THE PUBLIC RADIO WARS : CAN NPR AND APR COEXIST?
All things considered, a program like “Small Things Considered” ought to have been the kind of wholesome, imaginative children’s programming that public radio would welcome with open arms.
If “Small Things Considered” ever does become the nationally syndicated daily kids’ call-in show that its New York producers want it to be, it will be in spite of--not because of--National Public Radio.
Former National Public Radio producer Keith Talbot did not count on the objections of his ex-employers when he decided last year to take his unique after-school program to a national audience.
In the era of shrinking NPR resources, he seemed to have done everything right.
He sought funding directly from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which, in turn, successfully urged the MacArthur Foundation to underwrite the program with a $450,000 grant. His New York prototype program won six national broadcast awards in less than a year, including the prestigious Peabody Award.
Perhaps most significant of all, he got up to 250 calls a day from children who were hooked on the music, spelling bee, quiz and conversation show.
Then NPR’s attorneys threatened legal action if he didn’t change the name from “Small Things Considered” to something that did not parody the name of NPR’s best-known program, “All Things Considered”.
On Sept. 2, “Small Things Considered” became “Kids America”.
“I have no comment about the name change. I just can’t talk about it,” an obviously angry Talbot told The Times. “I worked at NPR eight years. Eight years. . . . “
“The program was offered to NPR for distribution, and the name was deemed by counsel to be a copyright infringement, that’s all,” said NPR’s executive news director, Robert Siegel.
Talbot took his program to NPR’s chief rival, American Public Radio, which began test marketing “Kids America” on nine U.S. stations this month--including KCSM-FM in San Mateo on the West Coast.
“At a time when kids are generally mesmerized after school by reruns of ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and ‘Hogan’s Heroes,’ I believed parents would be quite thankful to have such a program,” Talbot said.
If all goes well, APR--under the leadership of President William Kling (a disaffected former NPR executive)--will begin offering the show to all 300 of its affiliates within the next year.
“They are willing to entertain new ideas and take prudent risks,” Talbot said. “I think they are very professional and very competitive with NPR.”
Siegel said that NPR is still willing to take risks and entertain new ideas. He points to the new weekend version of “Morning Edition,” scheduled to debut nationally Nov. 2, as an example. But NPR management does not invest in such a project these days until it is very sure it will be able to keep it alive long enough for it to catch on with a wide audience.
Marketplace programming, as practiced by APR, can be as risky as it is on commercial television where new shows come and go in a matter of weeks, Siegel pointed out. He said it is as if an occult hand had arbitrarily determined which television show got a second season and which did not. The same thing is equally true of APR’s radio programming.
“The invisible hand is also a very arbitrary hand,” he said. “There are a great many successes in commercial broadcasting that were failures when they first began. Look at ’60 Minutes’ . . . ‘Hill Street Blues.’ ”
APR had its own failure last month when the year-old “Business Times,” produced as a daily half hour of financial news from New York, was canceled. Siegel said he believed it did not have enough funding to sustain it until it found its audience.
“One thing that a centralized organization like NPR can do is marshal its resources to help a program survive the thin times,” he said.
Coming off just such a sustained two-year lean period, NPR, under the direction of President Douglas J. Bennet since 1983, is not as daring as it once was.
“I’m very pleased that the company, coming off the crisis of ’83, has taken a solid two years to make its next jump (with the new weekend ‘Morning Edition’),” Siegel said.
He doesn’t fear that APR will put NPR out of business with its more adventurous undertakings. The news and information heart of NPR will always survive, Siegel said, even if its member stations have fleeting flirtations with exotic APR programming.
“In dealing with individual stations, we are the loyal and tolerant wife,” he said. “I think they’ll discover we’re the meat and potatoes. If they fool around on the side with other ladies, we know they’ll come home. We deliver.”
Perhaps Talbot continues to speak from anger now, when he says that NPR is no match for APR’s marketplace professionalism. But he is not the only ex-NPR producer who believes there has been a rise in APR’s commitment to quality programming at the same time financially strapped NPR seems to have withdrawn from the innovative programming of its pre-1983 glory days.
Veteran independent producers like Larry Josephson in New York, Tom Voegeli in Minnesota and Jeff Chester in San Francisco all shun NPR these days because the network has little money to pay free-lancers and still demands the top-quality production values it required before its brush with bankruptcy in 1983.
“Last December I worked on a piece for them for two weeks. They were very demanding. They wanted changes. They wound up paying me $200,” Chester said.
APR, on the other hand, is building its coffers, chiefly by making its subscriber stations pay for each show they choose to put on the air. APR recently established a $2-million production fund to encourage program proposals from disaffected NPR contributors and affiliates.
But NPR’s dark days may soon be ending.
Harry O’Connor, a Los Angeles radio producer who is also the most vocal NPR supporter on the 10-member CPB board, anticipates that Congress will boost CPB’S annual appropriation from $150 million to $200 million within the next year. If disbursement runs true to form, about three-fourths will go to public television and one-fourth will go to radio.
If the CPB cash flow is carefully controlled and NPR follows APR’s free-market philosophy, O’Connor believes, public radio can be weaned off its federal dependency and still thrive.
“Public broadcasting (radio and TV) now is a $1-billion industry with about 18% of it funded with public money,” O’Connor said. “What we’re headed for is a $3-billion to $5-billion industry without any government help. I think it can be done.”
As far as the rivalry between NPR and APR, O’Connor sees both of them prospering in the fat years he sees ahead.
“I think they are more complementary than it might appear,” said O’Connor, who produces President Reagan’s weekly radio broadcast, which is carried by National Public Radio. “NPR has ‘All Things Considered’ and does news very well, and APR has the biggest audience in the country for something other than a news program: ‘A Prairie Home Companion.’ APR is private enterprise at work.”
O’Connor acknowledged that CPB, the government agency that gives NPR more than half its operating money, has had its own troubles in recent months. Internecine warfare among the 10 board members could affect the optimistic picture he paints of the future of both public radio networks, O’Connor conceded.
“What we have now is two five-member boards rather than one 10-member one,” he said.
A split last spring between the conservative CPB faction (led by board chairman Sonia Landau) and the more liberal faction (led by Sharon Rockefeller) has not yet healed. At its most recent meeting, the board could not agree on a new president, vice president or general counsel for CPB. Until someone is selected for the $84,000-a-year CPB presidency, it is unlikely that NPR’s future funding plans will move up on the CPB agenda.
Last May, NPR affiliates approved a new business plan that asks CPB to give its annual public radio largesse directly to radio stations, completely bypassing NPR. The network would get virtually no direct funds from the congressionally funded CPB.
Under the new plan, NPR would make up that loss by charging its affiliates much higher membership fees, beginning in 1987. In essence, NPR would receive the same CPB funding it lost to its member stations, but it would no longer have to deal directly with a politicized CPB board. Repeated charges of liberal bias in NPR’s newscasts have been exacerbated recently by attacks from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank with strong ties to the Reagan Administration.
O’Connor, who has been aligned most often with the Landau faction, supports the business plan, in part because it puts NPR on a free-market footing with APR. Stations will be able to pick and choose programs from both networks rather than having to affiliate with one or the other . . . or with both . . . in order to receive their shows.