A Clash of Cultures

KPFT bids goodbye to its embattled boss

A year and a half of not-so-pacific times at KPFT-Pacifica Radio came to a head recently when Barry Forbes, for 21 fractious months general manager of Houston's original hippie radio station -- 90.1 on the FM dial, where polkas and jigs and John Hiatt can be heard interspersed with poetry readings and gay-rights discussions -- told staffers he was leaving.

Forbes left his KPFT post February 28. And though he immediately began a new job with the Pacifica Foundation, which owns KPFT, to develop a nationwide satellite network for community and college radio stations, the suddenness of Forbes' departure has led some to suggest that his new assignment wasn't exactly a reward for a job well done.

By all accounts, Forbes had some tumultuous times at KPFT. While he ushered in a new training program for volunteers at the listener-supported station and garnered $50,000 from Pacifica to upgrade KPFT's equipment, he also oversaw changes in the program schedule that sent the station's ratings and crucial listener donations spiraling downward. Only now, after more than a year, are they showing signs of recovery. And, perhaps more damaging than the drop in ratings, during his two years heading KPFT Forbes acquired vocal critics at the station and in the listening audience.

In May 1992 Pacifica dispatched Forbes to KPFT to put in place changes recommended by fundraising consultant firm Dini and Associates. The idea was, in Forbes' words, to make KPFT "really viable as a radio station and as a potential recipient of funds." Since Forbes' 15 years in public broadcasting had been spent as a fundraiser -- he had never been a general manager -- the second half of that equation seemed to be the more important. After a series of meetings with KPFT staff and volunteers, some of whom complain that they were simply informed of changes rather than consulted about them, Forbes proposed altering or canceling many of the station's weekday talk and music shows. More than a few of those programs had been on the air for years and had helped define the station's place at, as station volunteers are fond of saying, "the far left of your radio dial."

Enough complaints were lodged that Forbes temporarily postponed making changes. But eventually the potpourri of programs that had typified a KPFT broadcast week -- a little of this on Monday, a little of that on Tuesday -- was replaced by a more standardized daytime schedule. Shows such as the 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily "Sounds of Texas and the World," programs that covered a wide spectrum of music and a wide span of time, took over. The specialized shows that weren't canceled were moved to evenings and weekends.

Forbes argues that not only did strip programming (having the same show in the same place every day) move KPFT away from "potluck" programming in which "you never know what you'll get when you tune in," it also opened the station to more volunteers, made it sound more professional and increased its appeal to women and minorities.

If so, that appeal wasn't immediately obvious. The schedule changes hit the station's coffers and ratings hard. According to KPFT, listener donations dropped from almost $72,000 in spring 1992 to just over $49,000 that fall, when the changes were instituted -- a 32 percent plunge. Over the same span, the number of people who tuned in for at least five minutes a week fell almost 18 percent, from 73,000 to 60,000.

Forbes and his boss, Pacifica executive director David Salniker, insist Forbes' departure from KPFT had nothing to do with the fact that, at least initially, his efforts to increase the station's audience and donations actually drove away listeners and their money. For that matter, says Forbes, he expected the numbers drop. His aim, he says, was to trim away the station's "fringe" listeners -- those who might tune in on only one day, and then only for one specialized program -- and strengthen its core of loyal supporters.

And the numbers do appear to be recovering. The weekly audience was up to 66,500 by last fall, and since October listeners have pitched in more than $77,000, a figure $16,000 above what had been budgeted. The amount of time an average listener spends with the station, another measure of audience loyalty, has gone up from 2.9 hours a week last spring to 3.4 hours last fall. (The station's goal is 5 to 6 hours.) Forbes adds that the rate at which donors renew their memberships has gone up 10 percent since fall 1992. In sum, he argues, even if the station's numbers are below where they were when the programming changes were made, the station is now poised to draw a bigger, more loyal audience that's more willing to drop a check in the mail.

However the numbers may eventually read -- and Forbes' promise of growth is still a future prospect -- the schedule changes have earned the former general manager criticism from listeners and volunteers who complain that he homogenized the KPFT sound.

"Barry was real big on cultural diversity," says Gary Coover, a former member of the KPFT advisory board who has hosted the Tuesday night "Shepherds Hey" program for 15 years. "So they took out a lot of specialty programs and replaced them with this broad-brush daytime stuff, where there's a tune from Mexico followed by a tune from Java, followed by a Tex-Mex. It has all the different cultures, but there's no in-depth knowledge of any of them."

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