Same Old Same

Battle of the Bands?

Boston’s three NPR stations not only are airing similar if not identical news and music programs at the same time (WGBH’s Celtic on WGBH and WUMB’s Celtic Twilight With Gail Gilmore), as well as the head-to-head syndicated NPR news/talk programs on WGBH and WBUR. Two of them are producing competing spring music festivals at the same time as well: http://www.bostonfolkfestival.org/ (former name before being re-branded “WUMB Music Fest “) and http://www.wbur.org/support/springfestival

Folk fans will have to choose between WBUR’s Spring Festival, with Livingston Taylor, and the WUMB Music Festival, with Kate Taylor, both starting at noon this coming Sunday.

So much for diversity from our public radio stations.

Barnes Update!

This news from Barnes Newberry, who remains one of the most sought-after subjects on this site:

Thrilled to announce I will be on-air again very soon with my new show My Back Pages on mvyradio (mvyradio.com). Great station, fine music choices and terrific staff! Show will be Saturdays, 8 am -12 noon, available online only. All shows will be archived. Start date to be announced shortly. Please spread the word. If you were a fan of my old Highway 61 Revisited program, this will be right down your alley!

From the continued interest in Barnes’ whereabouts herein, we’d say he has a ready-made audience already… Look here for a gander at some of the comments made while he’s been away.

Passing Tributes

One year ago today we started this site with the hope of shining a light on what we saw happening to public radio stations across the country. Whether it was the sudden canceling of popular shows, the fallacy of HD radio, or the creeping influence of national groups such as NPR, we wanted to point out the disservice being done to the supporters of their respective public radio stations. And, for myself anyway, one of the worst aspects of it all was the homogenization of the programming at local stations. Since many stations were dumping local programming for the cheaper national feed, some of the first casualties were the local DJs who added so much local flavor and personal knowledge to their stations. The difference can be remarkable, and there have been two such examples of this in the past few weeks alone. Though both are tinged with sadness. . . .

On Monday, March 21st, it was announced that legendary pianist Pinetop Perkins had died at his home in Austin at age 97. Pinetop was one of the last of the old Delta blues artists, a veteran of Muddy Waters’ band and several others. That night Larry Monroe did a tribute to Pinetop on his recently revived Blue Monday show on community-funded KDRP in Dripping Springs, TX (see the set list and a downloadable recording of it here). A look at that set list will quickly show that not only did Larry play extensively from Pinetop’s personal catalogue; there are also songs from his many peers and collaborators. This type of in-depth tribute requires vast personal knowledge of the subject, as doing Google searches or playing cuts from “Greatest Hits” CDs just won’t cut it.

As remarkable as that tribute was, though, one could possibly say that such tributes are commonplace — they take place all over the country whenever a legendary figure dies. Some tributes may be noticeably better than others, but a blues show doing a tribute to a blues legend is hardly noteworthy. With that in mind I’d like to point to the latest tribute, this time on Larry’s Phil Music Program for April 7th, and this time the subject was Calvin Russell, who died on April 3rd.

Calvin WHO did you say? That is probably the most common response anywhere outside of the Austin music scene or in Europe, where Calvin was extremely popular . I really can’t do justice to describing Calvin or his music; best bet is to go to his website and get treated to something totally unique. But in short, Calvin was a grizzled old guy in a trademark battered hat with a voice that sounded like years of hard living, but also tinged with what could pass for hope. He had some great videos in the ’90s and he had a national hit in France for his song “Crack in Time.” But one thing Calvin definitely was not was any kind of a legend here in the States. He was widely respected by his fellow Austin musicians, both for his songwriting skills and his performances. But even here he only played small clubs. But another peek at that set list and downloadable archive for April 7th ( http://www.larrymonroe.com/archive/ ) will show how Larry dedicated the same effort to showcasing a lesser-known artist such as Calvin as he did to the national treasure Pinetop Perkins. The same cuts from the personal catalogue mixed in with tracks from other artists to highlight the passing of someone great. The greatness of an artist isn’t measured in how well they are known, or in how many records they might have sold. It’s more in their ability to affect the people that they touch, both with other artists and with the fans lucky enough to discover them.

Once upon a time, one of the main tenets of public broadcasting was that they were to serve the under-served. And to make the listeners in their local communities aware of the treasures around them. When those same stations turned their backs on their local scenes in favor of cheap national feed and the Almighty Dollar, this was one of the predictable results. I imagine that somewhere out there in NPR land there was mention of Pinetop Perkin’s passing, maybe even a sample played from his last CD. But if there was a national tribute to Calvin Russell’s passing then I’ll eat my leather hat. As for the local level, during Larry’s tribute I checked the set list over at his former station, KUT-FM — not a single song by Calvin. Instead there was the usual AAA rotation that the station managers imposed some years ago  (see “Not a Playlist,” here).

Sometimes it’s the little things that really point out the big problems. And for me this is certainly one of those moments. Every day, all around us, in communities across the country we are losing artists such as these. And who is going to mark their passing in any kind of meaningful way? Does your public station devote time to the lesser-known artists in your area, both while still performing and after their passing? If not, then there is a total breakdown of their duties to the community. While I enjoy such programs as All Things Considered and Morning Edition, I would gladly throw away all of the NPR programs for just one hour focusing on the wonders around me. Here at this site we will keep fighting to get that message out. We hope you will continue to support us in that mission.

