Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Public Radio's Self-Inflicted Wounds

November 11, 2008, 8:15 a.m.; November 12, 2008, 7:25 a.m.; November 18, 2008, 7:00 a.m., 10:00 a.m. (Robert Dana's op ed column; comment on Daily Iowan story); November 20, 2008, 6:30 a.m. (The Gazette editorial); November 21, 2008, 11:30 a.m. (shock and awe from UN support)

"Dead From Prairie Lights" -- The Sequel

[Editorial cartoon credit: The Press-Citizen's talented Bob Patton; "Prairie Lights, Unplugged," Posted November 11, 2008, 4:05 p.m. CST, published November 12, 2008, p. A18.]

November 21: "Shock and Awe": The IPI terrorists have dug in and show no signs of being moved by the surge of support for "Live From Prairie Lights."

They've left the show's supporters no option but to appeal to the United Nations for assistance. Thankfully, notwithstanding the UN's obligations in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the moment, UNESCO has not only responded to the supporters' appeal, but done so with dispatch. Chris Rhatigan, "Iowa City a 'City of Literature;' First American city designated by UNESCO," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 21, 2008, p. A1:

"The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, has designated Iowa City as the world's third City of Literature. It is the first American city to be awarded with the distinction. It also becomes part of UNESCO's Creative Cities Network, which includes major world cities like Berlin, Buenos Aires, Seville and Montreal."
If this UN bunker-buster isn't enough to shake some sense into Iowa Public Radio, I've been told the "Live From Prairie Lights" supporters have already received some positive response from the feelers they've sent out to the Vatican regarding possible intercession by the Pope. (And see, Mary Harrington, "Iowa City Named World's Third City of Literature," The Daily Iowan, November 21, 2008, p. A1 [headlined in the print edition as, "IC Officially Literary; Iowa City is now a City of Literature, Joining Just Two Others Areas Globally"].

Hopefully the IPI "senior team" will come to recognize the distinction, eventually pressed upon our President and his approach to his unprovoked invasion of Iraq, between steadfastness of purpose and dumb-stubborn.

IPI Senior Team: Bring back "Live From Prairie Lights" and this blog will award you a "Hats Off Award" for maturity. Otherwise, if you won't respond to the United Nations you're going to be confronting God Herself.

November 20: The "coalition of the willing" expands, and "the surge" presses on against the terrorists of IPI, with The Gazette's editorial this morning:

They told us this could happen, but it hurt when Iowa Public Radio announced last week it had canceled “Live from Prairie Lights” after an 18-year run. It’s just the kind of change listeners feared when state regents announced the merger of Iowa’s university radio stations a few years ago.

We understand programming changes will continue as Iowa Public Radio works to serve a statewide audience, but we want public radio decision-makers to remember it’s the local content that makes the public’s stations special. . . .

“Live from Prairie Lights” was uniquely Iowa City and uniquely Iowa — the kind of show we can’t buy on syndication and the kind of show that can only be supported by a public station.

IPR can’t base all its programming decisions on bringing 100,000 listeners to any given show. It also must support shows that can’t exist anywhere else. . . .
Editorial, "Keep the local in Iowa Public Radio," The Gazette, November 20, 2008, p. A4.

November 18: Like Treasury Secretary Paulson's bailout plans, the loss of "Live From Prairie Lights" is the theft that keeps on giving -- faceless, bean-counting bureaucrats, without consultation, steal our valuable, local, public radio program, but thereby stimulate a vigorous community discussion and re-commitment to our literary traditions. So, for the latest in the saga of "How many IPR Executives does it take to screw 'Prairie Lights,'" Robert Dana joins the team of Iowa's Poet Laureates who are modifying Eleanor Roosevelt's advice and lighting candles while cursing the darkness. Robert Dana, "Nothing else like 'Prairie Lights,'" Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 18, 2008, p. 9A ("[C]anceling this historic, intelligent show in favor of lighter fare with more listenership seems to be just one more step in the commercialization and general dumbing down of Iowa Public Radio. . . . Put simply, the present brain trust of IPR has no real sense of the literary value of Iowa City, of the University of Iowa and its writing programs or of 'Live from Prairie Lights." Nor of its pervasive influence in Iowa and elsewhere in the world. Or IPR knows and really doesn't care, preferring to believe in dollar signs and statistics.").

And, speaking of lighting candles, the following comment appeared this morning on The Daily Iowan's site in connection with its earlier story about the cancellation:

"posted 11/18/08 @ 1:24 AM CST

"This is really unfortunate. I first caught Live from Prairie Lights back in the mid-90s when I was living in Arkansas - the show used to be syndicated in a handful of markets around the country, and I never missed it. I ended up living in Iowa City for about 5 years, and attended maybe 50 or 60 readings live. Since leaving, I catch the show almost every week via the Internet.

