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Public Radio Faces Loss of a Programming Institution

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Public broadcasting will lose one of its most vibrant and innovative program-makers this fall when Smithsonian Productions is shut down because of cost-cutting measures. The media production unit of the Smithsonian Institution will cease operations Sept. 30.

Smithsonian Productions created television documentaries and exhibit-related videos, but it was most renowned for a slate of award-winning radio programs, such as the 13-hour “Jazz Singers” series, hosted by Al Jarreau, which will air a new installment Wednesday on KCRW-FM (89.9).

“This is a sad moment in public radio history,” said KCRW producer and publicity director Sarah Spitz. “They produced exemplary documentaries that fulfilled a key function of public radio: to entertain while teaching you something new that you might not have known before. They created very rich tapestries of sound and very important documentaries.”

In the last decade, Smithsonian Productions’ radio works included “Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was,” a 1996 series hosted by Lou Rawls that recounted the history of African American radio; “The Mississippi: River of Song,” hosted by Ani DiFranco, a survey of the musical varieties along the river’s shores; and “Memphis: Cradle of Rock ‘n’ Soul” with Cybill Shepherd. “Black Radio” and “River of Song” were both recipients of the Peabody Award.

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“They are one of the few entities in this country that is able to combine radio and TV components to make the sum greater than its parts,” said Richard H. Madden, vice president of radio at the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, which has invested more than $750,000 in Smithsonian Productions programs. “But people may not know about it even though they have probably benefited from it.”

The elimination of Smithsonian Productions was strictly a budgetary decision, said David J. Umansky, director of communications for the Smithsonian Institution. In the Smithsonian’s fiscal year 2002 budget, which is still awaiting final approval in Congress, it received a 2.4% increase for salaries and expenses, but that was not enough to cover a federally mandated 3.7% raise for its employees. To make up the shortfall, the Smithsonian eliminated 180 positions, including the nine-member staff at Smithsonian Productions, Umansky said.

“There were cuts in every area of the Smithsonian. Whole other offices were cut, all of which were essential in some way. None of it was done as a comment on the quality of the work,” he said.

For a media production center, Smithsonian Productions was fairly lean: Its 2001 budget was $735,000, according to director Paul Johnson, less than half of which came out of the Smithsonian’s $386 million in federal appropriations earmarked for salaries and expenses. That budget went to salaries, benefits and operating costs; money for program production was raised from other sources, such as museum funds and grants.

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The “Memphis: Cradle of Rock ‘n’ Soul” project, for example, received $135,000 from the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, according to Wesley Horner, executive producer for Smithsonian Productions. “We were able to leverage millions of dollars in outside production funding,” he said.

More important, the team of in-house radio and TV producers kept track of the Smithsonian’s research and exhibits to identify potential media projects. For example, the material for “Memphis” was culled from the National Museum of American History’s archives of interviews with legendary figures in the history of rock ‘n’ soul.

“If we weren’t here to rub shoulders with this material and recognize these kinds of opportunities, this material would never get out of the Smithsonian,” Horner said. With Smithsonian Productions gone, the individual museum curators and researchers will have to organize funding and outsource the production for radio and TV projects. While there will still be Smithsonian-related documentaries, the concern among public-radio programmers is that high-quality, innovative productions will become less common.

“There are not many independent producers, or producers who work for daily network programs, who have the ability or the resources to really concentrate on a specific subject matter like ‘Black Radio’ or ‘Mississippi,’ ” said Melinda Ward, senior vice president of productions for PRI, which distributes such radio series as Ira Glass’ “This American Life” and produces, among others, Warren Olney’s new syndicated radio talk show “To the Point.” “The Smithsonian is such a rich resource of material, and having the capability to turn that into radio material was great.”

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Some are concerned that by eliminating its media production unit, the Smithsonian is losing a channel to the American people.

“Most of the Smithsonian’s funding comes from the taxpayers. They have a justifiable expectation that they should share Smithsonian content whether they can fly to Washington or not,” Horner said. “The only way they can do that is through electronic media.”

Cutting Smithsonian Productions is “not going to help us fulfill our mission,” admitted Umansky. “Will radio suffer? Nobody thinks it will be helped by this, but the Smithsonian has many creative and talented people who recognize the value of radio, and I think it will continue to be part of our mission to diffuse knowledge.”

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Ward said she will be sad to see Smithsonian Productions disappear. “These are fabulous programs, and there is so much rich potential at the Smithsonian. You want to see it grow, not diminish.”


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