Smoldering Fires, Bright Lights

Here at the beginning of a new year it’s a bit of a tradition for both individuals and groups to look back on the past year and look forward to the year ahead. Here at Keeping the Public in Public Radio, the contributors and editors don’t want to be left out, so we’re going to take a look now at where we have been for the past year as well as what we see ahead for us. The smoldering fires of the past, the bright lights of the future . . .

And, of course, at the beginning of 2010 this site did not exist. There were instead smaller groups scattered around the country, around the globe. Most of these groups were born of outrage, and of frustration. The common thread between them seemed to be the degeneration of the trust and bond between public radio stations and their longtime supporters. Supporters who had believed in the basic premise of public broadcasting, and believed in the spiels heard so often during the pledge drives. The basic premise being that public stations existed to serve the under-served, and the spiel being that the public stations belonged to you, the paying members. The ones whose pledge dollars went towards the type of programming that you just couldn’t get anywhere else. I believed that when I heard it here in Austin, Texas, & Jeff Boudreau believed it when he heard it up in Boston, Mass. Gwen Fortune believed it down in Gainesville, Florida, and Dru Druzianich believed it way up Seattle,Washington. All over the country we were finding these little groups, mainly thru Facebook, all formed around the outrage that came when station managers suddenly turned their collective backs on their paying members. Serving the public was no longer on the agenda; instead they pursued the Golden Fleece of Arbitron numbers, and of corporate underwriters, both of which should have been anathema to public broadcasters.

Our group here in Austin was originally formed after a major programming change at KUT-FM, as well as what we still fervently believe was the shoddy treatment of three longtime and much-beloved deejays. Our 1,800 members worked together as a group to try and restore sanity and integrity to KUT, but in the long run money and hubris won out and we were left wondering where to turn next. So at a meeting last January it was decided to reach out to these groups around the country, to try and join our experiences and our energies towards shining a light on the practices being adopted by station managers nationwide. And thanks to the advent of social networking sites such as Facebook, and Internet tools such as Google Search, we were able to contact a few true believers in the basic concept of public broadcasting and the creation of this site first started being discussed.

Our earliest, and I would say the most stalwart of our original contacts, was Jeff Boudreau in Boston. He brought amazing energy and knowledge to our group, and without him I do not believe we would have ever gotten off the ground. And this is just one of his projects for saving public broadcasting and promoting folk music throughout the Northeast region, indeed around the country. A quick look at the links he has provided under the “About” heading here at our site gives just a glimmer of his projects.

We also contacted a dismayed classical music lover down in Gainesville, Florida — Gwen Fortune. Or at least I first thought it was just plain ol’ Gwen. But after corresponding with the wonderful Gwen I came to realize that she was actually Professor Gwendolyn Fortune, an educator and author, as well as a classically trained soprano recitalist. Her newest book, Weaving the Journey, is now out. Gwen has provided us with many wonderful insights over the past few months, radio matters being just one of her many passions. I strongly recommend looking into her work, visiting her website, or maybe finding her on Facebook. I always look forward to my next message from her.

We also contacted Jamie Peters in Tennessee & Dru Druzianich in Seattle, and without their help we would never have been able to get a national group going. But finally, with all of these individuals across the country pulling together, we were able to get this site up and working. And as of today we have had almost 25,000 hits on the site, a figure that most of us would never have dreamed possible back when we first reached out. That is a figure that directly relates to all of the input and effort from everyone involved, something that I believe each of us can take personal pride in.

But of course the unspoken sadness & frustration behind all this work was the realization that we had not been able to make any meaningful progress on our original, local issues. To the best of my knowledge, not a single station that these groups were originally formed around have ever made any concessions to these most passionate of supporters. And those are the smoldering fires that I referred to at the start of this, the still-warm remembrances of what started this ball rolling, the issues that brought us all together to begin with. And it is my hope that even though we are looking at the larger picture now, that none of us forget those local issues at the core of everything. Public broadcasting was always intended as a local medium, no matter how hard NPR may push the other direction.

