

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2 Responses

  1. AMEN!

  2. Extraordinarily well put. Thank you!

    We’re on the third fund drive since The Evening/Overnight/Retirement Debacle, and once again I’ve given this way too much thought.

    KUT broke my heart, plain and simple. I’ve been listening since I came to Austin in 1975, and few things in life have been so consistently good as listening to John Aielli’s Eklektikos, Larry Monroe’s Blue Monday and overnights, Dan Foster’s Folkways and Paul Ray’s Jazz and Twine Time – Jay Trachtenberg’s afternoon show too.

    But then VanderHawk came alone and canned two of our beloveds without so much as a by-your-leave, and then continued to chip away at all the goodness. A playlist? Mother of God, a playlist on KUT? Folkways with so little folk music the name is now a lie? Canned crap for overnights? What are you thinking, bad management? The fact that KUT remains the best station in town is becoming more of an indication of the problems at other stations and less about KUT’s quality.

    (Let’s not even get into the Cactus Cafe mess and the waste of Griff Luneberg’s years and talents.)

    Once again, I’ll send my pledges to KMFA and just endure KUT’s pledge drive – perhaps with a letter of apology to John Aielli for not appearing on the rolls of Aielli’s Army, where I belong.

    I will be listening to KUT long after the current bad managers have moved on to bigger markets. I can outwait them. KUT will be ours again. But it’s a hard wait.

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