By Alan Prendergast
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You'd think any radio show capable of attracting fans from avant-garde musical acts such as the Olivia Tremor Control, Built to Spill, Friends of Dean Martinez, Negativland and Pere Ubu would have to be mighty hip, right? And yet Alternative Radio, the Boulder-based program intended to profit from Keep Left, Vol. 1, a forthcoming benefit CD on Hoboken, New Jersey's Ace Fu Records that features the aforementioned artists plus the Kronos Quartet and more, is, in many respects, utterly old-fashioned. After all, most offerings on AR, as its aficionados refer to it, consist of little more than two people talking. For an hour.
So what's the appeal of host David Barsamian's baby, which is heard on Boulder's KGNU and over a hundred other public-radio outlets around the globe? Simple. In a talk-radio environment whose conservatism is on par with Dick Cheney's, AR is unrepentantly liberal, providing a rare forum for such old-school political southpaws as A People's History of the United States author Howard Zinn, who penned Keep Left's liner notes, and messiah of progressivism Noam Chomsky, himself a contributor to the package's jacket: His mini-monograph salutes AR as "a fundamental component of authentic democracy and individual self-realization."
Obviously, this ain't Howard Stern, but Barsamian attracts more than his fair share of the under-25 demographic anyway -- and he thinks he knows why. "Public radio is fossilized," he intones, his voice sounding scratchy and lived-in. "It's on a very tight leash, and its audience is old and getting older -- and I think what accounts for that is its heavy dependence on predictable voices with status-quo ideas. And that turns off young people."
On the surface, Barsamian's fare would seem to have no more appeal for today's youth: The first episode of his new season, which debuts on KGNU (88.5 on your FM dial) at 6 p.m. Wednesday, August 30, spotlights Frances Fox Piven, labor expert and co-author of The Breaking of the American Social Compact, which CBS has no current plans to turn into a Survivors-type reality show. Still, Barsamian has a genuine following among brainy collegiates around the country, many of whom send him letters and e-mail absolutely dripping with gratitude. The irony isn't lost on Marty Durlin, station manager of KGNU.
"Alternative Radio really flies in the face of all the research that the marketers and focus groups in Washington have done," she says. "They talk about how people have such a short attention span that you have to measure audiences in increments of fifteen minutes. What David does couldn't be more opposite of that, but he's got an awful lot of people out there, of all ages, who really appreciate what he's doing."
Although he goes toe-to-toe with academic heavyweights on a weekly basis, Barsamian has zippo background in broadcasting or journalism and precious few traditional educational credentials: A native New Yorker born of immigrants from the Middle East, he attended classes at San Francisco State University for just one year before dropping out because "I was so bored out of my mind." He subsequently headed overseas, spending three of the next five years studying music in India before returning to New York in 1970. For the next eight years, he subsisted by whatever means necessary: He gave sitar lessons, taught English to immigrants and even put in a year working in the Indian government's tourist office before relocating to Boulder, where his sister was living. His arrival coincided with the launch of KGNU, and because "they were looking for people to do programs and I had a lot of free time on my hands," he pitched an international music show dubbed Ganges to the Nile.
Within a matter of months, the exotic sounds Barsamian spotlighted throughout Ganges were swept aside by current events. "Right at that time, the Iranian hostage crisis broke out, and there was an enormous amount of distortion and misinformation about Muslims, Islam and the Middle East," he recalls. "So I started to introduce political information trying to counter the kind of carpet-bombing of propaganda that was feeding Islamophobia in the country."
Such attempts to move beyond chest-pounding nationalism might not have gone over well in some other communities, but they hit the spot in Boulder, where a sizable part of the populace was dissatisfied with the party line. (Indeed, Durlin says overseas conflicts tend to bring out the philanthropist in KGNU boosters: During the Gulf War, she remembers people spontaneously dropping donations by the studio simply because the station was providing something other than all-rah-rah-all-the-time coverage of the clash.) Emboldened, Barsamian began branching out to encompass a wide range of topics -- and he soon discovered that his access to the sort of reformist thinkers whose viewpoints most often mirrored his own was practically unlimited.