But if those are the smoldering fires, then how about the bright lights? With all the frustrations each of us has had to deal with the past year or so, it could be easy enough to miss them, but I can find them when I try. And one is here right at my feet — this wonderful site that we have all managed to grow and nurture. Knowledge has always been power, and the shared knowledge that we gather here makes each of us stronger moving forward. Money & clout may be what the station managers have going for them; we have belief in our ideals and our commitment to them. There are any number of “wear ’em down slowly” analogies I could cite here, but I think we all already know that this is going to be a long struggle. But a long struggle is not a lost cause, so I am sure we will persevere. Already this site has garnered more attention & visitors than I ever imagined. If the station managers choose to ignore the unhappiness we have uncovered here, it will be at their own peril. We are not the “disgruntled few” they would like to make us out to be.

And I feel that is best reflected at our sister site of the same name over on Facebook. As of this writing we are almost 700 members strong there, a number which is not stagnant but continues to tick upward as the word gets around, slowly but surely. As bright lights go, the Facebook site positively glows, as I am constantly amazed at the scope of the comments and input we receive there. It far exceeds anything envisioned when I first became involved with this endeavor. As wonderful as the 1,800 members here at the Austin group were, I honestly believe that the members and visitors to the Facebook site do more to shine a light on public radio issues than anything we could have ever accomplished alone. Which, of course, was just the idea. . . .

Another of my bright lights has been the recent posts, both here and on Facebook, concerning the proposed sales of college radio stations across the country. At one time these type of events would have been been carried out quickly and with little or no input from the students whose assets were being sold off. But due (IMHO) to the publicity generated by groups such as ours, the concerned students at these colleges banded together and formed their own Facebook groups and fought the good fight to have their voices heard. Vanderbilt University in Nashville being one and Rice University in Houston another. At Rice the students put up one hell of a fight, but things are not looking promising. But this site’s “Radio Jim” Ellinger worked closely with that student group and helped to get internal documents released via the Freedom of Information Act, which at least gave some honest insight into the process. I see a bright light there in how we were able to not only communicate the issue nationally, but also to reach out locally to provide assistance.

Looking further down the road, I see some possible bright lights on the horizon as well — one of which comes from the current brouhaha over possible cuts in funding to public broadcasting, much of it brought about by the firing of pundit Juan Williams after what were deemed racist remarks on a Fox News program. This week NPR decided to throw a bone to the right-wing noise machine by firing senior VP Ellen Weiss. Normally Republicans threatening to cut public broadcasting funds would set my teeth on edge, but strange times make for strange bedfellows. And I am seeing the publicity on this as a way of bringing increased public scrutiny to the concept of public radio, and I think we will be ready to help inform on that front.

And even further down the road we may be looking into how we may use some of these issues when our respective stations’ licenses come up for renewal with the FCC. KUT in Austin’s license comes up for renewal in August 2013, and there is already talk of filing a formal petition for denial of the renewal application due to commercialization and failure to serve the public interest. We will be looking more into that as the date draws nearer, as this could be another avenue to approach our collective issues from. This and other ideas are constantly being brought to our attention by the readers at this site, and they show the determination of the many not to give in to the few.

And for me, that is my look at what I see as the smoldering fires of the past as well as the bright lights of the future. I am hoping that others may contribute their own thoughts on these; the beginning of a new year is always a great time to contemplate such things and then approach them all with renewed energies. We always appreciate hearing from any & all, so please let us know how we are doing!

But before I sign off there is another person I need to acknowledge for the creation of this site, not to mention it’s ongoing existence. And that would be our webmaster, Craig Hattersley. It was my conversation with Craig last January that produced the first steps on this journey, and he has been involved every step of the way since. And when it came time to make things happen, he was the one who grabbed the bull by the horns. This entire site was envisioned, designed, set up, and maintained by Craig. The daily posts that you see, those are direct from Craig and his unwavering commitment to this cause. We first went on line last April, and to the best of my knowledge he has come up with a new post seven days a week since then without fail. Any and all who enjoy this site or have found something of interest here owe Craig some thanks. He’s a low-key “below the radar ” kinda guy, but I want to shine the spotlight on him here just for once. Thanks a million, Craig, and a big hats off to you!

—Rev Jim

Tennessee Talker

In Nashville, which has gone through format change at its public radio station, there’s still plenty of heat about what’s heard on the radio. This post from the Tennessee Opinion site about classical music drew a weird mix of comments. First, from the complainant:

Yet, it is Nashville and not Sacra­mento that makes high claims for its musi­cal cul­ture: We adver­tise our­selves as the “Athens of the South”; we claim to be “Music City, USA”; we boast an up-and-coming sym­phony orches­tra with a grand new hall. How can we claim to be “Music City, USA” and not have a clas­si­cal music station?

