Finding Common Ground and Effectively Promoting Are Key
News Item: July 1, 2013: Current, a publication “for people in public media,” reported that “The Pacifica Foundation will lay off 75 percent of the staff at WBAI, its station in New York, in an effort to put the foundering station on steady financial footing.” “If Pacifica lays off any paid hosts or producers, it may have to determine how to fill airtime left vacant by the departures. ‘We have to evaluate all the programming,’ [Pacifica Interim Executive Director Summer] Reese said. ‘We wouldn’t be in this state if the programming were reaching a wider audience.’ ”
For many reasons, the Pacifica Network has been in financial trouble for a very long time. I worked for the News and Operations Departments of KPFA, the Pacifica flagship in Berkeley, California, from March 1999 to July 2010, always as a part-timer whose employment was defined under the union contract as “occasional” although I worked every week. I quit when cutbacks imposed by the interim GM at KPFA, under orders from the Pacifica National Board, reduced my paid hours from 11 per week to 6 while the station and the network were spending thousands of dollars on local station board elections that most listeners did not care about.
Programming and the loss of listenership were frequent topics of discussion among the staff over the years I was there. There are myriad reasons why Pacifica stations are losing listenership. Some matters are beyond their control. For instance, the election of Barack Obama brought a decline in listenership and donations as progressives mistakenly thought our long national nightmare was over. The issue is how they can reverse the trend. I think they can do it by stopping their attempts to represent as many of the disparate groups in their audience as they can cram into 168 hours a week. Instead they should focus on bringing those groups together to talk about problems that cross racial, ethnic and other ID politics lines.
Consider the much troubled WBAI. It is in New York City, which means it faces an extraordinary amount of competition, including from media outlets devoted to particular language groups. Why, for example, would a Spanish-speaking listener leave one of the 4 all-Spanish language New York area stations (5 if you count ESPN Deportes, Spanish language sports radio) to listen to a few Spanish language/Latino culture offerings on WBAI? According to the programming guide, WBAI offers La Nueva Alternativa Latina on Mondays from 1-3 in the morning, and La Voz Latina from 6-7 a.m. on Saturdays. If you are not a morning person, Adios!
Fans of all things Irish would be better off turning to the Internet, where they can get an entire listing of radio stations in Ireland that are also webcasting everything from Gaelic to Top 40. WBAI has one Irish program, Radio Free Eirann, from 1-2 p.m. on Saturdays.
Then there is the way that certain time slots are split up. The Wednesday 2-3 p.m. slot is shared by Real World/Light Show/Women in the Making and CCCP. Ten to 11 p.m. on Wednesday nights is shared by the Women’s Collective/The Open Center Show/Ethics on the Air, and CUNY (the City University of New York.) How do you build a following for your show when you are on only once a month? The answer is that you don’t. WBAI has the distinction of being the least listened-to radio station of any bandwidth (over 1000 watts) in NYC, with a 0.1 rating.
With the advent of Internet radio, which offers stations specializing in all types of music, politics, literary discussion, sports, languages, etc., Pacifica can no longer say to those not represented by the mainstream broadcast stations that Pacifica stations are the place to go if you want to hear something that represents your culture or your interests. Satellite radio, and apps such as I Heart Radio only further complicate matters for networks such as Pacifica.
The time for balkanized programming in a general audience radio station and network is long over. The answer for the growth of Pacifica and other progressive media is to focus on issues common to us all, with diverse voices addressing how each group is affected by them. Issues such as climate change, US military involvements, labor issues, health care, and government spending and taxes are just some of the issues about which we should all be concerned. Progressive news and public affairs programmers should be looking to air diverse voices who can explain how these common issues affect their communities. Even issues that seem to be specific to a certain group, such as abortion or gay rights, can be including in a larger discussion of health care or civil liberties. These issues can be broadcast throughout the day, not just at the hour dedicated to women or gays. The growing surveillance society/police state affects us all, albeit differently from group to group. But progressive whites in New York City should pay attention to what people of color have to say about the City’s “stop and frisk” policies. Whites, especially the poor, are merely riding in the back of the bus to surveillance hell.
Progressive stations should also expand their lists of expert commentators. At the KPFA news department, we had our stable of “go to” guys and gals as assuredly as the mainstream media did. Sometimes that is a matter of convenience, especially on the weekends. When you knew that Dr. So and So deliberately makes herself available for the Sunday night newscast when others do not, and you are on a deadline, you call Dr. So and So for the sixth time in the last nine weeks. Is this really any different than the mainstream news program that always calls General This and That for military analysis, or Professor Thus and Such of Ivy League University for business commentary?
The search for new voices is not easy, and sometimes it is not advisable; if the person you go to regularly is a top expert in the field, he or she should not be replaced just to get another voice on the air. But the development of sources is an ongoing process and a news or public affairs department should never rest on its laurels. Progressive media is truly doing its job when it is searching for those voices even if the search is not always successful. Building your source list is something that needs to be worked on constantly, not just in the hour or two before deadline. At KPFA, we used to have a database that was supposed to be updated by field reporters coming in from assignment. Just leave a name and phone number or email address, or better yet, a business card – there is usually at least one in every press kit—for someone to enter into the database. Alas, the database fell into disuse. Updating it would have been a great task for an intern or as we called them at KPFA, an apprentice.
So far, I have discussed issues relating to news and public affairs, but there are other scheduling issues that pertain to the general programming, in particular, the issue of block programming. If you are going to be eclectic, at least have programs of a similar type running next to each other, so that people who like that type of programming will come and stay a while. Some people think that this is somehow putting certain types of programming into a “ghetto”. Others wonder if the people who don’t like that genre of programming will come back. But if, for example, all the Spanish shows were put into a block and promoted together, you would have a better chance of getting new listeners for them who might come over from a Spanish station for a while, if the programming itself is interesting enough. The non-Spanish speakers will come back later as long as they know where their programs are.
Promotion is another issue that programmers have to take seriously at times other than the quarterly “beg-a-thons” that all public radio stations do. All programmers have to make promotional carts for their program. There should be a department in the station that gives technical assistance for this. Programmers on the air must play the promotional carts assigned to them on the programming log. Just because you are not playing standard commercials doesn’t mean you can stint on playing promotional carts for other shows. The person who makes up the programming logs cannot discriminate against certain shows when scheduling carts. All programmers should learn to forward-promote the next two shows on the schedule.
Some public stations cannot afford much of an advertising budget for things like bench ads at bus stops to heighten the visibility of the station. But abandonment of the emphasis on ID politics, development of a broadly diverse group of experts, and stronger in-house promotional efforts do not cost any money and will encourage word-of-mouth advertising. It is a waste that they are not used more advantageously.
Kellia Ramares-Watson is an independent journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of the e-book Eating Poison: Food, Drugs and Health. Her next major project will be an e-book called Demonetization: Ending the Cult of Commodity. She can be reached at theendofmoney[at]gmail.com.