"I'd call Noam Chomsky, and he'd pick up the phone himself, and within a short time I could set up an interview -- because nobody was calling him," Barsamian says. "The U.S. is not lacking in people with a diversity of opinion, but the mainstream media have a golden Rolodex that they go to time and time again. And most of these authorities are people who haven't had an original idea in fifty years. They're unthinking rubber-stampers of official policy, whereas people like Chomsky don't mind challenging conventional wisdom."
The same can be said of Barsamian, who decided in 1986 to start disseminating his program via satellite in hopes that the citizenry at large would embrace his work. He became the KGNU news director the following year, but in 1991 he quit that gig to concentrate more of his attention on AR. Since then, his reputation has spread, thanks in part to six books based on his interviews with Chomsky (the most recent, The Common Good, was issued in 1998) plus collaborations with Zinn (The Future of History), Eqbal Ahmad (Confronting Empire) and Edward Said (The Pen & the Sword). His success continues to strike Durlin, who's helmed KGNU for the past thirteen years, as thoroughly improbable.
"If someone had told me, 'I'm going to make a living out of recording dissident intellectuals and putting them on the air uninterrupted,' I would have said, 'Right -- good luck,'" she notes with a laugh. "I'm amazed that there's that big of a market out there for this. But David has found it."
Not that he's swimming in Rupert Murdoch-type waters. Because AR is free to any public-radio station that wants to air it, Barsamian supports himself mainly through sales of tapes and transcripts. But while he has a couple of staffers to assist him, he lacks high-volume tape duplicators or an adequate computer system -- deficiencies the Keep Left collection is intended to address. "We need to move into the 21st century," he says. "We have a Web site [alternativeradio.org], but we don't have mp3 technology, and we don't have the capability to send stations or individuals audio files. If we did, you could go to my Web site and download the audio -- and that way, we'd also be doing an end run around the stations that refuse to broadcast the program."
There are loads of those, including Denver's KUVO and KCFR (the flagship outlet of the Colorado Public Radio system), both of which have brushed off Barsamian's entreaties for years. In addition, AR has been yanked from some stations that once broadcast it, including state networks in Michigan and Wisconsin. Predictably, Barsamian views the reasons generally given for these decisions -- lack of ratings and sponsors -- through a sinister prism.
"If you put a program in a bad time slot and don't promote it, poor ratings are a self-fulfilling prophecy," he says. "And a similar concept comes into play for underwriting, which is Orwell-speak for 'commercials.' If you were the head of a Fortune 500 company, would you be inclined to sponsor a program that features people like Ralph Nader [the star of an AR installment slated for September], who challenges the very legitimacy of corporate power, or would you rather spend your money on a program that reflects your views? The answer is self-evident; today program directors are very reluctant to put on programming that could be perceived as unfriendly to corporations, which are the major sponsors of public radio.
"I don't want to whine and moan," Barsamian adds. "I'm glad to be on the stations I'm on. But one of the things AR is about that makes some public-radio stations very uncomfortable is that it's dedicated to the founding principles of public broadcasting, as embodied in a 1967 report by the Carnegie Commission. The report said public radio was intended to serve 'as a forum for controversy and debate' and to provide 'a voice for groups that may otherwise be unheard.' That may not be the mission of a lot of public radio anymore, but it's still ours."
Poli-sigh: According to David Barsamian, the coverage of the season's presidential politics by mainstream radio has been superficial in the extreme. "The commentators are almost invariably prognosticators, asking, 'How are they going to do...?'" he says. "It's like listening to a movie review: 'He looked confident as he strode to the platform and immediately established a rapport with the audience.' What is that?"
Typical, unfortunately. The local station that's providing the most reporting about the recent Republican convention in Philadelphia and this week's gathering of Democrats in Los Angeles is KWAB-AM, a left-leaning Boulder commercial outlet ("Radio for [Lots of] Change," May 25) -- but its modest, 1,000-watt signal can be tough to hear beyond the Boulder turnpike. As a result, Denverites have had to turn to talkers such as KOA and KHOW, few of whose national-politics broadcasts could be described as in-depth.