And he received a measure of support:

Ten­nesseans need to be more cul­tured. I love all kinds of music and there are cer­tain genres I don’t care for. Doo­ley, you might be sur­prised that there are more Ten­nesseans who like clas­si­cal music than you might believe. A nice Clas­si­cal Music sta­tion or two would show that Ten­nessee has moved into the 21st Cen­tury and embraced musi­cal diversity.

The bubba faction seemed to predominate in the comments section, but classical fans had a few choice words as well:

Al Gore’s “cli­mate change” model will be taught in Tenn. schools before any clas­si­cal for­mat hap­pens. These peo­ple know noth­ing except, “my daddy done slapped my mommy,” “give her a good whack and leave,” “where’s my gun and ammo?” “more beer, please!” and “fire up the trac­tor, son.” Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi? All Nazis and Com­mu­nist sym­pa­thiz­ers. Prob­a­bly Democ­rats, too.

Or this:

I think PLN offers clas­si­cal on one of their HD stations . . . whatever that is.

Pandora’s Box

The Infinite Dial featured a good post the other day that lead off this way:

If you read the news today, what else could you think but “Oh boy”? Facebook doubled in size in one year, from 250 million to half a billion users. Netflix reported 42% year over year subscriber growth, climbing to 15 million paying users, all in the US. And Pandora announced it has passed the 60 million registration mark, also all domestic, after passing the 40 million mark only at the end of 2009…. What these three have in common, beyond their incredible growth rates, is that they are all bringing media — content — to users in new ways.

For some not in radio, then, business is booming — and in a manner sounding like a Jerry Del Colliano (from Inside Music Media) script, especially with zingers like this:

The growth of these new-media powers makes me think of Lowry Mays’ famous 2003 quote about Clear Channel: “If anyone said we were in the radio business, it wouldn’t be someone from our company,” said Mays. “We’re not in the business of providing news and information. We’re not in the business of providing well-researched music. We’re simply in the business of selling our customers’ products.”

Or, in the case of public radio, selling our “underwriters’ ” products. Elsewhere, at Radio Insights, a July post noted the following:

Pandora just celebrated reaching 60 million registered users. It manages to give the illusion that every one of those 60 million users can listen to a personalized music channel, just for them.

The problem, of course, is an underground youth economy that doesn’t pay for music (half of all teenagers, for instance, didn’t buy one CD last year). Eric Garland, whose company tracks legal and illegal downloads, streams on MySpace and YouTube, merchandise sold on tours, and more, says, “If we’re just talking about the breadth of the audience and not the depth of interest, I don’t think we’re really getting at the value of the music.” And as On the Media’s Eric Garland notes: “If you look at the top of the airplay charts, the top of the sales charts, how many songs, on average, do you think people are interested in from those artists? . . . It’s about 1.1.” In other words, they conclude, the average artist on top of the charts is a one-hit wonder. And the youngsters aren’t about to lay out $20 for one song they may like. And what does that say about public radio’s mad dash to AAA…?

In a recent post, Jerry Del Colliano of Inside Music Media makes some salient points about what radio should be doing, rather than what it is doing in many cases:

Not voice tracking. That’s a poor person’s iPod programmed by someone in corporate radio. Yet radio CEOs keep opting for cost cutting measures like voice tracking and it is hard to find a radio group these days that doesn’t use voice tracking at sometime in their broadcast week. Don’t do it, is my advice, or say hello to the one-minute listener “occasions” in a few years from now.

And this is exactly what WUMB in Boston is doing, having replaced local hero Barnes Newbury with someone’s idea of what’s fashionable these days.

Put personalities back on the air. You can see some personalities getting hired back by radio groups that are concerned with the vanilla programming that obviously isn’t very compelling. Personalities who keep up a tempo that cooperates with increasing short attention spans are probably the best defense against wandering listeners.

KUT in Austin sliced and diced the hours of Paul Ray, Larry Monroe, and John Aielli, forcing their “retirements” then re-signing them as part-timers without benefits — and then with utmost hubris cynically branding them as “legends” leading up to the next pledge drive.

