But it wasn't just the jazz community who were blind sided by the decision made by Temple University officials. It seems station personnel had also been kept out of the information loop. As late as September 5th, fundraising letters were still being sent out to subscribers of the station by general manager Tobias Poole asking for renewals and monetary increases in individual memberships saying that "Your membership support helps to ensure that the award-winning and wonderfully unique programming you hear on our station will always be there." The letters listed some of the popular programs being offered such as the "Jazz Happy Hour," the "All Request Hour," the bebop show "Salt Peanuts," "Under One Sun," and the very popular blues program "Shades of Blue," all of which would be canceled in a matter of days. Stressing the importance of Temple's mission for educating "...some of the area's most talented students in the broadcast industry," the letters begged for more money to accomplish this worthy task, a longstanding commitment which would be abruptly abandoned the next day with the hiring of professional classical broadcasters Dave Conant, Jill Pasternak and Jack Moore from WFLN and the discontinuation of most on-air student programming.
The jazz fury flying around the city during the first few weeks of September included outraged members of non-profit minority cultural organizations, owners of performance venues operating on the proverbial shoestring, jazz musicians, station subscribers, fans, and the ousted Temple radio students all of whom generated cries of fraud and many demands to know why a "public" radio station could so blithely, and without community dialogue, change format without even consulting its own membership. Classical listeners were grateful, although puzzling over why a city like Philadelphia, with three NPR radio stations, couldn't support a full time format for each genre, both with strong historic roots in the community.
A stunned and angry ad hoc group formed, of which I was a fervent member, to protest the music format change. As a long time jazz musician and educator, I was asked to organize a jazz musician's protest against Temple and be the contact person for obtaining the station's public file, a file that is required by the FCC to be maintained at every radio and television station and that is mandated to be available for public perusal at any time. For the most part, all I received from my request for the file in early October were the community letters (dated from September through early November of 1997) written to Temple administration officials (President Peter J. Liacouras and Vice-President Tom Maxey), general manager Tobias Poole, the development coordinator Kristina Palmer and former WFLN classical Djs Dave Conant and Jill Pasternak concerning the format change. My repeated pleas for the rest of the file were acknowledged then ignored.
These 447 community letters written to WRTI, which will be addressed later, were one of my vehicles for an analysis of the different voices in this controversy. The opinions and feelings addressed in the letters were not referenced in the media necessarily and were not a part of the public dialogue which erupted after the format change. For the public dialogue, I relied on local media sources such as The Philadelphia Inquirer (the main source of printed news for the Philadelphia area) and for an institutional slant, The Temple Times, the spin sheet for Temple University. After conducting selected interviews and using my own personal experiences, a faint silhouette appeared which filled in quite nicely as the particulars of the debate emerged and I enjoyed a more thorough look at how political (and mediated) discourse affects cultural choices and how a deliberate disciplined contextualization of issues important to an elite group is instrumental in radio format decision-making, both locally and nationally.
Several significant events and recent institutional developments, governmental and ideological, have served to realign the voices allowed in public discourse: Temple University's drive (since 1993) to reconstitute itself perceptually in a climate of state funding cutbacks and losses in suburban attendance, the abrupt cancellation of Pacifica Radio's prison diaries of Mumia Abu Jamal on WRTI in February 1997 due to Republican political pressure which adversely affected the Spring jazz fundraising drive for the station in March 1997, the deregulation of the telecommunications industry in 1996, and NPR censorship which has become an almost matter-of-fact occurrence on public radio since the Reagan years. All were different pieces of a complex social puzzle that helped to implicitly legitimize the official story that was told by Temple administrators and mimicked in the press for and by the elite organizations in the city to gain a false resonance with a perplexed community about why the musical discourse had to be changed from all jazz to predominantly classical. Modes of rationality were created, maintained, and reinforced by code-speak to make the decision seem reasonable to the public who were deliberately left outside of the decision-making process. What I found went beyond the issue of music and became a palimpsest, words barely visible underneath a dominant text, revealing a deliberate dislocation of an entire community in the name of "reasonability."
