Thursday, July 12, 2012

PD's Report to the LSB

WBAI LSB - July 11, 2012

First of all my apologies for not attending this meeting. I am knee-deep in Fund Drive, being at the station from 6 am everyday, helping on-air and off-air, answering phones and performing general duties that are required in all departments during this busy time. I am also meeting with Bob Fass as we speak. I have tried to organize a meeting with Bob for weeks and I did not want to postpone him anymore. And I am exhausted. Again, my apologies.

It’s been a little over a month since I arrived at WBAI. It is still way too early for me to provide any kind of comprehensive report on programming. I have spent all of my time so far talking to every producer and program maker across the grid. Talking to producers about their concerns about their shows, their feelings, anxieties, problems, self-criticisms and scope for improvements. This is taking a very long time. Most meetings scheduled take over an hour and I still haven’t met everyone. I have also spent time coming in on weekends to meet producers that don’t usually get to the office during the weekday hours, which has been appreciated. My weekday hours begin at 9 am and I rarely leave before 7 pm at night. My presence in the office at 9 am is a huge shock to a lot of people; my impression is that it hasn’t happened in a while.

The biggest complaint I have heard so far from the producers is that there hasn’t been a dialogue with them for so long. Program Directors need to be present physically in the office as much as possible, even if it’s for an informal chat of 5 mins before or after one’s show. This makes a huge difference to producers and I have noticed that so far they appreciate it. The News Department is also appreciative of contact and dialogue; in fact, every department has had a sense of purpose that hasn’t been evident for a long time. One of the many shocks when I first arrived at WBAI was the lack of collegiality among departments; the lack of community, lack of teamwork and communication, lack of regular meetings to simply address the day-to-day and week-to-week goings on.

As PD, my short term initiatives are to deal with programs that are the spine of the station, such as Wake Up Call, Hugh Hamilton, Robert Knight etc. I have set up regular meetings with Esther Armah, including general meetings with all her producers and interns. I have even arrived at the station at 6 am to physically see the show in action. We have implemented a few changes already, such as setting up a 7 am segment where Esther and Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman forward-promote what’s coming up on Democracy Now that day. This is an example of the collegiality and cross-pollination of programs and producers that I wish to implement across the station grid. The whole Wake Up Call daily and weekly schedule is being assessed and critiqued, and we are trying to improve segments, specials and interviews across the board to ensure a much wider audience for our premier drive program. Esther is very keen to help and be directed.

The same is being done with Hugh Hamilton’s program. Extensive talks and criticisms with Hugh have already begun and, again, he is very keen to improve the program. Hugh has many ideas he would like to implement, not just on his own show but to organize some “town hall’ type thematic live broadcasts of his program in all five boroughs and parts of New Jersey. They would possibly involve a theme for each show and location, moderated discussion between pre-eminent guests with a Q & A session from the audience. It is definitely something we are keen to pursue.

Discussions are happening with all programs, both formally and informally. Again, this is taking up most of my time.

A major initiative for me has been better and more regular communications with the Operations Department. They have been dealing with perennial problems at all levels of broadcasting at WBAI; everything from pure technical issues to production problems of individual programs. All the daily frontline happenings of what the station is involved in go through them and they are best placed to ascertain station problems at a programmatic level, individually and overall. They are not without criticism; they are also keenly aware that they themselves need revamping and better communications with all departments. It’s an ongoing process.

Another major issue is the traffic situation at WBAI. I believe a proper traffic system is essential for any station and my impression is that there have been several attempts at setting one up from previous directors, all to no avail. I am in discussions with the Operations team as to how best to implement this, it is so long overdue. It’s not an issue of difficulty; it is one of wherewithal and follow through. It needs to be devised and designed properly, implemented and then maintained by all producers and managers at a consistent, professional level.

The News Department is another area that has welcomed regular meetings and communication. We are working together to perhaps implement better and more frequent news content across the station. This is especially difficult given their lack of resources and staff, but they are very encouraged and enthusiastic with this new approach and dialogue. Jose Santiago even has a spring in his step lately. 

So my initial month has been taken up by implementing lines of communication that have been sorely neglected in the past. Developing relationships of mutual respect and constructive criticism with every producer, especially our core programmers. I believe that without this initial establishment of mutual respect I cannot move forward and make necessary changes to any area of programming. And in my first month I have noticed many good and bad aspects to BAI, most of which will already be very familiar to you.

Good things:

There is a general goodwill amongst the listeners, staff, producers and volunteers about the station. They all want it to succeed. They are all painfully aware of the destructive history of internal politics, over decades, but what is striking is that in spite of all this they continue to believe in WBAI. Listeners continue to listen and give money. Producers sick and tired of the infighting continue to give their time to do shows. Staff press on with unbearably long and tedious fund drive organization, with serious threats of station insolvency, often juggling four or five jobs at a time. Volunteers, who have heard about and believe in the station, experience the bad atmosphere first-hand yet still give their time regularly and often. Listeners especially want the station to succeed, even the ones that criticize it the most. There is a groundswell of hope, change and opportunity; enough people want the station to be a certain way and are happy to work towards it.

