Sunday, October 13, 2013

Programming Changes at WBAI include Thom Hartmann

Programming changes are underway at WBAI and Thom Hartmann is part of the new lineup. WBAI's Interim PD Andrew Phillips announced the changes in a  memo that said the following:

" Until further notice - we are importing a four evening a week general interest public affairs talk show - The Thom Hartmann Show - 9-10pm - . The change happens this Monday October 7th 9-10pm.

Thom is a former Air America host and therefore an established progressive talk show host with a growing national audience. The Thom Hartman Program runs very successfully with positive audience feed-back, five days a week on our sister station KPFK in Los Angeles. The program originates in Washington D.C. The program is free.

The Thom Hartman Program replaces the M-Th, 9-10pm strip. Most of these programs will be discontinued in their current format but there will be opportunities to produce segments in a new magazine style format to be announced following the drive.

In addition to changes in the 9-10pm line up, we are also revamping the week night 10-11pm lineup. Programs currently running 10-11pm will also be discontinued and asked to produce segments."

The following shows in the 9-10pm are being replaced by more mainstream liberal strip programming:
Asia Pacific ForumMuslim State of MindJoy of Resistance (feminist programming), Largest Minority (programming for the disabled), Haiti, the Struggle Continues, Rape Declaration (womens' issues)

The rationale is that WBAI is in such an urgent crisis that something must change or it will cease to exist altogether. It's hard to argue with that logic: WBAI might no longer be the voice of anything.

Still, this move is controversial to some. For example, there's a controversy on a New York Radio message board about whether or not Thom is an Obama supporter. Some have argued that he is, while others have pointed out that he has stood up to Obama on various occasions (such as his opposition to drone strikes). Regardless, we believe no one will argue with the idea that Thom does in the main support the Democratic Party, and in that sense he is no different from any of the folks on MSNBC. We expect to be hearing a lot more of "us vs. them" political talk, along with more defenses than criticisms of Obama Administration policies. Although this represents quite a departure for WBAI, having him on their air could mean that WBAI will begin to appeal to a wider, more mainstream audience than it has in the past. And we guess that's the idea. But will WBAI lose itself in the process?

Another point being made was that Thom is already on New York radio for 3 hours a day (he's on WWRL from 3 - 6pm), so his fans might be all Hartmanned out by the time 9pm rolls around.  And yet another issue is the removal of programs that are characterized as "the voice of the voiceless". The argument being made for their removal is that they are not being listened to anyway. But listen to what Gary Null has to say about that.
Hear now what Gary Null has to say
Gary Null said the following about WBAI's programming the other day:

"Ideally, you would have at least 14 programs a day that would be responsible for carrying the bulk of the station audience and the funding,  therefore leaving all the other hosts to do no fundraising and whatever the size of their audience was would be immaterial to their having a place at the station, because the very nature of noncommercial radio is that there are some programs that will define themselves by their quality of reaching out to some niche audiences that are not served at all. And that was Lew Hill's message: to be a voice of the voiceless. So you can't have every show be a blockbuster and you can't be mainstreaming your programs on themes that are already covered by NPR, CBS, FOX or MSNBC, because then you're nothing more than an extension of them.

What I like about BAI irrespective of my 37 1/2 years on the air, and all the arguments I've heard, is that you can hear some of the finest, most progressive and enlightening voices in the history of media. Irene Celeste. And there is no one I know of in the history of radio that has ever come close to Les Hixon's comparative religions programming. And you had these kinds of voices: Rick Harris as Arts Director-- phenomenal. Peter Boshan-- terrific. Mike Feder-- one of those extremely insightful human beings - he used to be a Program Director at BAI - who gives it to you the way you need to hear it, if not necessarily the way you want to hear it. So you look at all the dozens of outstanding voices over the years -- and we've had them -- and other Pacifica stations have had them as well. And then you get those who make you ask how the hell did these people ever get selected to be on the air, or on the board or anywhere else --  who shouldn't be there but that's the way it's always been and always will be. So what you do is select the programs you want to listen to. And we just need more of that, and right now we don't have it, that's our reality.

I've been keeping track of Arbitrons since I've been on the air because it's one way to see what direction you are going in, but also where the station is going.  And there was a time when we had over 187,000 people listening per day. We were right up there at the top. There was no one comparable to BAI. Today we're at about around 10,000 - 12,000, so we've lost about 90% of our audience.  And our core audience is getting older -  nearing 70, and you can't survive with a core audience of age 70 because they either move, retire, or die.

And also, there's a whole new generation of people out there that we've lost because we weren't quick enough to get organized and we had to have 16 meetings  and 300,000 Yes votes rubber stamped in Latin before the board could get anything done. I've never seen such inefficiency in my life! But again there's no standard they have to be held to. That's the wonderful thing about Pacifica - no matter how good or bad you are, there's zero standards and all it is, is arguments.

Then there's the quality of a Robert Knight, who stands up, does his show, wins the Polk Award, which is the highest award you can get, not because he is threatened, motivated  or cajoled -- that's his standard. If you want to be in Robert Knight's realm, you realize that you have to elevate that. I wouldn't ever recommend Robert Knight for MSNBC because he would have to lower his intellect to such a degree to get the people to even understand what he's saying. But when you listen to Robert Knight, you get that quality.

And you find it on other programs as well. You don't get that kind of programming elsewhere on culture for example, on opera, on music -- James Irsay for example. You hear these people and they're in such a league of their own. Wonderful programs. This gentleman who does the Saturday morning show about Broadway (David Rothenberg).  He kind of reminds me of the social activist Will Rogers. He has these homilies where he breathes this knowledge of  all these people he's been associated with in the theater.  He's a wonderful storyteller and you become enraptured by his stories. And then you want to go see this stuff he's talking about. So that's what we're about. And I'm happy about this."

We're happy about this too. But the times they are a'changin'. We only hope that WBAI will be able to survive this crisis, and emerge with its values intact.

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