The community letters to WRTI were salient because they were not included in the public debate and they serve as ballast to the institutional claims of credibility by Temple and other elite city groups. Out of the content of these letters, main themes arose from the personal written reactions to a music format change (a privileging of one musical discourse over another, if you will) in a dialogic climate weighted down with Orwellian rhetoric from Temple administration officials (Peter J. Liacouras, Tom Maxey and the Board of Trustees) about the need for "diversity" at the University (by targeting white male suburban students) and politically charged questions concerning the dearth of alternative ethnic representation on the airwaves by minority organizations.
Most letter writers were aware of this heated debate via local news coverage and it was reflected in their personal communications with a frequent use of class and racial stereotypes by both sides to press their points home or to fit themselves into a marketing demographic that would challenge or support the rationale of Temple's decision. A major theme throughout the letters, though, brought to light an outdated public perception of what "public radio" means in the context of the contemporary telecommunications industry and local politics.
National Public Radio: Hit That Jive, Jack
Sadly, as of this date, there is no comprehensive history of National Public Radio. Most of the information for this overview came from a recent book, Made Possible By written by Village Voice contributor James Ledbetter which, because of its focus on public television, only devotes one chapter to public radio. However, much of NPR's history is interwoven with the trials and successes of PBS, especially politically, so what can be said to have affected one, usually, in part, affected the other. Another book, The Sound and the Story written in 1995 by Thomas Looker, exclusively examines NPR, but limited its coverage to the news shows Morning Edition and All Things Considered. It does not address cultural programming, but concentrates solely on the author's interviews with the people who have been responsible for these programs. Both books, though, touch on some particular problems with NPR, namely funding hardships that have accelerated the process of commercialization in this imagined "public" venue.
National Public Radio, a nonprofit corporation created in 1970, was a last minute addendum to the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 which, initially, was a Great Society response to a Carnegie Commission report called "Public Television: A Program for Action." The report hoped that this new idea, "...includes all that is of human interest and importance which is not at the moment appropriate or available for support by advertising." The Commission recognized that commercial broadcasting's prime goal of maximizing audience was a severe hindrance to Americans having opportunities, "...for a view far beyond our own borders into the ways of the rest of the world." In general the Carnegie Commission felt that, in the eat or be eaten world of commercial television, creative content was limited on the national airwaves because corporate sponsorship predominantly tended to shy away from any sort of controversy or subject that was felt to be out of the politically accepted "mainstream" of American cultural experience or might reflect negatively on the product being sold.
NPR's mission statement was crafted along the same lines by Wisconsin native William Siemering who cut his radio teeth in local educational/community broadcasting beamed to his country neighbors in the 1950s. Eventually he would become the driving force behind All Things Considered. Joe Gwathmey, former executive programmer with NPR in its infancy, discussed Siemering's mission for public radio: "In part, NPR was a missionary enterprise whose role was to broadcast programs which would not be commercially viable...[Siemering] talked about giving voice to people or ideas that didn't have much opportunity to be heard [Author's Italics]."
Localism was also a key principle in the creation of NPR, and government funding, through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as well as charitable foundation grants, was supposed to keep the local flavor of affiliate stations and free local radio from becoming influenced by corporate sponsorship that naturally would seek a larger mass audience appeal or cater to the development of cultural programs exclusively for the tastes of the rich.