There is evidence that the various departments at BAI are physically happier. The News Dept is happier and are being used across the station more. During the recent SCOTUS Health Care decision, we featured Jose delivering an up to the minute report on Delphine’s Thursday morning show seconds after the decision was handed down. Delphine had a great professional 10 minute dialogue with Jose about the decision, and both forward promoted all the programs that would be dealing with post-decision discussion through the day, mentioning Hugh Hamilton, Robert Knight, and focusing on the 6 pm in-depth BAI News Bulletin analysis that evening. Delphine even featured a discussion with Health Styles producer Barbara Glickstein later on her show talking about the decision, and of course forward promoting the Health Styles show later. This cross-pollination, cross-promotion of shows was welcome and all enthusiastically administered, something that I notice BAI hardly does anymore. To see it happening during a big news day was good for everyone.

Station community and collegiality seems to be returning, slowly. It is being rebuilt, as in the Esther/Amy cross-promote, and there is a groundswell of enthusiasm amongst the producers for more of the same. Again, this seems to have been neglected over many years. Hopefully this will translate to more listeners.

Bad things:

You all probably know this all too well. I don’t have to mention to you the chronic institutional inertia and memory that exists at BAI, and has done so for 20-plus years. No amount of goodwill can change this unless there is constant and meticulous work done by all administrations at every level of the organization. Most of my communication with producers and departments has been taken up by individual and collective venting of problems, psychological and physical. It needs to be acknowledged at the very least so we can move forward. But I am overwhelmed by the beating producers have taken over the years, and they are all letting it out. My concern is the radio, first and foremost, so the welfare of producers and operations is paramount. That’s why I have been part new PD and mostly psychiatrist to people over this last month.

My concern is that this inertia, this atrophy, cannot be changed even with the best intentions. There is a fear and anxiety amongst the station that hangs over everyone, rightly or wrongly. Fear of insolvency, fear of cutbacks to an already threadbare staff, fear of too much bad history that has prevented us from solving even a few of these problems. This affects us on-air, especially during the current fund drive. I am concentrating on the air we deliver and I am trying to make it better, but these pre-existing situations make it very difficult to do that.

From a general programming point of view, it is still way to early to seriously assess the grid. But some initial impressions suggest an overall dated and stale sound. We sometimes sound like a station still broadcasting in the 70s. Many programs can adapt and change with help and critical production techniques, but many programs have to seriously be reconsidered. Some programming hasn’t changed in decades. I’m not suggesting a slash and burn approach, but the feeling is that even the slightest change will be slow, painful and full of political ramifications. 

Our audience is old, too. This isn’t news to us. I’m not being age-ist, but we need to attract a larger, younger demographic. This isn’t at the exclusion of older listeners, but we certainly aren’t including any younger ones. And by young I mean at the very least 30s or 40s.

Our fundraising is problematic in that we are deriving funds solely from one source: our listeners. And that source is ever diminishing. Also, by the sound of our fund driving, we are targeting aging hypochondriacs, an ever-decreasing market. Not healthy (irony alert).

There are already some obvious deficiencies in structure and production staff. The regular weekly shows, Wake Up Call, Hugh Hamilton, Robert Knight etc., are in serious need of content/line producer staff. Wake Up call needs a proper in-studio/ content producer. So does Hugh Hamilton. We can’t rely on interns, as enthusiastic as they are. We need a serious commitment from producers if we are to have a seriously produced daily show in either drive slots.

The News Department is also short-staffed by maybe 2 or 3 journalists. We don’t have a morning drive live news bulletin of any sort. In a perfect world, or even half-perfect, we’d have a live person reading a 5 minute or so news bulletin at a given half-hour or hour. I know Esther and Hugh would love this to happen. I seriously do not know how we can address this, given our fiscal problems. But, again, interns are not the answer.


I have only touched on a very small number of the many issues that I have encountered so far. We all know that dealing with just one of these issues is a 10-hour argument. But I have also encountered enough people involved at the station that are willing to work hard to fix them. I am encouraged by the desire and enthusiasm of producers and staff that, in spite of all our ongoing problems and checkered history, are still excited about making good radio. They are wanting to be directed to produce quality, relevant and compelling content. Support staff are keenly aware of our deficiencies in all areas of administration and they want to be guided and involved in rejuvenating those areas.

The listeners are out there. They want us to succeed. We need to get them back. Earn their respect. In this internet/blog/DIY world, a programmatically well-curated radio station is still a unique entity in an increasingly media consolidating landscape.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to re-instill a sense of community, a sense of collegiality at the station that, ironically, USED TO EXIST. The horror stories I have heard so far did include some encouraging history of teamwork and togetherness that did occur in all areas of administration. I am trying to rekindle that. It is going to take a long time.

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