Back Talk 

Music fans give Chicago Public Radio static about its new programming plan.

WBEZ general manager Torey Malatia had to face the music last week at a meeting of Chicago Public Radio's Community Advisory Council at Columbia College. He was scheduled to air his latest programming plans in the flesh for the first time, and an audience of about 70 was waiting to take him on. Last summer he'd announced that CPR would launch a second Chicago-area broadcast stream on 89.5 that would be all music, while 'BEZ would go all talk. Then while the public was digesting that news, he had a change of heart. In a letter posted a month ago on 'BEZ's Web site, he made a drastically different announcement: all music programs would be dropped from both stations. Beginning in 2007, CPR would be nothing but jabber.

That news prompted entertainment lawyer Hillel Frankel and jazz fan Mike Widell to create a protest Web site, savethemusiconwbez.org, which features a heated blog and a relatively tame online petition demanding that the "proposed programming changes be discussed and debated publicly . . . rather than allow a few individuals to unilaterally effect drastic change." Frankel says Malatia's plan will be detrimental to local venues, musicians, and music festivals, all of which "rely on 'BEZ to get the word out," a vital function that "only works in the context of a music program." By last week the petition had drawn 2,600 signatures with what Frankel says was minimal publicity.

At the meeting Ron Jones, CPR's vice president of programming, attempted to summarize the changes for the council members, some of whom wondered aloud if there couldn't have been a less drastic solution. "We'll create a public affairs service, 24-7, for WBEZ," Jones said, "and a new service that isn't found anywhere else in radio [for 89.5]. That service will consist of not programs but a series of modules that depict life in the community. We're working toward the notion of listener-generated programming. We're looking to attract nontraditional listeners. Our new service won't have a music format, but will contain lots of music in creative ways." (Partial translation, later provided by Jones: "You'll be able to hear musicians talk about their music.")

Malatia opened his own remarks by "reminding" the council that "we got to this point of view philosophically together. In 2000 we all engaged in a review of our strategic plan--a number of representatives from the Advisory Council participated--reflecting on whether we were indeed performing relevant service to our community." The 2000 census pointed to the growing diversity of the community, Malatia said, but "our programming was not reflecting that in any way whatsoever." 'BEZ, with an estimated 600,000 listeners, is serving just a sliver of its 7.6 million-member community, he continued, and research shows others are not listening because of style barriers and what he described as an "embarrassing" lack of relevance. And given recent changes in the industry--including consolidation, which has resulted in less local news and public affairs coverage, and the rise of Internet and satellite radio--the "notion of taking the second asset and turning that into an eclectic music station became much less appealing."

Instead, Malatia said, "we decided to be the place that brings people together, to specialize in public service, and to focus our attention and energy on one expertise." WBEZ will continue to carry national and international coverage while 89.5 will be "entirely local and regional" and will use acquisitions from independent producers. "We think this is the right thing to do with our mission," he added, quoting a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation statement that had inspired him: "If radio is not a healing and reconciling force...then we have failed." Then he took off on his own: "We're building a service that's going to be a resource for every single member of this community. The course is set, and I say that speaking for all staff, speaking for all board. The task is a noble one."

That elicited a fiery reply from Pete Kimball, the first audience member to grab his two minutes of floor time: "The last time I got told there was a noble goal--we should trust that everything had been thought of, and you'll love it when you see it--we ended up in Iraq." Oak Park resident Larry Spivack warned that CPR is "going to lose thousands and thousands of subscribers." Others complained that the programming was narrowing even as its spectrum was increasing, that occasional and unpredictable use of music would drive the music audience away, and that nobody at CPR had bothered to ask listeners and station members what they want. When asked if this was a done deal or if there was still room for input, Malatia replied, "This is a done deal in which you have input." Only Alva Lewis, a newcomer to Chicago, said the changes were a good idea, noting her belief that public radio is there to give us not what we want but what we need. No examples of the new concept, which apparently falls somewhere between public access TV and This American Life, were offered, and its fuzziness brought charges of rhetoric without substance. At press time, the plan hadn't been announced or discussed on the CPR airwaves.

Critics of former music director Chris Heim (who was let go when the new plan was announced) opined that Malatia, who ignored complaints about her programming for years, was now throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Mark Ruffin, who was fired as a 'BEZ on-air personality in 2000, said Listen Here, the jazz talk show he cohosts with Reader contributor Neil Tesser, is broadcast in 86 cities but "can't get on the air here." HotHouse director Marguerite Horberg brought up Chicago's "historical role in the development of jazz and blues," and Bob Koester, founder of Delmark Records and owner of the Jazz Record Mart, said if there's been a decline in contributions from jazz listeners over the years "it's because you've ruined the programming. Chicago's the number one or two center for avant-garde jazz, and you don't play it."

Frankel and Widell say they'll step up their efforts now, and hope to have thousands more signatures by the next 'BEZ board meeting, scheduled for 8 AM Friday, June 16, at the station's Navy Pier offices. "We want to give people a chance to express themselves on this," says Widell. "It is supposed to be public radio."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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