Saturday, June 30, 2007

Ruth's Report

Ruth: "And the sign said, 'Long-haired freaky people need not apply'." That is from the 1972 hit song "Signs" by the Five Man Electrical Band which, my middle son told me, was also a hit for a rock group called Tesla in 1991. I found myself humming the song repeatedly as I read through e-mails this week. KPFA posted their own sign this week. But before we get to that, let me note this appeal, from The Nation, sent out with David Corn's name attached:

Dear Member of the Nation Community,
I’ve never written a fundraising letter--not counting the few notes I sent my parents when I was in college. I’m a journalist. I write articles and books--about politics, national security, and the world around us. And I’m damn lucky; I get paid to do so by The Nation. But the magazine has been hit by a fiscal crisis--one caused by the sort of institutional Washington corruption I often cover--and I’ve been asked by our publishing team to ask you for help. Please click here to pitch in.
Last week, Teresa Stack, The Nation's president, sent you a letter explaining this crisis. To recap:

Postal regulators have accepted a scheme designed in part by lobbyists for the Time Warner media conglomerate. In short, mailing costs for mega-magazines like Time Warner's own Time, People and Sports Illustrated will go up only slightly or decrease. But smaller publications like The Nation will be hit by an enormous rate increase of half a million dollars a year.

For The Nation, $500,000 a year is a lot of money. Believe me, I know. I’ve been working at the magazine for over 20 years. The pay ain't great. But there are few media outlets that allow their writers and reporters the freedom to go beyond the headlines and take on the powers that be--to ask inconvenient questions and pursue uncomfortable truths.
But starting July 15, 2007, The Nation will face this whopping postal rate hike. Not to be melodramatic, but this rate increase is a threat to democratic discourse. Why should magazines that can afford high-powered lobbyists receive preferential treatment? This rise in mailing costs will make it harder for the magazine to deliver the investigative reporting and independent-minded journalism upon which you depend. (Take my word; I see the editors and publishing people in our New York office freaking out about this postal rate hike and discussing possible cutbacks.)
The magazine is fighting this corporate-driven, unfair and anti-democratic increase as best it can. It has joined forces with conservative publications in an attempt to beat back the rigged rate structure. (Imagine Katrina vanden Heuvel and Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, working together!) But even if we "win" -- which, I’m told, is a long shot--The Nation will still face hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional postage.
So I'm turning to you. I've never asked our readers for anything--except the time it takes to read what I write for the magazine and its website. But The Nation needs you to help us cover this shortfall, and it needs that help now. Simply put, I’m asking you to send us money: whatever contribution you can, as soon as you can. Click here.
I'm not entirely comfortable writing to you as a fundraiser. Because people like you have supported the magazine, I’ve been able to do the work I enjoy for years. I appreciate that. Now I'm hoping you'll come through in this time of need. Certainly, I'd rather be chasing kick-ass stories than worrying about magazine budget cuts and writing pleading letters. So please help us deal with this unfair rate hike, and I’ll go back to my day job.
David Corn,
Washington Editor
The Nation
P.S. The magazine will soon invite you to participate in a special phone conference to discuss this postal rate increase issue in more depth. Please take the time to join fellow Nation readers, Nation editors and writers, and special guest experts, and to learn more about the rate hike and its impact on The Nation.

First, obviously, Katrina vanden Heuvel and Rich Lowry already "work together" in that both make a point to ignore war resistance. Whether they discussed the decision together or just share so many similarities that it was "natural" for both, I have no idea. But they are not that different and, possibly, future fund raising letters should convey that this effects all magazines and not turning to the right for examples?

But, moving on the second point, imagine that you subscribe to The Nation. Once upon a time, that would be a great many community members, so it should not be too hard to put yourself back in that recent time frame. You are a subscriber. One day, you go to your mailbox. Instead of the 'weekly' issue, you have a note from Mr. Corn or Ms. Stack, or possibly poor Peter Rothberg's been ordered yet again to send out a notice from Katrina vanden Heuvel who is far too busy relaxing to ever take a moment to contact the subscribers.