But as the 1970s took the country through the Nixon and Ford years, government funds for NPR didn't keep pace with inflation, in part, due to congressional vetoes fueled by conservative political idealogues who condemned public radio for biased news programming that supposedly promoted leftist viewpoints. In 1976, then NPR president Lee Frischknecht, circulated a memo proposing changes in NPR programming which would concentrate less on news and focus more on the views of women, minorities and alternative cultural programming (specifying jazz). He cited the demands of member stations for this change, but he probably had one eye directed toward deflecting congressional nagging about NPR news coverage and hoped to get more funding by being non-confrontational. After all, this was before the Robert Mapplethorpe/Sen. Jesse Helms' cultural war that pitted art against God and family, and most people at the time felt the fine arts weren't necessarily controversial in an immediate political sense. The memo created a firestorm within NPR's news division pitting cultural programers against advocacy journalists and a crisis bloomed between the executives and the on air news talent at NPR.
The next year Frischknecht was replaced, by the Carter administration, with Frank Mankiewicz, a public relations expert linked to the Democratic Party who immediately proposed that public radio be financed by a tax on the revenues of commercial broadcasters, a good idea that has made C-Span, which is supported by the cable companies, so successful. But Congress never supported this plan due to the opposition of commercial radio interests. A more dramatic mission switch from the desk of Mankiewicz, however, was that NPR should imitate commercial radio and initiate market research to survey and measure its audiences so that targeted underwriting [sponsorship] could take place. The rationale was that, even though the market research yielded conclusions that typical NPR listeners didn't like or believe the claims of commercial ads, they would respond to understated corporate "advertisements" that would gently proclaim a company's good citizenship in supporting public radio. Thus began an internal dispute between, what Ledbetter describes as the "fundamentalists" and the "realists;" the former being the people who believed this new proposal would ultimately commercialize and compromise the integrity of public radio and the latter fearing that NPR would go under due to funding problems. As of now, the battle has been pretty much won by the "realists."
The debate took a back seat for a time when in 1983 it was revealed that NPR was deeply in the red due to sloppy bookkeeping and the embarrassing fact that NPR staffers were running up travel and entertainment bills on American Express cards issued by their employer. As Ledbetter put it, "right-wing commentators had a field day..." Former Nixon speech writer, current news pundit and Presidential also-ran Pat Buchanan dubbed NPR Ďan upholstered little playpen of our Chablis-and-brie set." In desperation, NPR began "The Drive to Survive," a new national begathon that began asking for listener dollars in earnest to save the public network, a fundraising tactic little used prior to this crisis. In addition, Congress voted to approve the Temporary Commission on Alternative Financing which dramatically loosened the restrictions on corporate (private) sponsorship of public programs and began allowing single issue coverage grants in which corporations could underwrite programs that were directly linked to their business interests, i.e. brokerage firms sponsorship of Wall Street Week. According to Ledbetter, by the late 1980s, nearly a third of NPR's news budget came from 30 companies and foundations for specified programming and thus began the push to let money decide which programs would be aired, not just programs that would be financially lucrative for the station (like Click and Clack, syndicated hosts of Car Talk), but the censorship of programs that might interfere with moneymaking and the status quo. "Public radio" would be distinctly linked with private interests from then on.
In 1984, Reagan budget cuts slashed government funding for public radio by more than a third and throughout the rest of the decade and into the early 1990s public radio would phase out more expensive cultural programming and increase the talk/news format to save dollars. At the same time Republican conservatives continued to attack NPR journalists for being biased and they demanded more "balance" in reporting the news. This never ending political diatribe pushed NPR executives further into compromise (to get that needed government funding) and they began jettisoning commentators on the left and replacing them with a proliferation of commentators from the right. Ledbetter writes that the choices NPR had to make "corroded NPR's editorial legitimacy" and he cites, as an example, a feature on Morning Edition that addressed the contentious Congressional debate over health care reform in 1993-94 by presenting an issue oriented program between two former members of Congress, Tom Downey and Vin Weber.