—Rev Jim

Little Numbers

The goal at KBCS in Seattle back when we started this blog a year ago read, “The stated intent of these changes is to create a more consistent sound so that listeners will stay tuned longer throughout the day.” So is it working out well for them? Not so much. The latest Arbitron ratings for the station limped along at a 0.1 AGH, trailing several Christian, Regional Mexican, and all-talk stations — and whumped by jazz station KPLU (which scored a 3.1), a music dumped by KBCS in its remake. (Listings are last three, in this order — Holiday 2010, January 2011, February 2011 — with AQH% and Cume for each.):

0.1    31,600    0.1    35,500    0.1    23,400

In Detroit, WDET has also struggled in the ratings.

0.7   173,400    0.7    167,500   0.7   138,100

In Boston, ‘GBH still lags behind WBUR, which also is talk-talk NPR. WUMB? Way down there:

1.2   258,800   1.7   269,200    1.6    256,200

WBUR’s numbers: 3.1    416,800    4.0    485,900    3.7    458,800

WUMB’s numbers:  0.3    55,200    0.4    56,200    0.5    47,200

No Time to Upgrade

Greg Smith sent along this link to Mark Ramsey’s influential blog, wherein he makes a few observations about what Apple is up to with its iPhone:

Back in December, Apple quietly submitted a patent application that altered the radio experience for its users and introduced three new elements to the iPhone:  FM, AM, and Satellite Radio — all built in.

Besides a much slicker user experience than the standard radio dial, Apple has another trick up their sleeve, according to iPadzz.net:

The radio patents are an indication that the iPhone 5 might offer a unique radio station mapping function which will let users find and select a station with the closest or strongest signal. The folks at T3 believe that Apple might integrate an FM radio receiver added to the top right corner of the device. Apple plans to change the game by displaying all the available radio stations nearby on an interactive map, with names and signal strengths displayed for each station.

The big takeaway from this?

Standard FM and AM are going into the new iPhone — not HD radio.

Satellite radio is getting equal shelf-space to terrestrial on the new iPhones.

As Mark notes:

Pandora has succeeded on iPhones not because FM or AM isn’t there — it has succeeded because it’s different from FM or AM, and that will not be changing.

If you think young folks will wake up and discover a new world of radio heretofore hidden from them, stop fooling yourself. Radio still barely targets these young folks with a limited menu of choices, and they know it. And most of them are already listening anyway when they’re not spreading their media time across a plethora of alternatives, only some of which might be described as “radio.”

Much in keeping with what Jerry Del Collliano of Inside Music Media says about the folly of consolidation in radio and the just desserts of the insanity of seeking the lowest common denominator in music. And, of course, so much for the exuberant “hints” that Apple was about to market HD radio.

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

Low Down in Beantown

The oblivious liberal might fall prey to being hornswoggled by the appeal posted here yesterday — that is, the plea to man the barricades and fend off the Republican hordes seeking to defund public media. After all, the website beseeched viewers, the raison d’être for said media is a focus on “quality local programs” and “a particular focus on the needs of underserved audiences.” When the laughter in Austin and Boston died down, it became clear that those underserved audiences no doubt referred to lovers of Triple A music — the Bob and Jack of FM radio.

A recent gaucherie noted on the Facebook site of the Fans of Folk Radio WUMB, here, and passed on by Jeff Boudreau, serves to illustrate the savoir faire of the bean counters who’ve become the arbiters of “public” these days. The Facebook note — entitled “Doesn’t that seem a bit unethical?” — reads as follows:

On the Fans of Folk Radio WUMB wall, member Carol Lashnits poses the observation and question: “It’s wonderful that WUMB is honoring Dick Pleasants. I just wish that the money raised went to him and not to Pat’s $7 million capital campaign. Doesn’t that seem a bit unethical?

Dick has been a mainstay in Boston folk radio for 40 years, of late relegated to a two-hour shift on Saturdays on WUMB. The note quotes the WUMB website:

Over the years, he has staunchly supported dozens (maybe even hundreds) of musicians and has encouraged the launch of dozens of folk music venues. Boston has a reputation as a great music city. Dick Pleasants is one of those individuals who helped create that image.

For 40 years Dick has shared the music he loves with us. Many of his friends think it’s time for us to return that love. On Friday, January 7, 2011 at 7:00pm at Sanders Theater, several musicians and many of his friends will pay tribute to Dick in a one-of-a-kind, and once-in-a-lifetime celebration of a “really special guy” and “one of the most down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet.”

Can you feel the love? Well, if you’re in the Boston area, you could have partaken of this lovefest for just $50 a pop, $100 if you felt you’re of the real special VIP sort and wanted to be seated up front and meet and greet Dick.

But wait. There’s more. And it is special:

You can use Facebook, Twitter, E-mail, or you can print out copies of this PDF of our 11″ x 17″ special full-color Hi-Resolution poster about the event and distribute it in your neighborhood.

Wa-a-a-y down at the bottom is the one footnote: “Proceeds will benefit WUMB’s Capital Campaign, by naming a room after Dick Pleasants in the new WUMB Studios & Offices.” You just know it’ll be a very special room, too.

And the author, in a nice turn of phrase, summed it up aptly:

WUMB is not the only Boston-area radio station where Dick has spent his 40+ year career (others include WCAS and WGBH, but supported by that last sentence, it appears to be the only one willing to turn him into a marketable commodity. So, yes to Carol, we agree with your statement, but are not in the least surprised.

Not surprised in Austin, either. After blithely hacking the hours of three free-form deejays and cutting their benefits, KUT suits brazenly dubbed them “Legends” and shamelessly hawked their names in the following fundraiser. This is de rigueur in public radio management nowadays. Perhaps one or two of the 24,000 passers-by stopping in here may have missed our oft-repeated witticism: the difference between these management types and yogurt? Yogurt has a live culture.

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