"I can only hope that this isn't some harbinger of the end of Prairie Lights as well (I still wear my now very faded T-shirt proudly). I'll light a candle tonight for the independent book sellers everywhere."

November 12: Yesterday's blog entry, below, inspired by Iowa Public Radio's cancellation of "Live From Prairie Lights," dealt with the history of educational radio in general and WSUI in particular, the original mission of these stations, and what I believe to be the unfortunate consequences of decades of deviation from that mission -- for which the death of "Live From Prairie Lights" is only the latest example.

Given the rather substantial amount of interest in the subject, including the number of hits on the blog yesterday, I'm going to retain it as today's entry as well.

Since then, in addition to Bob Patton's editorial cartoon, above, the Press-Citizen has entered the fray, again, with a lengthy and thoughtful evaluation of its own: Editorial, "A chance to do more with Iowa City's strong literary relationships," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 12, 2008, p. A18, noting, among other things, the irony of the literary program's cancellation "At a time when UNESCO is almost ready to designate Iowa City as a 'City of Literature.'" (And see this morning's letter, Judy Hendershot, "IPR No Longer Serving Our Needs," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 12, 2008, p. A18.)

It might also have mentioned in this connection the local "Stories Project." I (and the Project's leaders themselves) have serious questions about it. Nicholas Johnson, "Tell Me a Story: The Stories Project," August 30, 2008. So I don't mean this reference to be either "endorsement" or "opposition." But it is further evidence of the extent to which local residents think of themselves as a literary community, and would like others to think of them that way as well.

Yesterday's blog entry focused on Iowa Public Radio's Jonathan Ahl (check out his blog at http://ahlthingsconsidered.blogspot.com/) simply because his was the name associated with the cancellation in the press. At 12:07 p.m. yesterday he added a comment, below, explaining that the decision was, in fact, made by the "unanimous IPR senior team." It's not clear to me whether that makes the program's death sentence better or worse in terms of the concerns I and others have raised, but it's certainly understandable why he would not want to take Ahl of the responsibility for it.

At 2:32 p.m. he added another comment, below, saying, "To be clear, I agree with most of the philosophies and positions that you lay out in this blog."

As the Press-Citizen reports, however, agreement with "philosophies" is unlikely to be translated into a reassessment of IPR's pragmatic dilemmas or program preferences.

I am not a radio program creator or producer, but as a listener it seems to me there is a distinction between what I will call the category of "magazine programming," such as NPR's "Morning Edition" and the afternoon "All Things Considered," and IPR's "The Exchange" and "Talk @ 12," on the one hand, and what I will call "subject specific programming," such as "On the Media," "Car Talk," and "Speaking of Faith." It is noteworthy that, after a quick look at the WSUI schedule I don't see any subject specific programming being produced by IPR -- except for "Live From Prairie Lights." And now that is to be cancelled. If this is more than a coincidence it might be something the "IPR senior team" would want to rethink some time.

As mentioned in yesterday's entry, below, the BBC runs circles around American radio -- NPR as well as commercial -- by any and all measures, so it may not be totally useful to choose it as a benchmark. But it's nonetheless both fair and relevant to note that among the BBC World Service's 58 programs listened to by citizens around the world on all continents is its literary program, "World Book Club."

Coming up with a program format that is both sufficiently substantive to avoid embarrassment for an "educational" radio station, and sufficiently interesting to hold an audience, is not easy. I don't mean to pretend that it is.

But it is inconceivable to me, given Iowa City's resources, that it would be impossible to come up with a successful program with a literary focus.

Distinguished writers from around the world are in residence as part of the UI "International Writing Program" -- indeed some of them are on the Press-Citizen's op ed page this very morning. More writers are here for the "Iowa Writers Workshop" two-year residency program. There are other writers who make Iowa City their home. There are the professors who work with these programs. There are the authors whom the book publishers are happy to send here to speak, sign, and sell books -- formerly as a part of "Live From Prairie Lights." Most of the heavy hitter lecturers who are brought to campus are also authors. There are innovative programs teaching writing -- a need throughout Iowa's schools -- in our K-12 schools, and university (including our law school). There would be reports on the progress of the "Stories Project."

As I say, it is inconceivable that there is not somehow, some way, to draw upon all of these resources (and the more creative ideas from those whose profession it is to come up with creative programming ideas) to come up with a successful literary program from one of the world's few, and great, "cities of literature."

