"Listeners don't want
to have it explained to them," Mitchell says.
"They just want you to admit you're a jerk
and get on with it."

Changing schedules in public radio usually means facing anger

Originally published in Current, Sept. 11, 1995

By Jacqueline Conciatore

Hell hath no fury like a listener whose favorite program has been moved to a different time slot, or, God forbid, canceled.

Scorned listeners will write sarcastic letters to the editor and nasty ones to the station. They will organize fellow grudgers via the Internet, then take to the streets with petitions. They'll demand meetings with the g.m. and license holder. They'll even tell folks to ask for their pledge money back.

For station management, it's not a fun time, though judging from the comments of a few pubcasters interviewed, it is a memorable one. They had advice to share about how to manage the public relations of programming change. Veterans of these battles will be glad to know that sometimes intense public struggles over the fate of beloved programs can have positive outcomes.

One way to rile people most thoroughly is to cancel a program with which listeners identify culturally. In March 1994, volunteer hosts accused WDET, Detroit, of "ethnic cleansing" after it canceled a 20-year-old bilingual news and music program El Grito de Mi Raza ("The Voice of My People"). The cancellation was part of a schedule streamlining. The station got some 200 phone calls and 100 letters from listeners just after the cancellation, and the show's volunteer producers and some community activists made an appeal to WDET's licensee, the board of Wayne State University. Although the station eventually offered to subsidize for two or three years, El Grito's production and transmission on a subcarrier, the producers ending up buying commercial airtime from a brokerage house. It was eight months before the conflict reached that resolution.

"He was their guy"

Getting rid of long-time shows is also a pretty sure way to aggrieve listeners. KPFA, Berkeley recently canceled the show of one producer with 41 years on the air, Phil Elwood, and another with 22 years, Mama O'Shea. (Although the programming changes are KPFA's bid to increase audience numbers, station manager Marci Lockwood said the lengthy tenures themselves point to a problem. Volunteer programmers "had a program slot and they had it forever--they felt as if they owned that time.") When word of the changes got out despite KPFA's attempts at secrecy, loyal and disappointed fans became vocal on the air and active on the Internet, encouraging listeners to withhold their pledges. As of mid-August, only 30 of the station's 22,000 subscribers had canceled, however, Lockwood says.

In July, WGBH-FM, Boston, added an hour of morning news and additional classical music while cutting back on less jazz. In addition, WGBH will now air All Things Considered beginning at 4 p.m., and then in January The World--which it is producing with PRI and the BBC. The station also canceled Ron Della Chiesa's 18-year-old MusicAmerica program, which featured the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Cole Porter and Sinatra. Della Chiesa will host the station's morning hours of classical and a new Friday-evening show, Jazz Songbook.

Even for public radio, the change has met a surprising level of resistance. About 2,000 Della Chiesa fans have called or written in complaints, and a group has organized into "Save MusicAmerica." Fans got Tony Bennett to speak on behalf of the program at a recent Boston concert, have set up a phone hotline, and are asking people to request a return of their pledges. According to station spokesperson Jeanne Hopkins, only a few have done so. Speculating about reasons for the response, Hopkins says that for many, MusicAmerica "was their afternoon companion--the fans felt they really had something, and that he was their guy. It feels like it's something very personal they've lost." Right now, the station has no plans to reverse its decision, Hopkins said. Rather, it will wait to see how listeners respond to the new schedule over time, then weigh the costs and benefits of the changes.

Oh, those Met fans

Some of the most effective organizers against programming changes are fans of the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, which is available to stations only if they carry it live. Many programmers believe they handicap their audience-building efforts by carrying the broadcasts at curtain time on Saturday. Researchers say opera appeals to only a subset of the classical music audience. But in recent years, that subset has succeeded in reversing Met cancellations in Wisconsin, Arizona, Mississippi and West Virginia. They use the same letters-and-petitions methods that other listener-activists do, but have the help of a national organization--Save the Met Live Broadcasts--which in 1993 claimed to be 3,500-strong.

