Better programming would fix Pacifica, argues journalist

By Mike Janssen

A journalist and former employee of a Pacifica station diagnoses the network’s failure to attract listeners in an article in the Leftist Review.

The election of President Barack Obama is in part to blame, writes Kellia Ramares-Watson, because it helped to mollify the network’s left-leaning audience. But she attributes much of the problem to programming.

Stations, she writes, “need to stop their attempts to represent as many of the disparate groups in their audience as they can cram into 168 hours a week.” New York’s WBAI, she notes, aims to serve many audiences by programming hosts in monthly slots and narrowly targeting ethnic niches. The station faces severe layoffs due to chronic shortages of funds.

“The time for balkanized programming in a general audience radio station and network is long over,” Ramares-Watson writes. “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, U.S. military involvements, labor issues, health care, and government spending and taxes are just some of the issues about which we should all be concerned.”

Stations should also expand their source lists, program more strategically and promote programming more consistently, she writes.

  • http://www.mitchelcohen.com Mitchel Cohen

    Kellia Ramares-Watson wrote a very thoughtful commentary, an analysis that I mostly agree with, but I’d like to add some additional thoughts pertaining to WBAI, which I do know something about.

    It’s not that we shouldn’t have our own “Irish show”, Radio Free Eirann; there’s nothing else like it, not even on the web, mixing music and RADICAL politics specific to a New York audience, which may not be appreciated by Berkeley’s different audience. Kellia assumes that everyone (or most people) think in terms of “their own” ethnic bloc or identity, but a good show like Radio Free Eirann transcends that.

    One of the things the hosts of Radio Free Eirann are doing differently is that they have just begun to broadcast from a wonderful Irish pub in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and they’re turning the show into a living community experience — sort of the way WBAI used to do things in the old (and perhaps not so “good old”) days, when it broadcast from a Community Church Pacifica owned (yes, we owned a property in NYC at one point), and which so-called “progressive” honchos in the Democratic Party (Percy Sutton, et al.) stole from Pacifica at the time 50 years ago!

    We’ll see how that goes. Instead of erasing whole communities from the schedule, we need to deepen those ties physically. Show hosts need to be out there on the street and in community venues physically signing up listeners to their shows by bringing the mountain to Mohammed. Show hosts need to be schooled in how to organize, and not assume that just by putting an OK “product” on the air, that the masses will flock to their radios quivering in anticipation for the show to begin.

    There is a sort of arrogance in that typical approach to radio at WBAI. It also infects much of the liberal-left couch potatoes that New York is no longer as filled with as it was 20 years ago, and good riddance!

    It is different in Berkeley, where there are numerous KPFA-sponsored community events. When I was out there last summer, I attended 3 of them within one month — all relevant, all jam-packed, and all broadcast over KPFA. I don’t remember if they were all broadcast live, but despite the difficulties, well-hosted live broadcasts generate large listening audiences, but only if people know about them to begin with.

    So I look forward to participating in the Radio Free Eirann weekly EVENTS (and not just stay-home-and-listen radio shows). Rick Wolff should do his show from there as well!

    We did something similar a few years ago when I helped to organize a “Phil Ochs night” at a lower east side venue, beginning at MIDNIGHT. Everyone at WBAI at the time said it was stupid, no one would show, “who’s this guy Phil Ochs, anyway?” some asked, amazingly. But Bob Fass agreed to host it and we arranged for it to occur during his 3-1/2 hour slot so we didn’t have to fight to the death with the bureaucrats then running WBAI (and did an end-run around them). Well, it turned out that the transit workers went on strike, the subways and buses were shut down, and some thought that NO ONE would show up and wanted to cancel it. But we persisted, and — wouldn’t you know it — the place was packed to the gills. We arranged free food and drinks in the dead of night, in the dead of winter, and it went out live over the air until 3 in the morning. A huge, huge success — people are starving for such non-alienated gatherings.

    The trick is to do that with every show ALL THE TIME, engage the community, be present IN the community, don’t charge much (or any) money, and don’t lecture AT the listeners. Rebuild the base. Few at WBAI — or even at Pacifica — know how to do that or see radio in that way. There is a real lack of organizing experience among many at WBAI, of rootedness in the various communities, that underlies the lack of promotion of the various themes that Kellia suggests (and I agree with her about them).

    Producers need to work with affiliates (!) and put flesh and bones onto this network. They need to coordinate activities, learn how to do promotion and organizing, and turn their shows into community experiences — “happenings” — on a regular basis.

    Our antenna atop the Empire State Building allows us to potentially reach 18 million listeners. Some of us just learned that we even own an already approved repeater signal upstate that is going unused (!).

    We need producers to go more deeply into their stories and know whom to contact. This became really clear during hurricane Irene, when WBAI’s program director and general manager abandoned ship and some of us had to fight tooth and nail (thank you to former Executive Director Arlene Engelhardt here!) to arrange for KPFK hosts Cary Harrison and Summer Reese (yes, the one and only!) to be on the air LIVE during the storm. They contacted dozens of folks that no one at WBAI has ever thought to invite, and it was REALLY GREAT community radio! EVERYONE tuned to WBAI that first night of the storm. Many were riveted, listening and calling in reports from their areas, all night long.

    For a while, the Occupy Wall Street show on WBAI was doing something similar, but it got stale. Instead of exploring how to revive it, management just let it dribble away. Same with “Artsy Fartsy” (a terrible name for a potentially fine show, it just needs one or two sharp people to join that production “collective”), and now Radio Free Eirann, which is trying something new.

    Speaking of which, where is the show for New York’s tens of thousands of taxi-cabs — a built in audience, that could be broadcast live from a late-night Pakistani or Indian restaurant or Taxi-Workers Alliance “union hall”, with workers stopping by?

    One more thing: WBAI News is the heart and soul of the station, even if many in governance and/or management don’t realize that. It’s far and away more professional AND radical (meaning, “going to the root”) than anywhere else. Pacifica management is making a huge error by laying off the News department to “save funds” INSTEAD OF, COUNTER-INTUITIVELY, EXPANDING THE NEWS DEPARTMENT throughout the network.

    There are so many possibilities, if we can only break out of the narrow-casting mindset of what we think radio is, and look to it as a means of cohering communities (with the many different ways of doing that) and overcoming the alienation that the technology imposes by the way it’s being used.

    Mitchel Cohen
    former Chair, WBAI Local Station Board

    http://www.MitchelCohen.com

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