Listen or Lose It, People

On August 24, KBCS-FM rolled out its new weekday program grid, replacing Drive Time Jazz with the syndicated public affairs show The Takeaway and eliminating its morning jazz programs (The Bud and Don Show, Bebop Spoken Here, Twentieth-Century Jazz and Vintage Jazz) in favor of airing Friday morning’s hybrid of jazz and world music, The Caravan, five days a week.

According to station manager Steve Ramsey, The Caravan was selected because of host John Gilbreath’s range of musical interests and ability to weave diverse musical threads through the show. “He can play music we air on Saturday nights and make it fit, then point people to the other spots on our schedule where they can hear these other styles of music in more depth,” Ramsey explains.

Gilbreath claims no involvement in strategies involving the show’s artistic direction. “I assume they have a clear vision of what they want to accomplish and it’s my pleasure to help them craft my part of what that looks like for the future,” he says.

It will not be so easy for Richard Gillmann, Iaan Hughes, and Sean Donovan, three of the five hosts of the cancelled Lunch with Folks, who have been retained for the replacement program, The Outskirts. “They will be working more collaboratively than before,” Ramsey says. “If a cool artist is heard on a Monday, you may well hear them again on a Wednesday or a Friday, because the hosts will be sharing playlists. We want the listener to get a similar audio experience no matter which day of the week they tune in. The music director will help sculpt a more consistent sound for that show with a view to being a bit more rootsy and contemporary, while continuing to keep it a folk-based program.”

These changes were implemented without soliciting input from the listeners. Eric Hardee, a volunteer host who has been with the station for eighteen years, says that when Ramsey was asked by the staff why listeners were not consulted, he answered that there was no need to ask them since he already knew what they were going to say.

“Such decisions are not based on what people want to hear or want to play, but on money,” Hardee, who is active in the “Save KCBS” group, claims. “Management believes the music audience is disposable because they can pull in more revenue with news programming.”

Yet, based on the way they were supported financially, several of the morning programs were among the most popular programs on the station. Gilbreath recalls program director Peter Graff telling him that “many of the complainers who have been disgruntled over losing a show preface their objection by stating that it is the only show they listen to on the station, which is the perfect justification for taking it off because we need to have people listening more than just three hours a week.”

This is the paradox that drives the changes. Unlike KUOW, which draws a more passive listener, who is apt to leave the radio tuned to one station throughout the day, KCBS attracts listeners who tune in to hear a specific show, which is not what the station wants.

“These changes were not designed to create new listeners, but to keep our listeners listening to us longer,” Ramsey insists. “The data shows that our listeners have their radios on, but are not listening to us. They go to KUOW and KPLU.”

Originally, these changes were to be the first of a three-phase overhaul that would have affected weeknight and weekend programming as well. Hardee feels that his group’s efforts in mobilizing its campaign and getting listeners involved was influential in making management back off from implementing further changes.

“The amount of listener response blew them away,” he says, “but the thing that will have a real effect is if the bottom falls out during the next pledge drive, and they are left holding an empty bag. We hope this will encourage them to restore some of the specialty programs and to take a more listener-involved approach to their process of change in the future.”

Ramsey refuses to speculate about the future. “It will take at least a year to evaluate the impact of the August changes on our audience.”

There is more to the shake-up at KBCS than the cancellation of a few shows. When Ramsey states, “It is a challenge for community radio stations to find our role in the changing landscape of media,” he alludes to a climate in which the lines between community and public radio are becoming increasingly blurred. Stations such as KBCS have been prized as free-speech centers where the community had access to the microphone, and deejays could program their shows without interference from management. There is still hope for that to continue at KBCS, but not if local shows are dumped in favor of syndicated programming that encourages the passive acceptance of generic information instead of participation in the active engagement
of community voices.

Gilbreath doesn’t think there is any difference in the direction the station is headed now as opposed to last week. “You turn the radio on and you’re hearing essentially the same thing. You’re just hearing a little more news and public affairs. But artistic integrity has to be balanced with commercial viability. You have to stay alive in order to do it again tomorrow. But you also have to be able to hold your head up and say
you are doing something that is absolutely valuable.”

“When a change is launched, you are going to hear from the people who are in opposition right away,” Ramsey concludes. “I have to believe, though, that if we have heard from four hundred people out of the forty-five thousand listeners we have in this area, the vast majority of our audience hasn’t yet let us know how they feel.”

With the pledge drives coming up in mid-October, listeners will have the opportunity to let the station know what kind of programming they will or will not support.