Thursday, December 29, 2005

Public(ity) Radio

I don't remember exactly how or when I stumbled onto
KEXP, the public radio station out of Seattle that I listen to more than all other on-air and online stations and services combined. It is the very top of my bookmarks, and I tune in reflexively when I turn on my pc. I've been a member since I began listening, contributing $100 per each of the three fund drives they have each year, and have a fine collection of their t-shirts (which used to be cooler than they've been recently). Here is a list of who was played in the 10am -11am PST hour yesterday:

Harvey Danger
Teenage Prayers
My Morning Jacket
Magnetic Fields
Pizzicato Five
Yo La Tengo
Velvet Underground

The DJs solicit and play requests and often laud their listeners for their loyalty and contributions and basically invite us to believe that we are part of the "KEXP family," a term used on-air. I feel safe in saying that most of the loyal listeners not only like to think that's true, most probably believe that it's true. And of course, it isn't.

I've known (I'm sorry, I can't tell you how I know) that KEXP has been suffering internal turmoil of most of the past year. To a certain extent, perhaps like all radio stations, public or commercial, like all businesses, like all families, internal turmoil is an inevitability. (Here, btw, is a Wiki history of KEXP.) Jealousies, territorial spats, naked grabs for influence, compounded by institutional ambitions, all lead to palace intrigue at best, destructive overreach and undermining most predictably, implosion and collective failure at worse, and all are possibilities at KEXP today.

The two protagonists in the story, General Manager Tom Mara and superstar DJ John in the Morning (JITM), both seem determined, perhaps for different reasons, to make KEXP the most influential radio station in new rock music. Mara, as should a GM, watches the bottom line, though what the bottom line for a public radio station should be beyond both self-suffiency and having enough money to expand services within self-suffiency is open to debate. Mara has made bad financial decisions (beyond dispute) and bad on-air decisions (my opinion), and the current decisions that have led in no small part to the dissension at KEXP are meant to financially alleviate the effects of his past business decisions.

JITM is a different issue. I'm truly ambivalent towards JITM. He is, without doubt, a highly engaging, talented DJ. His musical taste, while not world, not retrospective enough for a fart like me, is clearly resonant with his target audience. His on-air persona, flippant, smart, offering snippets into his real life (new father tribulations, hassles of late-20isms, anecdotes of cereal spilt and coffee burnt and broadcasting with head colds, and pieces of inside baseball - malfunctioning CD players and microphones gone bad), suggest an intimacy between JITM and his listeners, a confidentiality and friendship between him and them. He emails out a daily newsletter to over 10,000, and his listeners - The Morning Faithful - have their own fan site.

I don't buy the act completely, and neither do all KEXP listeners, many of whom seem aghast at JITM's salary compared not only to his colleagues at KEXP (his dwarfs all others) but some commercial on-air talent. I don't begrudge KEXP for paying to keep a talent that brings in the lion's share of donations, so money isn't the issue for me. JITM is the "friend" who tells you (and plays you) what he thinks you want to hear (accurately in most cases) as long as you give him what he wants, and part of what he thinks you want to hear is that you are more important in the scheme of the station than just the donations you make to keep the station running.

It shouldn't, but it does bother me that KEXP in general and JITM in particular, after telling me I'm a family member, after talking to me personally and intimately as though we are good friends, after coaxing money out of me under those pretenses, does not consult me, consult its listeners, does not even consider consulting us, on how our money is spent. (WETA in Washington did the same thing, taking my money for support of their classical music programming for years and then abruptly, without consulting their donors, switching format to exactly that of WAMU, all talk all news.)

I understand that in-house decisions are made in-house and hope they are made with the listeners' and the station's best interests in mind, but I'd like, if not a vote, at least to be treated respectfully in regards to transparency. Yes, I understand I'm not getting transparency either. In-house fighting remains in-house too. So KEXP, JITM, keep playing the music, I'll keep listening as long as I like what you're playing, I'll contribute as long as I listen. Please though, stop telling me that I'm your buddy, that I'm one of the family. Because, as you could tell me, I'm not.


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