These fans appear to be motivated by a passionate commitment to high culture and a belief they are among the few plugging the dike that's stemming a flood of popular-media trash. "There is a sensitivity, on the part of some classical listeners. They assume they're kind of under siege," says Jack Mitchell, director of Wisconsin Public Radio. Their activism is also "a measure of the importance music plays for them. It's not to be dismissed." Mitchell is still alive to talk about the battle he fought with Met fans when the state network announced it would cancel the opera in '93. "The political fallout and public reaction was far beyond what we anticipated," he says.

Mitchell capitulated, but doesn't regret it. In part, that's because he supports the Met broadcasts per se--he simply wanted a show with wider appeal in the time slot. But since the debate, Wisconsin's Met ratings have gone up; in part, because of the publicity, Mitchell says. "As it turned out, the Met's doing reasonably well."

The same is true at KBAQ, Phoenix, where Met fans rallied against manager Carl Matthusen's decision not to air the broadcasts--and this was before the station had even signed on the air. Since his reversal, "The support has been adequate," Matthusen says. "The press helped ... They got us great publicity. There wasn't anyone in town that didn't know we [initially] weren't going to carry it."

The not-so-bad and the ugly

Programming changes aren't always tempestuous events. Matthusen's jazz station in Phoenix, KJZZ, recently dropped a six-hour midday block of contemporary jazz and replaced it with news and info--Talk of the Nation, Monitor Midday, and the Diane Rehm Show. Nighttime programming went from contemporary to acoustic jazz. Though listeners lodged the expected complaints, KJZZ has received positive comments in the local media, and phone calls are running about 45 percent in favor of the changes, Matthusen says.

He made the switch because a commercial station also airing contemporary jazz had helped erode KJZZ's audience by 46 percent in the past couple of years. In terms of public reaction to the change, "We had a bit of an advantage over some others in that we had some place to send the audience we'd no longer be serving," he says. Ten days after announcing the change, the station was down to about 10 letters per day, he said.

Not bad for KJZZ. But when it's bad, it can get ugly. Matthusen, for example, recalls being tagged as a Nazi during a meeting he held with more than 100 angry opera buffs. "At one point I referred to opera listeners as a subset of the overall classical music audience. A fellow got up and said, 'You might as well call us subhuman! That's how they started in Germany!' And I thought, 'Wait a minute!!' " Asked if he would have handled any part of the opera controversy differently, he says only that he "would have bought more stock in Anacin."

Caryn Mathes, head of WDET, says the opponents of her decision to cancel El Grito attacked her with lies. In one meeting, a critic "accused my boss and myself of collusion because we were black," she says. "That was very hurtful. It hurt both of our feelings to be accused of that."

It's important to not take the assaults personally, Mathes says. But sometimes the campaigns to bring back a program do get personal. In Madison, "that was part of their strategy, to center on me," Mitchell says. "The way it was portrayed [was] 'Jack Mitchell forced this on you.' It was highly personal."

Just admit you're a jerk, OK?

One point to remember when in the midst of a storm whipped up over programming changes is that it will pass, Mitchell says. "I think that no matter what you do, people are going to be angry about a change," he says. "You have to think through what price you are willing to pay. And recognize that this, too, will pass. And that in time your loyal listeners will still be loyal and they'll be back." Mitchell also says that threats to cut off contributions usually don't materialize. "Many say they're canceling, but often they're the ones, you look them up on the computer, and they weren't members anyway. Those who were supporters--we're still the same station. Within six months or so, they realize this is still the station that means a lot more to them than anything else on the dial."

To effectively deal with public response, there are questions managers should ask themselves, according to Steve Olson, head of the Public Radio Program Directors Association. Who will the change affect? Think of underwriters, community advisory boards, boards of directors, as well as listeners, because managers want as many interested parties on board as is possible. What kind of reaction is likely from the public? What's the worst possible scenario? How to get good press? "You have to handle it all ahead of time," he says. (The PRPD Handbook contains an entire chapter on managing change.)

