My car, with its broken radio antenna, is in the shop this week. The car I'm borrowing has a functioning antenna, and so the other day while running errands, I thought I'd try to tune in to KCRW, the public-radio station broadcasting from Santa Monica City College (it has a low-power transmitter in La Mesa, too). Indeed, there it was at 89.9-FMï¿½a little static-y at times, but not to the point of being intolerable.
I tuned in partly out of nostalgiaï¿½KCRW and its Morning Becomes Eclectic music program was my introduction to public radio back in the '90s, when I lived closer to L.A. But I went there in protest, too. Last week, KPBS pissed me offï¿½it pissed a lot of people offï¿½when General Manager Doug Myrland announced that the station was canceling its only locally produced TV program, Full Focus, and also a locally produced radio show, A Way With Words. Myrland didn't help matters when he got on KPBS' blog, Off Mic, and told angry viewers/listeners that their input mattered little when it came to programming decisions. (Myrland has since apologized.)
Why A Way With Words was axed makes little sense. Sure, there was an explanation about production costs and the fact that it would require an additional investment to market the program to more stations. The show's ratings were going up with the addition of co-host Grant Barrett, and Barrett told me AWWW had been picked up by roughly 16 other stations and was one of the top-10 podcasted weekly public-radio shows in the nation. While public-radio stations around the country lament their inability to connect with younger audiences, A Way With Words appeared to be doing just thatï¿½I don't know a lot of older folks who download podcasts.
With AWWW gone, that leaves KPBS with one locally produced show, These Days. (Three years ago, the station canceled The Lounge, the hour-long, arts-focused program created in 1999 to draw in a younger audience.) As for Full Focus, neither I nor a lot of you watched it as much as we should haveï¿½it had roughly 13,000 viewers (which actually isn't too bad for public television). Amid increasingly irrelevant mainstream news programs (did anyone else watch NBC's overly long piece last Thursday about the woman who broke into a fudge store in Maryland?), Full Focus covered stories that other media ignored. It was on at an awkward time (6:30 p.m.), and though it had been on for several years, the show still felt a little stiffï¿½but it had potential. It just needed to loosen up a bit, smile and have a little fun. The station planned to hire a new anchor to replace Gloria Penner and the new anchor would have given KPBS the opportunity to reintroduce the show to the public.
There's a complacency about KPBS. The station takes no risks. It has a target audience comprising educated, white, older and financially comfortable San Diegans because those are the people who donate money. It understands that audience, knows what it likes and dares not stray far from that box (which is strange because KPBS has quite a few young, smart, creative people on its radio and TV staffsï¿½folks who remain untapped resources for ideas). While quite a few people were put off by the two shows' cancellation, there apparently would be hell to pay should KPBS do something like replace two hours of nighttime classical music with something like Sounds Eclectic (the syndicated version of KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic, widely regarded as one of the most innovative music shows in the country). For many younger listeners, the first notes of classical music are signals that KPBS' broadcast day has come to an end.
Being out of touch with the larger community is a criticism that's been levied against many big-city public-radio stations whose programming choices don't reflect an increasingly diverse, urban population. Despite serving a border town, for instance, KPBS airs one show that targets a Hispanic audience, Latino USA (broadcast from University of Texas, Austin), which you can hear at 5 a.m. on Sunday.
KPBS is selling the community short if it thinks listeners must either grow into public radio or acquire a taste for it. Sure, there's no guarantee that if you broadcast it, they'll tune in, but the whole point of public radio is to try to reach the broadest swath of people. This is from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting website: 'Public radio provides programming and services that respond to the diverse cultural makeup of America. Local public radio stations and producers are reaching into their communities and finding new and innovative ways to address the needs of a wide array of listeners.'
I look at programming for KPCC, the public-radio station based at Pasadena City College, and I see a focused effort to engage a diverse audience. The station produces six shows, one of which is the excellent Off Ramp, a weekly one-hour program hosted by reporter John Rabe that weaves arts, culture and current events into documentary-style segments (kind of like This American Life). KPCC airs Latino USA at a reasonable hour (10 to 11 p.m. on Sunday) and also broadcasts the nationally syndicated Tavis Smiley Show, public radio's first African-American-hosted program. KPCC, which doesn't operate a TV station, spent $11 million on operations in 2006; KPBS, which does TV and radio, spent $29 million.
Chicago Public Radio recently launched Vocalo, its second public-radio station, with a tiny $1.8 million annual budget. CPB's decision-makers were unsettled by the fact that their main station, WBEZ, had a 91-percent white audience. Vocalo's goal is to reach people who feel, as one profile of the station put it, 'disenchanted by the usual pubradio fare.' Give Vocalo a listen (you can download it on iTunes). I have it playing right now, and it's unlike anything out there. If something like it were here in San Diego, I'd be kicking down some pledge money.
CPB has the lofty hope that Vocalo will have a 'transformative' effect on the community. It's too early to tellï¿½this all might end up being a clumsy attempt by white public-radio execs to be more inclusive. Or maybe they're expecting too much from the public, whose feedback helped CPB craft Vocalo, but who too often prove complacent themselves. But at least they're trying.
A few years ago, a project called Envision San Diego started up. It's a collaborative venture between San Diego State University, KPBS and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Envision's goal is to get people more involved in local issuesï¿½the point being that an engaged polis is a healthy polis and when people stop paying attention to what the decision makers are deciding, power shifts from the many to the few. Envision's kind of dropped off the radar, though. The project's next event is a KPBS-produced forum on water issues, scheduled for October. Important topic? Of course. No one will argue with that. Potential to be horribly dull? Um, yes.
Lest I be perceived as a hypocrite, all of us in the media could be doing better. But KPBS, as a multimedia operation with a mandate to be inclusive, has the ability and obligation to help create not only a more informed public, but also an engaged public. Right now, it's informative, but it's not terribly engaging.