More variety. The reasons my students told me they rarely listen to an iTunes song on their iPod all the way through is because they’ve heard it so many times and are tired of it. Hint. Clue. Music discovery helps keep their attention.

Triple-A tripe: Need we say more? This is radio’s savior?

Public Radio Stations as Bob-FM

Jeff Boudreau of Boston posted up about the new Facebook site “NPR Ate My Local Public Radio Station” (link on right), where you can commiserate with others whose stations have been assimilated into the borg. He also discussed what has been the hot topic for Jerry Del Colliano’s Inside Music Media blog of late — the automation of radio programming — as it applies to our local public radio stations. The perfect example, of course, is WUMB:

When human hosts pre-record programs for later play: WUMB in Boston has recently done this. Meg Griffith is doing so from her horse estate on the North Shore, and I just got confirmation from the volunteer answering the phones that George Knight is doing this for the afternoon shift.

And a post on this topic received this comment:

Radio One already did that here in Boston a couple of years ago. The entire airstaff of urban WILD-AM 1090 was “let go” (except for one “manager” just to keep the station on the air), and they also run Joyner and other syndicated “urban talk” shows in the daytime, then an automated watered-down “Classic Soul/R&B” music mix and infomercials after that and on weekends. They also briefly had WILD-FM 97.7 a few years ago, they sold that to Entercom, Inc for $30m(!), who made it into a repeater of their formerly Worcester-based hard-rock station WAAF to give it better Boston signal coverage. These changes left Boston with no (legal) live, local full-time African-American programming outlet.

Radio One was also not the only one here. A couple of years ago, Greater Media let the entire airstaff of WBOS 92.9 go and went to a full-time automated commercial “alternative” rock format, and Entercom, Inc. went automated full-time with their “adult variety-hits” “Mike-FM” on WMKK 93.7. Some others are only keeping live staff in morning and afternoon drive-times and are using automation or “voice-tracking” at other times. It’s all about reducing payroll overhead.

Our public radio stations pursue the same course. KUT’s Hawk Mendenhall lamented that there had to be any music at all on Austin’s station (found in FOI documents obtained in a release sought by Austin Airwaves), this in the “Live Music Capital of the World,” as Austin styles itself. Last month, in a tiny baby step in that direction — a lesson learned from the firestorm created in their blunt-force “resignations” of the free-form stalwarts that made the station — a new canned program from PRX, “Sound Opinions,” was quietly introduced into the lineup.

Then, of course, is the example of WGBH, which has gone all-talk with canned content from the mother ship, NPR, at the expense of local folk and blues shows. Of the WUMB situation, Jeff notes:

Like John Laurenti, George [Knight] is another former WBOS DJ who was “let go” from a full-time weekday shift when Greater Media purged their airstaff and changed the format from commercial AAA to a fully automated “alternative” rock format. George has been doing fill-ins on both WUMB, and some of Greater Media’s other commercial stations in their local cluster. Meg and George are “voice-tracking” their shows on WUMB. They pre-record their announcing breaks, announcing the songs that will be played from the music computer at WUMB. The breaks are programmed into the automation computer in the proper sequence so that the correct announcements match the songs played at the correct times.

It’s common practice in commercial radio nowadays, to reduce payroll by reducing the amount of time required to produce a radio show, and/or allow the host more time to perform other off-the-air work at the station during their same shift.

And whether the playlist is determined by a stay-at-home deejay or a “committee” at the station, as at KUT in Austin, the salient question still remains: Why do they believe that this playlist is more attractive to, for instance, a young audience steeped in iPods and Pandora and the like? Why wouldn’t they prefer their own “playlists”?

Jeff Boudreau:

Q: Does the WETS-FM programming change follow a national trend among public radio stations?

A. Yes. Although we made the changes for other reasons as well, we know that, for the past decade, public radio stations around the country have been switching to mostly news and public affairs programming on their primary channels. In fact, by 2000, the number of public radio stations broadcasting news and public affairs programs exceeded those with mixed news-music programming.

News-talk radio programming has become most preferred among listeners of all radio formats around the nation, outranking country music for the first time, according to the latest Arbitron report. Recently, stations in Nashville, Winston-Salem, Fort Myers, Birmingham, Hartford, and Vermont have made this change.

Most stations make the switch because it boosts listenership, membership, and revenues. Typically, stations see an increase in the number of listeners as well as contributions and underwriting revenues.

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