Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) management was skewered again and again during a four-hour hearing before a state legislative committee March 6 .
The Joint Audit Committee followed-up last year's state investigation into WPR's cancellation of a popular weekly program — About Cars, hosted by Matt Joseph.
According to state auditor Dale Cattanach, the lawmakers at the March 6 hearing repeatedly said they didn't want to micromanage the network, to which they gave $4 million this fiscal year. But at least one senator is calling for the head of station manager Jack Mitchell, and says she wants About Cars back on WPR.
Sen. Alice Clausing (D-Menomonie) is a fan of About Cars, along with other Wisconsinites who last year registered 1,500 calls and letters opposing the cancellation. About 50 of those fans attended the hearing; some left their homes at dawn and drove four hours to be there, says Cattanach. Several testified that WPR brushed off their complaints; others criticized Mitchell's management. When speakers made personal attacks or strayed into irrelevant areas, legislators gavelled them down, sources say. WPR employees did not testify, though Mitchell's bosses from the University of Wisconsin did. Said Cattanach: "Mitchell ... sat through it all. Much of it was personal. It must have been difficult to endure."
Mitchell says university officials did not think it appropriate for programmers to be grilled about decisions by state lawmakers. And they deliberately didn't line up testimonials. "The main reason for the hearing as far as I could see was catharsis for people who wanted to complain," Mitchell says.
But the controversy may not be over. Clausing and Sen. Joseph Wineke (D-Verona) want the university to intervene.
On the other hand, the initial audit of WPR, while somewhat critical of the network's handling of the About Cars matter, affirmed the network's right to make programming decisions without interference. And an editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal March 10 blasted Clausing for attempting to micromanage WPR.
How did the cancellation of a radio program turn into a matter for state legislators? For one thing, a lot of people liked About Cars, a call-in show that takes automobiles seriously and showcases Joseph's apparently awe-inspiring historical and mechanical knowledge. WPR replaced About Cars with the boisterous Car Talk. The show had the second highest average-quarter-hour Saturday rating for the WPR Ideas Network, and was a solid fundraiser. Some legislators, prompted by constituents, question why WPR would pull a proven program.
Also significant is Joseph's obsessive drive for vindication, even revenge. Though his program has found a place on a Madison commercial station, he continues to criticize WPR and Mitchell in his newsletter Radio Undercoat. He and his fans work to keep his case alive in the press as well. As local reporter Bob Whitby wrote in the Isthmus last fall: "WPR seemingly cannot produce a document relative to the case that doesn't land in [Joseph's] hands."
Joseph believes WPR's decision "was a plot to cancel the show from day one," not a mistake, but an "egregious act, evil." Though interim chancellor Al Beaver apologized on behalf of WPR after the hearing, Joseph still wants an investigation to uncover Mitchell's alleged misdeeds.
Part of Joseph's ire stems from the way WPR switched his show. In March 1996 he resisted attempts to reschedule his show from 9 a.m., Saturday to 3 p.m., but says he was still in negotiating mode when the station sent him a fax canceling his show. Mitchell says Joseph flatly refused to move his show, except to 8 a.m., a time unacceptable to WPR. At the hearing, university officials suggested WPR canceled the show because Joseph is a difficult person.
Clausing says the About Cars difficulty arises from WPR arrogance. She is still upset at the response she got when she called a WPR talk show.
"I am telling you from my heart that I have had this problem," she says. "I feel as frustrated as anyone and probably more[so], that first as a citizen, when I called the Tom Clark Show and said, 'Could you have a show on the About Cars situation?', he said, 'Have you called the station?' and ... then hung up on me." She says many constituents have similar complaints about the way they were treated. WPR has forgotten its status as a public institution, she says. "These people have got to realize who is paying their checks."
Sometimes, canceling radio programs causes trouble; other times, canceling radio programs really causes trouble.
Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) decided this past April to pull a local call-in program, About Cars, off the 12 stations in its Ideas Network. The move prompted about 1,500 letters and calls of protest, threats of a lawsuit by the deposed host, and--most significantly and surprisingly--an investigation ordered by the state legislature.
