Earth Quake Day
In 1996, Houston had an ample schedule of springtime festivals heavy with headliner bands. But Earth Day was different.
Admission was free, although the sponsoring Citizens' Environmental Coalition sought a donation of $1 or a contribution of recyclable aluminum cans or paper. The event at the City Hall reflection pool featured environmental lectures and presentations. There was music -- a collection of minor bands that served as an aside to the environmental theme. And the closest the gathering got to corporate ties was the performance venue, the Texas Instruments Stage.
That event six years ago now seems more like six decades to some activists in the environmental coalition. The 2002 version of the festival rates such advance copy as the recent Houston Chronicle blurb, "KRBE's Earth Day Festival turned from an entertaining day at the park to a marquee concert event with the addition Tuesday of Sheryl Crow as a headliner."
Compared to the '96 festival, tickets will be $15 for the concert at Eleanor Tinsley Park on Saturday, April 6. Those who avail themselves of the corporate ties can get in free -- if they signed up for electric service with event sponsor Green Mountain Energy -- or for five bucks less by grabbing a coupon from a sponsoring cellular telephone company. Rather than electric cars on display, this gala will tout a Pontiac/GMC dealership as a sponsor.
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About 30,000 concertgoers are expected to be on hand. But for the first time in five years, the Citizens' Environmental Coalition won't be. CEC backed out in late January, fed up with what it calls increasing commercialization and inaction on efforts to return the event to its roots.
Alesha Herrera, chair of CEC's Earth Day, notified KRBE in a January letter that the group would help only if the radio station would "produce an event that lives up to the name."
"It will also require rethinking the traditional 'rock concert' approach that has been the focus of the KRBE Earth Day event," Herrera wrote. "If this challenge is not of interest or is not feasible, then we respectfully request that the phrase 'Earth Day' be removed from the event title."
"We're not going to change the title of our event," says KRBE event producer Shana Sonnier. "We established the Earth Day Festival, and we've never asked them not to participate."
The former Earth Day partners find themselves worlds apart -- CEC will host its own new environmentally themed Houston Earth Day 2002 on April 13 at the Rice University campus.
"What KRBE basically said point-blank to me was that we were an annoyance to them, that we weren't integral to the creation of this event," Herrera says, "and that it was a corporate-sponsored KRBE concert and that we should essentially butt out."
While the environmental group and the radio station also swap thanks for the past Earth Day events, the years have blurred versions of their respective roles in the festivities.
Earth Day was founded in 1970, the same year as the Citizens' Environmental Coalition. The organization serves as the umbrella for about 90 environmentally conscious groups ranging from A (as in the American Institute of Architects) to Z (Zoological Society of Houston). Combined, the CEC member groups boast more than 200,000 people.
CEC helped in the mid-'90s to unite various Earth Day events into the 1996 City Hall celebration. Herrera says KRBE approached the coalition five years ago about staging an Earth Day festival "and wanted a group to partner with and lend it environmental validity."
"They were the concert side of it," she says, "and we were in charge of developing the environmental end of it."
KRBE's Sonnier disputes that. "I'm not sure it was ever established they were a partner for the event. They were a benefactor of the event." The station and its lead corporate sponsor, Enron, bankrolled the festival and gave a portion of the gate -- up to about $34,000 -- to CEC and member organizations. So the event became a major funding source for CEC, and its most visible promotional device.
The coalition recruited groups for educational booths in the festival's "Earth Zone" section. As the event expanded, it pressed KRBE to commit to, or at least keep, the earlier environmental themes.
Herrera says some coalition member groups were appalled when there wasn't even recycling for the tons of plastic trash generated by crowds. Three CEC volunteers ended up working until 4 a.m. to create special waste receptacles for recyclable materials. The coalition pushed to replace the diesel-powered generators with eco-friendly alternatives, and to include more vegan options at the concession stands and add more emphasis on green themes.
While CEC points out that it proposed solutions for each of the problems, Sonnier says the group appeared to be unrealistic. More vegetarian fare has been added, along with recycling and cash incentives for booths to be more interactive in educational themes. "But they'd like to see all the improvements happen at once, but that's just not possible," she says. "The cost of this event is enormous, and the radio station bears that cost."
Some CEC member organizations began bailing out after the station pushed the eco-booths to the sidelines, away from the main stage and areas of high traffic. Sonnier says organizers actually tried to route the primary crowds through that area to increase exposure to them.
However, the friction kept increasing. "[Sonnier] believed we were supposed to just show up on the day of the event, set up our booths and take our money. For them to tell us, 'You add nothing to this event,' that was difficult and a slap in the face," Herrera says. "It felt like, in the end, KRBE took over the event and slowly pushed the environmental community out of it."
While KRBE touts Sheryl Crow, Herrera says she's been eating crow for her earlier efforts at cooperation. After trying to keep member groups in the event, now she feels "sort of foolish," she says. "I've gone back to a lot of those groups and said, 'You know what? You were right. This event is not worthy to attach our name to.' "
Sonnier suggests that money concerns may be behind some of the criticism, since lower gates last year took about $12,000 off of the prior year's cut for CEC. " I want to be careful how I position this, but they questioned the amount of the donation and why the donation went down." CEC scoffs at that, noting that the decision to drop out shows it puts moral ideals over a continued source of cash from the festival.
The station's event planner says there will still be about 40 organizations with booths, and that the addition of Green Mountain as the primary sponsor shows the station's environmental commitment. "We are certainly trying to grow the event -- to create more environmental awareness," she says.
There will be no debate about priorities for CEC's first-ever Houston Earth Day bash on April 13. The group lined up Waste Management Inc. as a sponsor and is planning a full day of half-hour talks on environmental issues. Under the banner of "Houston, We Have a Solution," the focus will be on avenues of direct action -- petitions, boycotts, messages to elected officials -- to trigger green reforms, Herrera says. As with its earlier Earth Day events, the music and comedy acts will be secondary to the central theme.
Admission is free, regardless of whether attendees sign up for corporate electricity providers or collect coupons from cell-phone outlets.
"We wish KRBE well, but a lot of our people are excited about our new festival," Herrera says. "We're hoping this is a groundbreaking event that will grow in years to come."
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