Stations have had to back away from schedule changes when their licensees bowed to public pressure. With some study, however, stations can formulate a picture of audience response in the short and long terms, and prepare their boards for the shake-out, says audience researcher David Giovannoni. There are two components of risk they can analyze: audience loss, and drops in member support. The latter requires a significant expenditure, but audience research can be done for a few hundred dollars, he says. Or, anyone who subscribes to Arbitron can assess audiece ramifications themselves, he says. "Stations that have that information can go to their licensees and say, 'Look, we expect this rough time, and we expect it to be this rough.' "

Managers should also set up a system to deal with public response. "Whether it's form letters, setting aside a certain number of hours in a day to call back angry listeners, going on local talk shows or talking to the press--all that management of the P.R. end should be thought out ahead of time," Giovannoni says.

In presenting a change to the public, it's important to couch it in positive terms only, pubcasters say. The adoption of a 4 p.m. start for ATC last week, for example, will mean an hour less of music per day at some stations, says Giovannoni. "Stations should play that in a positive light: 'We're trying to make the station better. But we are bound in time--there are only seven days in a week. We think it will add to the service of our station. We're doing the best thing we can for our listeners.' "

One thing not to do, he says, is back up a programming decision with Arbitron data, because listeners will accuse you of being ratings-minded: grabbing for bigger audiences at the expense of quality. You do want bigger ratings, you say? "If you just want numbers, you can get Howard Stern on your station," Giovannoni argues. "Howard has a lot more listeners than Bob Edwards does. But that's not what public radio is about. Public radio has a mission, a set of values. Any program public broadcasting is going to consider carrying is qualitatively different than virtually anything on commercial [radio]."

It's also wise not to try and change the minds of your dismayed or angry listeners, managers say. About her experience negotiating with the aggrieved Latino listeners in Detroit, Mathes says: "All [our] research and explanation of this [change] ... none of that information mattered to the group that viewed itself as wounded. The logic of it and the broadcast context of it--that was not what they cared about."

When people are sore over the loss of a favorite program or host, they'd rather write a nasty letter than have a rational argument, Mitchell says. "They don't want to have it explained to them. They just want you to admit you're a jerk and get on with it. No amount of explaining makes a difference. You just have to apologize and thank them for their opinions.

"I expected I could explain and they would agree. That [I couldn't] was a surprise."

And after a while, says Olson, it's wise to simply end the dialogue. "If it's a small group focused on one tiny issue rather than the good of the station, [at some point] you're simply done dealing with them. You're not going to change it back."

A wonderful thing

The good news is that all of the revolt and mayhem sometimes does yield good things. For one thing, there is comfort to be taken from a listener protest: you have an audience that's deeply invested. "I think it's a wonderful thing when people complain when they lose a public radio program," says Giovannoni. "It tells us what we're doing is important to a lot of people ... That makes programming changes hard--you're kind of betraying the trust of the listener you've been serving all that time. At the same time, programmers don't make changes for changes' sake. In five years you will have an even larger public outpouring of grief and sympathy and anger" when you take off the program you've just added.

Case in point: When Matthusen arrived at KJZZ, it had a cume of 5,000--"deplorable," he says. He changed the format. "We didn't have any complaints. There wasn't anyone to complain."

Having to respond to a barrage of questions and criticisms from community members can also test your resolve. Mathes says the WDET ordeal forced her and her staff to revisit their data and question their reasoning, only to deepen it. "It causes you to really scrutinize what your reasons are," she says. "It served as a solidifier for our team."

The outpouring of passion on behalf of a favored program can also be channeled into support for the station. Mitchell says Wisconsin's opera fans last year became strong grassroots advocates to Congress on behalf of public broadcasting's federal subsidy. "They became very active on the CPB issue ... And they've been very effective. The same energy that went into opera, they put into Congress."

And then there's the opportunity to test your aptitude for being philosophical. Says Matthusen: "It's not possible to please everyone. If that is your goal in life, you're much better off working at something other than mass media, because you're going to spend a lot time being unhappy."



To Current's home page

Later news: A year later, MusicAmerica fans are still lobbying WGBH.


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