Though the subsequent report from Wisconsin's Legislative Audit Bureau, issued late in August, affirms WPR's right to make programming decisions, the audit represented an unusually activist state approach to monitoring a public radio station.
According to the audit: in spring 1996, PRI and NPR were both negotiating with the Wisconsin network for rights to distribute the WPR-produced Whad'Ya Know?. PRI had distributed Whad'Ya Know? in preceding years, but NPR wanted the comedy show for its emerging Saturday line-up. As part of its bid, NPR offered to give Wisconsin free carriage of its popular Car Talk, which the network had dropped in 1992. PRI more or less matched NPR's bid, offering a grant toward Car Talk. Wisconsin took PRI's offer. (NPR and PRI would not discuss their proposals.)
WPR Ideas staff decided to reschedule Saturday's 9 a.m. About Cars to 3 p.m., and insert Car Talk. But About Cars host Matthew Joseph strenuously objected, because 3-4 p.m. is a low-listening hour. In April, WPR canceled About Cars.
A slew of protests followed, and state legislators--at least one of them an About Cars fan--got in on the act.
"If you had asked me six months ago, would I have thought it was a good idea for the state legislature to be involved in any aspect of university business. . . let alone public radio, I would have said no," Joseph said recently. "But when nothing else works, when you believe a situation is impossible and cannot be reformed from within," a person's thinking can change. Joseph says he wants reforms other than the return of About Cars, which now airs on Madison commercial station WTDY. He wants public access to WPR's budget and program performance data, a mechanism to ask listeners what they want aired, and a method of rescuing programs via petition.
But the conflict clearly is personal and emotional--perhaps even corrosive--for Joseph, whose ire is directed at WPR's Director of Radio Jack Mitchell. He has said Mitchell should resign, and when discussing the radio manager freely applies descriptors such as "evil" and "abomination."
Joseph has at least two allies in the state senate, who can't understand why Mitchell would pull a popular show, and believe he was indulging a grudge against Joseph. Each lawmaker has requested hearings to follow up on the audit--not unusual, but bad news to those who wish the issue would die.
Mitchell says it was "a bad precedent, a dangerous thing," for Joseph to have appealed to the state legislature. "But the key is how the legislature reacts." If politicians were to command that WPR return About Cars to the air, "we would not necessarily have followed" the order, he says. "That's probably where we would have drawn the line. . . We cooperated with the audit. If they asked for a hearing, I'd be happy to cooperate with that. But if they said 'change it,' that's when the crisis would happen."
Though Joseph and Wineke say the audit report was about as harsh as they come, State Auditor Dale Cattanach doesn't support that interpretation. It was "mildly critical" of the process by which WPR decided to carry Car Talk and cancel About Cars, he says. "It's also important to point out that we said--because we very much wanted to avoid feeding any suspicion or accusation that we were micromanaging the station ... [that] Wisconsin Public Radio did have a process, it followed that process, [and] it has a right to make those decisions." The report also says the staff team that recommended cancellation of About Cars was lacking information, such as a letter in which Joseph laid out his position on contract matters. It also says Mitchell inappropriately deferred the final decision to staff, though Mitchell says he did not.
Any radio manager would understandably feel hampered if lawmakers intervened whenever listeners got upset about a programming change. But Mitchell believes the audit was an anomaly. "Matt Joseph is quite obsessed with this thing, and I think that his badgering is what caused it to happen," he says. "He was camping out in the offices of various legislators." The legislature didn't call for an audit a few years back when some listeners were upset--very, very upset--about WPR's cancellation of live Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, Mitchell points out. And that conflict, which has played out at a number of stations around the country, was "more substantive." It is worth noting, however, that some legislators did talk to Mitchell about the Met broadcasts, which he ultimately returned to the air--some say, under university pressure.