In the 1930s most radio programs were broadcast before live audiences -- as are some videotaped situation comedy TV shows today. "A Prairie Home Companion" and "Michael Feldman's 'Whad'ya Know?'" are two examples of that old model carried by IPR. The only locally produced audience radio shows that immediately come to mind are Ben Kieffer's "Java Blend" -- and "Live From Prairie Lights." So that's another reason why killing "Live From Prairie Lights" will be a significant loss in the IPR offering.

Here is the blog entry as it appeared yesterday morning, November 11:

Jonathan Ahl, Iowa Public Radio's News Director, arrived in Iowa from out of state less than four months ago. However, he feels he already knows enough about Iowa, Iowa City, and the University of Iowa's role in the history of broadcasting, to kill one of the most uniquely creative and educational radio programs to come out of this literary community: "Live From Prairie Lights." Peter Gustin, "IPR kills 'Live from Prairie Lights,'" Daily Iowan, November 10, 2008, A1.

"Live From Prairie Lights" was a community event -- whether you went to the talk while it was being broadcast, or listened from home. It got folks into an independent bookstore (as distinguished from Wal-Mart's book selection or those of the chains). It gave authors and publishers a little more of a chance to make it in this electronic age. It gave readers a chance to meet the authors, buy their books, and get their autograph, in a social setting where they could visit with neighbors with similar interests.

Of course, once the likes of Jonathan Ahl decided that a program that included "live" in its name could just as well be taped and broadcast at off-peak times, needless to say the program lost some of its allure and role in the community and in the world of books.

Its recently announced death is reminiscent of the fate of the news anchor, in Paddy Chayefsky's 1976 movie "Network": "Howard Beale, the first person in the history of television to be killed for bad ratings."

For that is apparently the crime that prompted Judge Ahl to unilaterally hand down the death sentence for this extraordinary program. See Jeff Charis-Carlson, "'Live from Prairie Lights' no longer," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 10, 2008, p. A11 (an interview with Ahl). For a contrary view see this morning's op ed column, Marvin Bell, "Some dim bulbs at public radio," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 11, 2008, p. A9.

WSUI-AM was not only one of the nation's first educational radio stations, it was one of the country's first radio stations, period. ("WSUI had its beginning in 1919 in the basement of the University of Iowa Physics Building. Starting with the operation of a 10-watt transmitter under the call sign 9YA, the station is the oldest educational broadcasting station west of the Mississippi River, making the University of Iowa a pioneer in public broadcasting.") Not incidentally, the University of Iowa also played a major role in the early development of television.

Educational AM radio stations, and subsequently those located on the FM frequencies we set aside for "educational" FM stations (such as KSUI-FM) were to have four characteristics:

1. An extension of the educational mission of the university, providing educational programming for Iowans who are not, as well as those who are, enrolled as students

2. Local programming, drawing from, and designed to serve, the needs, tastes and interests of its community of license

3. Stations operated under the supervision of, and financially supported by, their licensees: a university or other educational institution

4. Programming and announcements devoid of ties to commercial institutions or commercialism
This Friday, November 14, will mark the 86th anniversary of the first broadcast from the BBC. The man who set its tone, and served as its director-general from 1922 to 1938, Lord John Reith, "envisaged an independent British broadcaster able to educate, inform and entertain the whole nation, free from political interference and commercial pressure." "History of the BBC."

The BBC has, for the most part, held fast to that mission over the years. Its "World Service" radio remains, today, not only one of the best but sometimes the only, source for American listeners looking for in-depth reporting of the really important stories not only from Europe, Asia, and Africa, but from America as well. From "Global Business" to "From Our Own Correspondent" the BBC really has no equal.

WSUI, or rather 9YA as it then was, was already on the air when Lord Reith's BBC began broadcasting.

During the 1920s Iowa's own Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, called a series of "radio conferences" in Washington that laid the foundation for what became the standards applied by the Radio Commission of 1927 -- ultimately to become the Federal Communications Commission in 1934.

Of course we went about the structuring and regulation of the broadcasting industry, and the ultimate creation of "educational broadcasting," in our own uniquely American way. But there was a remarkable level of agreement around the world as to the potential, and responsibility, of broadcasters.

Take the matter of commercialization.

