The Campbells were a comin' down Lovett Boulevard, and so were the O'Reillys and the Smiths. Fluttering in the evening breeze were the orange, white and green of the Irish Republic; the red, white and blue of the Union Jack; the red lion rampant of Scotland; the cross of Saint Andrew. Bagpipes skirled an angry air. As the parade marched into the parking lot of radio station KPFT/90.1 FM, a crowd of dark-skinned men in business suits and sloe-eyed women in saris, who a moment before had been angrily discoursing in Bengali, Hindi and English, began to applaud.
This unlikely convergence of cultures had gathered for the March 19th meeting of KPFT's advisory board; their common ground was outrage over the recent cancellations of the long-running "Music of India" and "Shepherd's Hey" programs.
"Music of India," which has aired weekly in Houston for 19 years, had already survived one close brush with death. In 1993, there was talk of removing it. Then leaders of Houston's Indian-American business community threatened to withhold the donations that made the program the largest fundraiser at the listener-supported station, and the discussion quieted down
This time, though, there was no chance for talk and response. On March 3, "Music of India" host Meena Datt received a phone call from KPFT program director Jeff Hansen informing her that her most recent program had also been her last program, and that her time slot had already been taken over by a show called "Lone Star Jukebox." Though guidelines laid down by Pacifica Radio, KPFT's parent organization, require that programmers be given four weeks notice of cancellation -- barring such exceptions as a DJ advocating the armed overthrow of the government on the air -- Datt says that she had not been told her show was in danger until it was dropped. It was this alleged violation of the station's own rules that, a short time later, led Gary Coover to substitute Indian compositions for the Celtic tunes normally heard on his "Shepherd's Hey" program. A 15-year KPFT host, Coover mixed criticism of Datt's abrupt dismissal with the music. Next day, Coover's program was canceled as well by KPFT management, who cited a long-standing "dirty laundry" policy that prohibits programmers from discussing management decisions on the air.
Although it seems baffling that a station dependent on listener contributions would take a chance on alienating a donor group as key as Houston's Indian community, in recent years there has been a visible shift at KPFT away from specialty shows that target a specific audience for a few hours every week toward a more generalized format designed to attract a larger audience that will tune in daily. This shift mirrors a nationwide, consultant-driven trend in public radio away from local programmer-formatted, regional-appeal programs toward satellite-fed shows and relatively rigid playlists that either appeal to a broader spectrum (in the view of the consultants and station managers) or dumb-down the educational and cultural missions that were listener-supported radio's original raison d'étre (in the opinion of many volunteer programmers).
Gary Coover fits in the latter camp. "Community radio should be very personal, it should reflect the community," he says. "I thought it was a shame the way 'Music of India' was canceled without a word to anybody. They told me they wanted something more accessible, more appealing. I think homogenization is the last thing this station should be doing."
It was to express such ideas that Indian and Celtic music fans gathered at KPFT on March 19. The station's nine-member advisory board -- made up of volunteers, paid Pacifica staggers, two programmer representatives elected by their peers, and "Lone Star Jukebox" host Ricky Heysquierdo -- agreed to hear an hour of two-minute public comments prior to their regularly scheduled meeting, and while the bulk of the comments dealt specifically with "Music of India" and "Shepherd's Hey," many of those who spoke aired fears that the station that once prided itself on being "on the far left of the dial" was drifting toward a meaningless mainstream.
Such fears have been growing among various KPFT contributors and loyalists since the shift three years ago from an eclectic, unpredictable assortment of weekday programs to a standardized format called "Sounds of Texas and the World." Jan Zollars, who has volunteered over the years as a KPFT fundraiser, told the board that she considered "Sounds of Texas" to be "the biggest waste of precious air time I have ever heard." She then said that she was canceling her subscription to the station, and threw on the table fronting the board members a bag of subscription-gift T-shirts, coffee cups and "anything that reminds me of what KPFT has become under your management."
Coover supporter Mike Crawford's statement to the board credited years of listening to KPFT with replacing the racism and homophobia of his youth with the tolerance of his adulthood, saying "I heard a badly needed message here that is gone now." Crawford added, however, that recently he had become afflicted with a different kind of homo-phobia - a "fear of homogeneity." Mary Walker, a ten-year "Shepherd's Hey" listener and the first female chieftain of the Scottish organization Heather and Thistle Society, told the board that the firing of Coover had "silenced the voice of the Celtic community."
In regard to "Music of India," Houston attorney Jai Sharma suggested to the board that soliciting the support of the Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan community during years of fund drives and then canceling "Music of India" violated the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act. Sharma suggested the possibility of a massive lawsuit by contributors who had supported the program and felt cheated and anguished when it was removed without warning. Sharma also charged that canceling the last Asian program on the station violated the Equal Opportunity Act stipulations of KPFT's charter.
And so it went throughout the hour, as petitions were submitted and pledge cards were ripped up. Demands for the sacking of KPFT General Manager Garland Ganter were greeted with cheers from the tightly-packed room. One petition, circulated in the Indian community, had 2,500 signatures. Another, distributed by Coover supporters at McGonigal's Mucky Duck, caused Hansen to order all programmers to refrain from any mention of the club on the air.
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At the March 19 meeting, board chairman Henry Horne told those present that the KPFT board "was not drawing a conclusion at this time." Since they have no direct control over station management, what the board could do if they wanted to reinstate Datt and/or Coover is unclear. And Ganter has indicated there's little chance of the decisions being reversed on his end. The cancellation of Datt's show, Ganter says, was "a difficult program decision" made in response to "a changing format." In response to the frequent charge of homogenization, he says "Not true. We are trying to be more consistent, but homogenization is too strong a word."
Ganter denies that the spate of cancellations of ethnic and foreign-language programs in recent years was done at the direction of the Pacifica Foundation in Berkeley - a frequent charge by KPFT veterans who distrust the station's parent organization. One programmer speaks of "elitist limousine liberals who think all Texans live in house trailers." Many longtime KPFT programmers, who tend to have a messianic devotion to their particular message and refuse to make any public statement that might jeopardize their unpaid jobs, privately voice convictions that the occupants of the opulent new California headquarters of the Pacifica Foundation are a far greater threat to community radio in Houston than the ax poised by Newt Gingrich over federal Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding. For his part, Ganter downplays the role of Pacifica in recent changes at the station, saying only that KPFT has a "mandate" from the Pacifica Foundation "to get a larger audience, but how that is accomplished is up to each station."
At the March 19 meeting, after the time for public comments ended, Ganter suggested that the board introduce a resolution thanking Coover and Datt for their combined 34 years of service to the station. But a few days later, lawyer Jai Sharma indicated that a resolution wouldn't do. The "heavy hitters" of the Indian community were planning to meet on May 1 and discuss the next step, he said, and they were inviting two member of the KPFT board to attend.
"This is an issue we intend to follow through on all nine yards," Sharma says. "if some kind of mutually agreeable situation can't be arrive at, we will follow through with litigation and all other resources at our disposal." And that's one tune, Sharma insists, that isn't going to change.