The large WPR network is protected, at least officially, by a policy adopted in 1985 by its licensees, the state Educational Communications Board and the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents. According to Mitchell, it guarantees protection against any undue outside influence. Which leaves room for interpretation: what constitutes undue interference? Also, points out fellow Wisconsin broadcaster David Edwards, g.m. of WUWM, Milwaukee, WPR's license doesn't belong to Jack Mitchell. "Wisconsin Public Radio is owned by the state and the Board of Regents. They're exercising their rights as owners in the way other station owners do." On the other hand, he says, the fact of the audit was "kind of scary."
The Wisconsin legislature has a robust audit function, compared to those of other states. But in seeking the investigation, Wineke and three others were not acting in a vacuum. Between the cancellation in late April and July 10, according to the audit, 443 people sent 534 letters to WPR about the decision--514 in protest, 20 in support. As of July 7, WPR had logged 986 telephone calls, 947 in protest, 39 in support. By that time, WPR had returned $2,601 in pledges. "I was a little surprised myself at the intensity of it and the numbers of individuals involved," says the auditor. "These weren't simply backyard mechanics. It went all the way from state legislators to university staff and faculty members to some fairly well-recognized names in community."
Joseph, who also teaches, writes about cars, works as a consultant, and speaks for a fee, believes the appeal of his show has to do with its breadth. It treats cars and the car industry as a microcosm of American society. "If people ... understand how things work--labor negotiations at this time of year, for example--they gain an understanding about an important aspect of American life, and might generalize from that." About Cars is an intelligent car program, he says, "not the Three Stooges, or the two stooges."
WPR added Car Talk for several reasons: its proven success on public radio; to strengthen consistency among its Saturday entertainment programs; and to exploit the affinity between Car Talk and Whad'Ya Know?. Mitchell also says he hopes to fill in big audience gaps between 10 a.m., when About Cars ended and 11 a.m., when Whad'Ya Know? started. He readily acknowledges that About Cars was a local hit. In terms of average-quarter-hour listenership, it had the second highest Saturday ratings on the Ideas Network. And it was one of the best fundraisers for Saturdays as well. "It was a successful program, and a program we wanted to keep," he says. "It only went away because he refused to change the time." Joseph says he did not want the proffered 3 p.m. slot, but was open to other times, and was taken aback when WPR cut off what he thought were continuing negotiations, firing him by fax.
What rights does a programmer with a loyal, enthusiastic audience have to a given slot? "None," says Mitchell. Joseph's contract states that WPR's scheduling is its prerogative, he says. "It's totally unambiguous. We put programs on when we want."Legislators have "every right" to be involved
Among the lawmakers, State Sen. Alice Clausing is perhaps the most upset about the cancellation of About Cars. She is a Joseph fan, amazed by his bank of knowledge, impressed that he answers questions without advance knowledge, unlike other radio "car guys" who get questions ahead of time. She is an antique car collector, and once called Joseph for advice about a car problem. An activist-turned-legislator, Clausing says WPR must be accountable to the public. "My concern is, why would you jerk a popular show off the air and not give consideration to the people that enjoyed it?," she says. "I'm under the assumption the airwaves are owned by the public." She is also miffed because, as an unscheduled caller, she tried to start an on-the-air discussion pertaining to About Cars with a local WPR host, and felt rebuffed. The public deserves better--some input, she says.
Though state auditor Cattanach says he doesn't see "much life left" in the About Cars controversy, Clausing vows there will be hearings — even if she has to conduct them in one of her own committees. Joseph, too, is still steeped in the conflict, and Wineke says he himself wants some questions answered. How much money has WPR had to return to disgruntled listeners? Did the team that made its ultimate recommendation to cancel About Cars have all relevant information, especially regarding what Joseph says was his flexible position on the time change? Is WPR paying a third of the Car Talk fees, despite the PRI grant? If so, did the team know that?
At bottom, however, Wineke doesn't see "heads rolling," only a push for "tighter management controls." He is not at all concerned that the inquiry might cross the line of oversight, into micromanagement. WPR is "using the state's good name," he says. "We have every right to be involved."
Web page revised July 27, 1997
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