You think, "My subscription is not up. What are they hitting me up for this time?" Opening the envelope you read:

Dear Nation subscriber,
Due to the postal hike, the magazine has decided to take a stand.
The latest issue will not be sent out. Instead, you can check out your local bookstore -- if you are lucky enough to have a local bookstore -- for the issue.
In solidarity,
David Corn and Teresa Stack

How would you react to that letter?

This is not as much of a hypothetical as some might think. If a magazine decided to 'protest' the postal hike by denying subscribers an issue, I think the magazine's image would be pretty much sunk. However, should Ms. vanden Heuvel want to grab this example, she has my permission. I will not fret or worry about the state of that do-nothing magazine. (C.I. has listed reasons to give and reasons not to give here.)

Leaving the land of the hypothetical, print is not the only media facing an increase. Internet radio is expected to pay more for the songs they use as well. To 'protest' that, KPFA decided to not stream on June 26th this week. The thinking appears to have been, "We'll outrage them!" In that, they succeeded. Judging by all the e-mails on this topic, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

A visitor e-mailed this copy of the comments he left for KPFA via their contact form:

As someone who automatically pledges each month, I'm not sure how KPFA thinks "The government screwed us, so now we'll screw the internet listener" is supposed to do anything other than make me find another station to listen to and cease pledging? I can use the money I donate. I'm not just tossing it out. And the fact that this supposed 'solidarity' action doesn't effect your broadcast audience makes it all seem like a bit of tantrum. I give to Pacifica and, in the past, the bulk to KPFA. I may need to find another Pacifica station to focus on, one that doesn't screw over online listeners.
And the rate hike was covered on the programs already.

Yes, the rate hike was covered on public affairs programming. They were late doing so. But they did cover it. Public affairs programming, by the way, makes up the bulk of KPFA's daytime schedule. But you could not hear public affairs programming on June 26th if you tried to listen to KPFA online.

"Tantrum"? I would agree with that word choice. This was not about informing listeners, it was a tantrum. Informing listeners would have been playing the public affairs programming, the news programming, and a pre-recorded message during music programs explaining the rate hikes. Carts of upcoming events could have been played during the music breaks of public affairs programming. They could have used the day to get the word out. Instead they went with silence. Silence, apparently what the world needs now? That is how the cowards play it on Iraq. Silent on the topic, with silent vigils. KPFA was outraged by the hike and decided the best way to address it was to silence their own voices and, Tom Ridge will be thrilled, grab some duct tape to cover their mouths. Oh for the left of my youth which realized action and speaking out trumped silence and lethargy any day.

Despite the duct tape, they managed to spit on online listeners and not all online listeners, as KPFA's figures should tell them, are outside the Bay Area. I have an angry e-mail from three women who work in a government building, in the basement, and cannot pick up the station, due to interference, so they listen online.

A lot of people, in the Bay Area and outside, were put out for what was, in fact, a tantrum.

If you visited the KPFA website on the 26th, you saw a note explaining you could not stream and that this resulted from their tantrum. I have noted that they've switched to a new type or font on their website which is very small. That may be why most people missed the 'button' that was supposed to provide them with information. Instead, they just learned that KPFA was not going to stream online that day in 'protest.' They just saw the announcement which telegraphed that KPFA was pouting and taking their ball home.

Not surprisingly, the response from online listeners was not, "Gee, I hope they come out and play tomorrow." No, as is the usual response to a spoiled brat throwing a tantrum, the e-mails spoke of finding other stations to listen to. Many spoke of automatic, monthly pledges as the visitor noted in his comments he allowed me to share. They wondered if, as online listeners and KPFA supporters, they could get a waiver for the month of June since KPFA did not think enough of them to broadcast?

