John Decker has a stack of opened letters on a table in his office. While a few are appreciative, the bulk of the handwritten notes are from longtime KPBS listeners upset about the radio programming changes Decker made at the start of the year.
A post on KPBS's website about the changes—minor things like moving Fresh Air with Terry Gross from 1 to 8 p.m. and adding shows like The Takeaway—stimulated a long comment thread, with most folks just as angry as the letter writers.
"BOO, KPBS," writes Amy Pippert Magnuson. "I do not like the Fresh Air schedule change. Now my lunch breaks in my car will be lonely and uninteresting."
As the director of programming for both KPBS radio and television, Decker is the guy to either blame or thank for switching up your local public-media-consumption routine. A longtime company man who's been at KPBS since the '90s, he says that while television is much more flexible and the schedule is adjusted often without much fuss, he rarely makes changes to radio—people feel a special kind of ownership over public airwaves, so making even just small adjustments is liable to incite listener outrage. Plus, the station is doing well overall, so why make big changes?
When Decker does make tweaks to radio programming, he says the decisions are always based on the quality of the content and audience data—numbers he gets from Nielsen ratings. He often takes the time to personally explain the rationale behind schedule changes to individual listeners who complain, and he says he's usually able to make most of them see his side eventually.
"I've been looking at those specific numbers for a long time," Decker says of the Fresh Air move. "Terry is great, but at 1 o'clock, she just wasn't doing well."
Go ahead and question Decker about why he's still airing Car Talk, too, even though the popular public radio show has been in reruns since 2012. I've personally complained about it on social media and even emailed Decker an article penned by public-radio rock-star Ira Glass. In the article, Glass takes program directors to task and encourages them to pull Car Talk in order to make space for new shows by new talent. Decker will tell you he doesn't totally disagree with Glass, but, again, he's a numbers guy and not ready to turn his back on the at least 60,000 people who still tune into Car Talk every weekend.
While that sort of major programming change is still too risky a move for Decker, he's recently been working hard on a new, experimental project that's slowly been growing KPBS's library of local programs and cultivating new, young talent.
KPBS Explore offers independent producers the chance to score grant money to create localized content. Decker launched the program three years ago on KPBS-TV and attracted a number of talented producers who've since created interesting shows like Crossing South, A Growing Passion, Savor San Diego, SnapShot, Animal R&R and Kings of the Craft, a new show about the local beer scene that will launch on May 21.
"The Explore project is where I have the most amount of fun, and that's where I spend a lot of my time," Decker says, searching for one of his many remotes and turning on an episode of SnapShot, a beautifully stylized show that ran last year and features local photographer Tim Mantoani as he turns his lens toward some of the county's most colorful characters. The independent producers "have a huge amount of freedom with this. I'm very clear in the RFP [request for proposals] process, the only guidelines are that the show has to be local, it has to be engaging, it has to take viewers someplace they've never been or introduce them to people they've never met, you know—there has to be a strong sense of place. Other than that, as long as it's not profane, stupid or inane, then knock yourself out."
While the television series that the project has created so far have been successful in terms of ratings and quality, Decker says that the popularity of Serial, the well-known This American Life spinoff podcast, has partly inspired him to change things up this year. When KPBS releases the request for proposals looking for independently created content on April 1, they'll be in search of audio instead of television stories.
"We're going to pivot into podcasting," Decker says. "I'm really pleased with what we've done on the TV side... But I think we can take a lot of things we've learned through the past RFP processes and apply it to developing smart, engaged voices on podcasts and radio... It's a bit of a risk, but you never know when magic's going to happen."
Decker makes it clear that the modest grants are "seed money" meant to get the show going and that independent producers are responsible for raising the extra funds they'll need to stay afloat.
Elliott Kennerson, the producer of Animal R&R, the KPBS Explore show about wild-animal rehabilitation, says fundraising has proven difficult. He's had to rely on contributions from friends and family, and he's organized multiple Kickstarter campaigns and had to dip into his own savings to keep things going.
"KPBS won't act as fiscal sponsor, so getting grants is pretty impossible," Kennerson says. "And it's hard to get sponsors when you're in preproduction and don't have much of a product to show or sell."
But Kennerson is still a fan. "KPBS's support and cooperation is amazing," he says. "It's great. The project could be better, but I don't know anyone else offering a similar opportunity for independent producers, so it's pretty rad."
Decker admits that most of the producers say they could've used a lot more money, but KPBS doesn't have unlimited funds. Plus, by giving the producers full ownership of their programs, he says they enjoy more freedom, which ultimately produces more diverse shows.
Decker's looking forward to hearing the voices that come out of the woodwork and respond to the next round of KPBS Explore's call for proposals, but he doesn't expect any of the new podcasts to become the next Serial sensation. The project, he says, is just one way KPBS is keeping its programming fresh, local and exciting.
"If we don't adapt and be flexible, then we will become irrelevant," he says. "People can just listen to podcasts rather than tune in... Is this the golden age of podcasting? Yes, absolutely. But for us, I harbor no illusions. KPBS is not suddenly going to become a podcasting house.
"KPBS is known for that," he continues, pointing to the news room, bustling with reporters working on local stories. "That's what we're known for, and it's what drives the vast amount of support. With the Explore project, I'm just trying to cultivate some new voices."