Then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover's oft-quoted objection was, "It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service [for news, for entertainment, for education] to be drowned in advertising chatter." Herbert Hoover, The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover: The Cabinet and the Presidency 140 (1952), quoted in Erik Barnouw, A Tower in Babel: A History of Broadcasting in the United States 96 (1966). Apparently the broadcasters and other members of the first Radio Conference agreed. Their Recommendation III.E. provided, "It is recommended that direct advertising in radio broadcasting service be absolutely prohibited . . .." Report of Department of Commerce Conference on Radio Telephony, Rad. Serv. Bull., May 1, 1922. See Nicholas Johnson, "Forty Years of Wandering in the Wasteland," Federal Communications Law Journal, May 2003, p. 521, 527-28, n. 17.

WSUI once broadcast classes, live from lecture halls on campus (including my father's popular "general semantics" course). Such use of WSUI was, presumably, considered a part of the University's mission of providing education, for free, to those well beyond its campus.

WSUI's operations were financed by the Iowa Legislature and University of Iowa -- not commercials ("corporate underwriting"). As legislators and university administrators increasingly failed to see the value of this asset, they cut its funding (and, not incidentally, later sold off WOI-TV in Ames). With no alternative, programs were increasingly interrupted to pitch products and services -- not to mention "week-long commercials" ("pledge drives") begging for funds.

Before the arrival of National Public Radio the programs were in large measure of necessity, as well as by design, "local." Now the distinctive local qualities of WSUI, WOI and KUNI, and their sister stations, have been deliberately destroyed with the creation of something called "Iowa Public Radio" run by faceless and heartless bureaucrats who know little of these stations' history, mission, and contribution -- and seemingly care less.

Killing "Live From Prairie Lights" is only the latest evidence of the extent to which those entrusted with responsibility for the protection, preservation and healthy growth of this precious if fragile institution have increasingly failed it over the years.

(As evidence that we're not doing much better with today's technology, the ability to deliver education "online" -- an idea I pushed to no avail 25 years ago for the UI -- see Erin Jordan, "Professors collect big bucks for online classes," Des Moines Register, November 9, 2008. I fear the "solution" now in place carries with it as many difficulties as the supposed "problem.")


"Ratings" are an appropriate metric for commercial broadcasting, stations in the business of selling their audience (the product) to the advertiser (the consumer) at a cost-per-thousand (audience members) in an effort to maximize profit.

They are not an appropriate metric for educational, expressly "non-commercial," radio.

Public access cable television programming had to deal with the same issue. Some programmers in the early days, not to mention city and cable company administrators, wanted to create network-entertainment-style programming and measure its contribution by ratings. They came to see that there were other values from community-members-created video programming than mere audience numbers -- including such things as conversations among retirement home residents at various locations around an urban area, church services thereby available to shut-ins, the ability of the fire chief to hold remote "staff meetings" with all of a community's fire houses, or even smoke detectors in cable subscribers' homes connected by cable television (that could, not incidentally, reduce fire insurance rates for a community by as much as 50%).

Should C-SPAN be canceled because its ratings are less than those for ABC's "Dancing With the Stars"? Of course not. It serves an entirely different purpose. So it is with educational radio stations. They're not in the business of selling their audiences to advertisers and their programming should not be evaluated by administrators as if they were.

I have two major points to make about ratings -- illustrated, you will not be surprised to discover, with two stories.

CBS' "60 Minutes." Early in its history CBS executives wanted to cancel "60 Minutes." Why? Well, of course: "bad ratings." As an FCC commissioner I had no right or power to be dictating network programming. But I knew a hit when I saw one, and encouraged the network to stick with it, give it time. What happened? Here's how the program's executives relate the history today:

60 Minutes, the most successful broadcast in television history, celebrates its 40th anniversary in September 2008. Offering hard-hitting investigative reports, interviews, feature segments and profiles of people in the news, the CBS News magazine has been the number-one program a record five times. It also finished among Nielsen's annual top-10 list for 23 consecutive seasons - a record never even approached by another program. 60 Minutes finished the 2007-08 season as the most-watched news broadcast, making Nielsen's weekly top-10 list 16 times over 33 telecasts.

The program has won more Emmy Awards than any other primetime broadcast, including a special Lifetime Achievement Emmy. It has also won virtually every other broadcast journalism award, plus 15 Peabody awards for excellence in television broadcasting. In the last year, 60 Minutes has won all of the major awards: four Emmys, a DuPont-Columbia University Silver Baton, a Peabody, an RTNDA Edward R. Murrow award, an RFK Journalism Award and a Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

60 Minutes was created in 1968 by Don Hewitt and premiered on CBS September 24th of that year.
"Program Facts," CBS' "60 Minutes."

My point is obviously not that if only we'll stick with "Live From Prairie Lights" long enough it will someday have ratings equivalent to "60 Minutes." So what is my point?