For instance, the programming devoted to Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore's naming of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman as his proposed veep has largely neglected to examine many of his previous public stands, including his mid-'90s attacks on pop culture made at the side of William Bennett, the ultra-right-wing taste arbiter who wrote The Book of Virtues. (Gore's election would give two of the Democratic figures most likely to blame societal ills on a movie, album or video game -- Lieberman and Al's wife, Parents Music Resource Center co-founder Tipper Gore -- a bully pulpit from which to wag their fingers.) Instead, the conversations have generally centered on Lieberman's Orthodox Jewish faith, thereby attracting a disturbing number of calls from covert or overt anti-Semites whose bigotry hasn't been challenged often enough. Even worse was a song parody heard on the syndicated Michael Reagan yakfest beamed forth weeknights on KTLK -- a mocking "salute" to Lieberman wailed cantor-like to the melody of "Hava Nagila."
This is going to be a loooong campaign...
Shopping centered:Why the hell do Denver media outlets feel compelled to treat the opening of a new mall like the unveiling of the freakin' Statue of Liberty? You'd think the press would have learned a lesson from the ludicrous overhyping of Park Meadows as a "retail resort"; even Rocky Mountain News gossip columnist Penny Parker ridiculed this label in an August 6 column (despite the fact that her gushy writing as the Denver Post's retail reporter about the complex's debut, which did more to popularize the aforementioned phrase than anything else, inspired wits to christen her "Penny Parker Meadows"). But, no. Coverage of the August 11 bow of FlatIron Crossing in Broomfield was so excessive that Cherry Creek Shopping Center sent everyone who has ever worked at Westword a commemorative tenth-anniversary mug, just to remind us that there are still other malls in town.
It was tough to say which TV station sank lowest -- talk about a photo finish -- but my vote goes to Channel 4, whose execs are probably still in mourning over the recent passing of polar-bear-cub machine Ulu. The station's 4 p.m. newscast on August 8, a full three days before the ribbon cutting, led with about five minutes on FlatIron, including live fulminating courtesy of weekend anchor Kathy Walsh and a promise/threat that reports from the mall would begin at 6 a.m. on the big day. They weren't kidding: Jenny Dean, among the outlet's more credible presences, was at the scene bright and early to tell the breathless masses about desperately important things such as the metro area's latest Nordstrom store.
Guess she drew the short straw.
Channel 7 hardly ignored the hoopla: In addition to the usual ballyhoo from Bill Clarke on the eve of the official introduction, the outlet offered up helicopter footage to show addicted shoppers how best to get to the site. On most days, however, the station's news programming is the most journalistically solid in town -- which is why the impending departure of news director Diane Mulligan is such bad news.
Because Channel 7's ratings remain at subterranean levels during most time slots, Mulligan's all-too-familiar explanation for her decision -- she wants to spend more time with her six-year-old son, Robert -- has left many observers wondering what's really behind the move. But both Mulligan and general manager Cindy Velasquez do an awfully convincing job of arguing against such cynicism. "When I told Robert, 'Mommy quit her job today,' he said, 'So you can spend more time with me? That is so great!'" Mulligan recounts. For her part, Velasquez notes that Mulligan has agreed to remain in her post until October 1, and underlines her hope that Mulligan will stay on afterward in a different, more time-flexible capacity.
Meanwhile, Velasquez doesn't soft-pedal Channel 7's difficulties in building its audience. "We do have days where overnight measurements indicate we're in the game. But the problem is, we don't have enough of them, and to be honest with you, there are some nights that are dreadful." Nonetheless, she continues to preach consistency: "We're certainly anxious to see some movement, but we know that change happens in markets quite slowly. So I don't see us changing the direction of our news content."
Not yet, anyhow.
That takes the cake: Poor Rob Reuteman. The Rocky Mountain News's business editor, who just had to replace a couple of veteran writers ("Fox on the Run," July 27), already has to repeat the drill: Dana Coffield and Richard Williamson, joined by exiting city reporter Bill Scanlon, have vamoosed in favor of Interactive Week, a high-tech trade publication.
Just how JOA-related these latest abandonments are is debatable. However, so many folks are splitting for whatever reason that the paper's longstanding practice of saying goodbye to departing employees with a sheet cake has been shelved. As usual, editor John Temple failed to return a message seeking comment -- 'cuz I'm so scary, I guess -- but a reliable source reveals that in lieu of dessert for those leaving, the News will host monthly sheet-cake feasts for all the new hires replacing them.
Considering the traffic at the Rocky's revolving door, maybe the next joint operating agreement the paper signs should be with a bakery.