This past history is crucial in that the questions asked by the letter writers to WRTI repeatedly misunderstood the changes that have occurred within NPR over the last two decades. The rise of strong political and religious conservatism, the prevalence of corporate underwriting and the ease at which NPR can be politically manipulated (both locally and nationally) have served to severely distance public radio from its avowed grassroots mission of free, unencumbered democratic discourse. The letter writers consistently pointed to the fact that WRTI called itself "listener-supported," but didn't engage the listeners in the decision-making process, a cognitive dissonance that is understandable when one takes into account the brazenly loud local public pitch for audience funding in relation to its behind-closed-doors and non-public thirst for local corporate dollars. Classical music listeners, in their letters, again and again lamented the change in WHYY, another Philadelphia NPR station that abruptly changed its classical music format in the early 1990s to a mostly all talk/news format. In 1997, they were still emotionally smarting over the perceived breach of contract by WHYY!
To illuminate what happened at WRTI in September 1997, it is important to generally follow the money and the carnivalesque politics of the situation bubbling up at Temple University in its frantic search for a new image, the ambivalence of the Philadelphia City Council toward the school, and the Republican controlled financial state feedbag in Harrisburg. The local dialogue in the press also highlighted how Philadelphia's economically upper middle and upper class society and the people who wished to identify with them perceived fairness in broadcasting and their easy acquiescence to what seemed "reasonable" (by Temple's definition) and how the publicly quoted narratives that defined "what's-really-going-on" in their lives constituted an orthodoxy that everyone else in town was ultimately forced to adhere to.
The personal perceptions and understandings of what is "public" and what is considered to be "private" in the community letters was crucial, for these understandings provided a frame of reference that is becoming increasingly blurred in today's economic and political climate. The much discussed (but dubiously supported) political "consensus" that public institutions should be acting more like private companies to be "efficient," has affected the airwaves, the health care delivery system, and especially public educational institutions who are seeking, like Temple with their Japan and Rome campus networks, to have a world wide reach on the stingiest of public financing.
This blurring of the public/private milieu and the politics involved in decision-making has heightened the importance of the actors present in a public mediated debate: Who has the biggest voice in the dialogic negotiations between various groups who have different understandings of the boundaries separating the public sphere from private concerns? Who is speaking and to whom? Controlling dialogue to promote and protect elite interests is not new, but when public expenditure (state and federal) is equated normatively with wasteful spending by public institutions, it removes civic responsibility from the political equation and becomes an excuse for inaction encouraging a "let the needy fend for themselves" mentality. Cost/Benefit analysis invading the public sphere makes perfect sense to the Gesellschaft crowd these days, and it seems reasonable to them to marginalize alternative voices that are singing a different tune because the official prevailing attitude is that these voices are obviously wrong or they're not living in the "real world," so they can be commonsensically dismissed or suppressed.
The radio format change at WRTI spurred a political dialogue about musical discourse, and provided a savory look at how verbal tools are used by institutions to maintain a normative discourse that supports the most powerful groups. Sociologist Michel de Certeau describes how language is manipulated to create credibility by "speaking the name" of reality and then organizes that "reality" through practices of daily living to reinforce what is considered the norm. Temple's coded use of the term "diversity" (justifying the addition of European classical music and the desire to attract white suburban students) to set the tone of rationality for the format change continued to be the touchstone of the debate, a pedal point around which the rest of the players told their story. Certeau recognized this sort of verbal chicanery as an effective tactic for diffusing opposition.
The political language used by Temple during the format change fabricated the terrain of debate by creating a simulacrum of reasonability and it was used as a mask which in turn legitimized the decision to others who did not want to question it too closely. With this mechanism firmly in place and parroted by the media it was easy to establish a scene for Temple's administration to spin their story. An analysis of this controlled discourse illuminates how the alternative opposition (the jazz community/North Philadelphia) was overcome by not being included in this fictional field of language, how privilege (the classical community/Main Line elite) was indeed privileged in the decision-making process, and the selective silence of some city arts and political groups who followed the established game plan with little dissent. No assumptions of antiphony were apparent, none were wanted, and voices were inappropriately stifled. The call went out, so to speak, but there was little creative response, an atmosphere as unholy as Basie's band trying to play Stompin' at the Savoy when the reed section has gone home.