The moral of this story is simply that hasty executive decisions to cancel shows (or murder Howard Beale) for "bad ratings" often become self-inflicted wounds. And if that is sometimes true for commercial broadcasting it is certainly true for educational broadcasting.

I never had that many conversations with Richard Nixon. He was not my favorite president. But I recall, in connection with this "Live From Prairie Lights" flap, an insight of his that stuck with me over the years. We were talking about media power in general, and public broadcasting in particular, when he said, "Do you realize that I can reach more people from the smallest radio station in Mississippi than if I were to speak in the local stadium?"

It influenced my accepting invitations to appear as a guest on what were then the TV networks' late night talk shows. In order to reach as many people as would see one of those shows, I calculated, I'd need to speak to a room-full of people at 8:00 a.m., 9:00 a.m., and every hour throughout the day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year -- for three hundred years!

The Daily Iowan, linked above, reports that "Live From Prairie Lights" has an audience of 1600. As Marvin Bell writes this morning, linked above, it may be far more than that. Audience measurement is a notoriously inexact science, especially when dealing with listeners in fairly small markets. But put that aside.

Jonathan Ahl told Jeff Charis-Carlson, also linked above, that another of the reasons for the program's cancellation was the cost of its staff. This is a staff, I should note, of primarily one: Julie Englander.

OK. Now for the comparison.

I am a big fan of the UI Lecture Committee's efforts in bringing headliners to our campus. (Disclosure: I used to do a lot of public lecturing myself through the Leigh Lecture Bureau in New York and Princeton.)

We often get audiences of 1000, 1500, or more to attend these lectures in the IMU ballroom. The lectures are free to the audience, but not cheap for the committee. Lecture fees of $10,000 to $25,000 are common. We paid, I believe, $35,000 for Karl Rove.

You get my point, right?

I don't know what we're paying Julie Englander, but I can't imagine it's many multiples of a single lecture fee. And how many people are we reaching? Roughly what we reach with a public lecture. And what do we have to pay these "lecturers"? Zilch, nada, zero.

How many professors do we have who are lecturing to 1600 students at a time?

Utilizing another technology, we are apparently paying them $280 per online student.

If Julie were paid $280 for every member of her 1600 audience for whom she is "teaching literature," she would be pulling down $448,000 per semester.

By university standards for class enrollment -- or even public lectures -- 1600 is an enormous audience.

Any way you look at it -- by the numbers, from the perspective of history, or with the application of a little common sense -- canceling "Live From Prairie Lights" is a dumb move from what Marvin Bell calls "a dim bulb." "And that's all she wrote."

Let's hope it's not "Ahl he wrote."

# # #


Anonymous said...

I recall there was a recent pledge drive for Iowa Public Radio. It's interesting that a significant local programming cut was made soon after the drive. I am sure many people pledged to support local programming, but alas it looks like more if it will go to national programming like Morning Edition.

Jonathan Ahl said...

I understand the frustration with Iowa Public Radio's decision on Live From Prairie Lights. I'm not going to try to change anyone's mind on this, as intelligent people are certainly entitled to their opinions.

But let me get a couple things straight. I did not unilaterally make a decision on Live From Prairie Lights. It was a unanimous decision from IPR's senior team. We did a lot of research, discussed options, and made a decision.

I don't expect everyone to agree with the decision, but I would hope there would be some interest in getting the information correct. Calling me "Judge Ahl" and saying I handed down a "death sentence" may make for solid vitriol and make me the convienent fall guy for a decision you don't agree with, but its not accurate.

I'm happy to discuss the rationale of the decision with whomever would care to engage me in open and honest disucssion.

One more thing -- yes I have lived in Iowa for only five months, and yes I live in Des Moines, not Iowa City. But I uprooted my family to come here because I saw great communities that I could help serve in some way. I love my new state, and I'm honored to live here. I hope to earn the right to call myself an Iowan.

Lance Strate said...

I know this is tangential, but on the subject of public radio and general semantics, and your father Nick, here's a link to a Connecticut Public Radio program that I was on this morning that was devoted to general semantics: http://www.cpbn.org/program/where-we-live/episode/general-semantics

Jonathan Ahl said...

To be clear, I agree with most of the philosphies and positions that you lay out in this blog.

I think anyone who has an interest in holding broadcasters accountable to tenants of serving the public through the public airwaves would find the post interesting.

Anonymous said...

The answer here is clear: Low Power FM.

LPFM offers the greatest chance for community programming like those provided. IPR is just another corporation at this point. They depend on corporations.

If Iowa City wants programming like this, its going to take community minded folk to establish a low power FM station and run it.