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A different direction for WBEZ 

One with more listener-generated content, more audience participation, and fewer paid contributors

If you believe the problem with WBEZ is that experts talking and you lapping up their wisdom is the wrong way to program a radio station, the good news is that the WBEZ's managers agree with you. The news that's not so good is that this epiphany is driven by falling revenues.

Last week, "dueling" theater critics Jonathan Abarbanel and Kelly Kleiman sat down with station manager Torey Malatia, executive producer Justin Kaufmann, and managing editor Sally Eisele and were told their services were no longer required, though it would be nice if they'd occasionally donate them. Other contributors were told the same thing.

"They said, 'It's because we have so much respect for your work that we're doing this face-to-face,'" says Kleiman. "'Everybody else is getting e-mail or a phone call.'"

The tone of the meeting, Abarbanel tells me, was simple and poignant: "We hate to do this, but times are really tough." Says Kleiman: "There was quite a bit of that. But in fact—and Justin was the one charged with saying this—the station is going in a different direction. They want listener-generated content. They want audience participation. They want call-ins. Given that, they don't have any use for experts. Justin said, 'If we want an expert on theater we can call [the Tribune's] Chris Jones to come in for free.'

"The traditional WBEZ format is that lots of highly educated people talked about their specialties. That's over. That was my understanding of the meeting."

Yes, says Kaufmann, it's over. "The idea where we present a piece of journalism—15 minutes with the mayor, and the host would act like Charlie Rose or John Callaway—we're trying to change that. The mayor comes on and you ask the questions. You have to train your audience to do that. My first goal is to get audience interaction, so everyone knows it's a show you call in to. We're just about there. Every local show has to have the audience involved in some way. They call in, or it's 'Ray left this comment on Facebook.' The goal is audience interaction on every single show."

He allows that "most city officials don't like that sort of stuff. Mayor Emanuel doesn't want to come on for an hour and take calls."

Not from your engaged audience! I say.

"Yeah," says Kaufmann. But because they are so engaged, "that's exactly why we can pull it off."

As promising as this strategic shift in programming sounds, there's nothing about it that can't coexist with dueling theater critics and WBEZ's other talented freelancers. The reason so many of them are out the door is that the money's dried up.

"They're being much more realistic about their priorities," says Kaufmann, speaking of WBEZ's high brass. "It's not a good economic outlook. Our numbers have been down for years for what we get from our underwriters. The board is being realistic."

He won't say what his freelance budget is. But when trying to convey the situation to the Dueling Critics—and throwing out numbers that he tells me were hypothetical (Kleiman didn't hear them that way)—he asked them to think about a budget being cut by 90 percent.

"It's not like we just cut the Dueling Critics," says Kaufmann. He rattled off names. Also gone are bloggers Claire Zulkey (pop culture), Louisa Chu (food), Chris Bentley (environment), John Schmidt (local history), and Cheryl Raye Stout (sports), though Kaufmann said she may continue at WBEZ as a podcaster. Achy Obejas (city life) resigned to become writer in residence at Mills College in California, Nico Lang (LGBTQ) in favor of a job in New York City.

"These are all people I brought in," says Kaufmann. "So I'm pretty sad about it."

The WBEZ blog force has its roots in Vocalo, which was Malatia's failed attempt in 2008 to launch a separate public radio station for a younger audience. I didn't have many kind words for Vocalo, but the blog network Kaufmann put together there was an exception. I called it "small but formidable" and "composed of experienced journalists with followings and reputations."

One of them was media reporter Rob Feder, who'd resigned from the Sun-Times in 2008. When Vocalo hired Feder a year later, it was like a "barrel of buckshot fired at every critic, like me, who'd ever snickered at it," I wrote. "Take us seriously, it said."

But when Kaufmann and his Vocalo bloggers moved to WBEZ in 2010, Feder didn't make the trip. And at the staid and far older parent station, it wasn't clear even to some bloggers what role WBEZ wanted them to play. "I never had a great idea of what their strategy was for the blog network," Zulkey tells me. She had the impression that management wanted more from their bloggers than they were getting, but what that meant never became clear.

The tale told by Abarbanel of his years at WBEZ is a story of someone wisely hanging on to his day job (drama critic for Windy City Times) while enjoying whatever showcase he got at WBEZ, where the smart thing was to go with the flow. He started out there in the mid-90s, contributing pro bono critiques to Victoria Lautman's Artistic License. That show soon ended, and Abarbanel was switched to WBEZ's newly launched morning magazine program, Eight Forty-Eight. In 2007 Abarbanel was asked if he'd like a sidekick. Kleiman by then had been freelancing arts pieces for a few years, and she said she'd like to review some plays. Abarbanel does that, she was told. And she says she replied, "OK, but if you're ever interested in a 'Jane, you ignorant slut' thing, I'm available."

WBEZ was interested and teamed them up. "I didn't want to give up the solo spot," Abarbanel says. "I did it with reluctance—to be a team player. But it worked."

Not that the station left well enough alone. When Kaufmann got to WBEZ he asked them to blog, each posting once a week independently of the other. Abarbanel says they were told that, on the air, instead of simply reviewing shows, they should use those shows to explore big issues in Chicago theater. And they should tie their blogs to whatever it was they were saying on the air. But their on-air appearances, originally every Friday, became more infrequent.

"So the blog ended," says Abarbanel.

"It didn't get any traction," says Kaufmann.

The Dueling Critics were shifted to podcasting. A week before they sat down with Malatia, Kaufmann, and Eisele, they were told informally that their podcasting was over, but there might still be on-air work for them. But at the meeting Kaufmann clarified that. There might be pro bono on-air work for them discussing theater on WBEZ just as there might be for Chris Jones, or the Sun-Times's Hedy Weiss, or the Reader's Tony Adler.

"We'll still have theater," Kaufmann promises me. "I wouldn't be surprised if we have it every week. But it'll be on our producers to go out and find people. It's unfortunate that I can't pay them, but no other radio station does that."

They say you'd been paying them each $600 a month, I tell Kaufmann.

"Yeah, I had their backs."

My reading of the situation is that Kleiman is not eager to return her talents to WBEZ for nothing.

Pay someone and you spoil them, I reflect sadly.

"I know," says Kaufmann. "It's a bummer."

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