A Clash of Cultures
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."
Ray Hill, who managed the station from 1980 to 1981 and hosts its popular Sunday prison program, echoes Coover's broad-brush metaphor. "When they look at radio, they say, 'Oh, we'll paint with this broad, homogenized, multi-colored brush,' " Hill says. "But in radio, there's no such thing as a broad, homogenized, multi-colored brush. Brushes come one color at a time."
But longtime KPFT volunteer Carl Gudrian is one who thinks Forbes' changes were overdue. "To me, KPFT was sort of turning into the daily parade of victims -- 'Okay, here's two hours of this oppressed group, here's this other oppressed group.' All you can really do is talk about how oppressed they are," he says. "But now there's some entertainment. If you listen to a community station, when they don't provide entertainment they try to shame you into listening to it, like it's your duty to listen to this now. Well, fuck duty."
As Forbes tells it, many of his critics were people who resented losing their shows and felt that certain subjects or types of music belonged to them. (Hill and Coover, however, weren't among those who lost their shows.) "It's like some people fencing off a public park and saying, 'This is my property,' " Forbes says. "No, it's property for everybody. And park rangers have to make sure it's accessible to everybody."
But the ranks of the unhappy extend beyond hosts with bruised egos. There were loud protests from listeners as well, among them gays and lesbians who protested after the popular "Wilde'n'Stein" program was moved and reformatted. (Ironically, Forbes is openly gay.) And, say Hill and Coover, after Forbes proposed scaling back Meena Datt's Indian show from three hours to one, Datt's fans threatened to withhold their sizable contributions to the station, forcing Forbes to capitulate. (Forbes' version is that program director Garland Ganter offered Datt four hours on Saturday afternoons -- a less popular time slot than her Saturday-morning show -- but she turned it down, and as a compromise Ganter gave her two hours. The show now runs 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturday.)
Coover maintains that, in the end, Forbes was run out of town. "It just wasn't a real good match," he says. "Barry has a real corporate, bureaucratic attitude. That just didn't fit the station."
But if that's the case, Forbes' boss certainly isn't saying so. Pacifica's David Salniker says he asked Forbes to take the satellite job because he's suited for it, not because he sparked controversy or lost listeners and money.
"Obviously there is strife at the station," says Salniker. "But we cannot broadcast in the '90s precisely the same program we broadcast in the '70s. And any manager that comes in and leads an effort to have program evaluation and program change will have controversy."
How Forbes' leaving will affect KPFT's schedule is uncertain. Garland Ganter, Forbes' second-in-command, has taken over as interim manager and may be offered the GM's job on a permanent basis. Forbes, for now, is working on the satellite project out of his Houston home. Asked what programming changes, if any, KPFT listeners might expect, Salniker first emphasizes that the national office tries not to interfere with local programming. He then offers this nugget: "My own understanding is that some of the changes [from a year ago] had already been under some analysis as to whether they had perhaps gone a little too far."
Ganter himself is keeping mum. It's just too soon, he insists, to comment. But he admits that certain programming decisions may be up for review. And, he adds, "nothing [Forbes did] was ever cast or carved in stone.
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