That is really what it comes down to. KPFA could have gotten the word out on the issue. Instead, they stomped their feet, stuck out their tongue, grabbed their ball, and ran home for the full day. In the process, they ended up looking like fools.

In the process, they also made it difficult for themselves when it is time for on air begging again.
This is not how you build a relationship with listeners and I have listened to enough Pacifica pledge drives to know that KPFA, more than any other station, receives pledges from all over the country, from all over the world.

But their message on the 26th, to all those online listeners who wrongly thought they were KPFA members, wrongly thought they were KPFA sustainers and more, was very simply: You do not matter.

You do not matter to KPFA. Not when they want to throw a tantrum and deny those of you who have pledged online, called their toll free number from out of the Bay Area to pledge, pledged from within the Bay Area but used the online stream. KPFA did not cease broadcasting on the 26th. On the 26th, they continued to broadcast over the airwaves. So there are two sets of listeners now.

Online listeners are second-class citizens who can be denied programming whenever KPFA wants to stomp their feet and throw a tantrum. They will gladly continue to take your money but serving you can cease on a whim, as they demonstrated this week.

Reality is that traditional broadcasting is probably, like my youth and my middle age, a thing of the past. Reality is that satellite and online streaming are probably going to continue to be the way to reach more and more audiences. KPFA laid down their marker and explained that they would be there for online listeners when they were good and damn ready. When they wanted to have a tantrum, the online listeners could twiddle their thumbs in silence.

Of course, that is not what the online listeners did. They went to other stations. Some were Pacifica stations, some were NPR, some were independent stations, some were corporate radio stations. There are many choices online.

There is certainly no reason to listen to an outlet that makes it very clear that, when the ship is taking on water, you will be the first tossed overboard. The anger this has caused demonstrates it was a huge mistake on KPFA's part.

The station might argue that they got the word out. Other stations were also silent on that day. Looking over the list of stations taking part (I know of no other Pacifica station which did), they are mainly music stations. KPFA is not supposed to be a music station. During the day, KPFA is largely a public affairs program station that broadcasts music for a two hour period each day surrounded by public affairs program.

Now after 8:00 p.m. PST, they air music non-stop until 6:00 a.m. the next morning. Ten hours of music programming. Ten hours and they want to complain about a rate hike? Try providing listeners with something of value before you start whining. When you add the two hours played during the day, KPFA is programming twelve hours of music each week day.

KPFA does not have time, four years later, to cover Iraq in a program dedicated to that topic, but they have time to spin tunes for twelve hours a day, Monday through Friday? I must have missed that in the KPFA mission statement.

For those who missed the 'button,' which was a lot of you e-mailing, here is what you would have read if you had seen the 'button' and clicked on it:

What's this all about?: On July 15th, royalty payments for webcast music will increase by as much as 1200%. This outrageous and unfair ruling will result in many webcasters owing music royalty fees that are more than their yearly budget! Because of this, many popular internet radio services will shut down.
Non-commercial stations, like KPFA, must pay the commercial royalty rate once a certain amount of online listeners tune in. KPFA may have to limit the amount of online listeners we have.

"KPFA may have to limit the amount of online listeners we have"? It is probably a good thing that so many e-mailing missed that button. When KPFA decides to begin limiting 'the amount of online listeners we have,' look for their fund drives to become a long dry spell. Without pledges from online listeners, they would not have made their target goals in the cycles when they made them. To the surprise of no one, they ended their last fund raiser far from their target goal.

That resulted from angry listeners being hyped and lied to about the Pelosi-Reid measure. That happened when a supposed left station decided that "left" meant "Democratic Party cheerleader." I had hoped KPFA would have grasped how many listeners they had angered as a result of their huge 'shortfall.' If they did, a day of silence did not indicate they had.

When you have listeners trying to get over their anger of the lies told about the Pelosi-Reid measure, it really is not the time to turn around and try to make another group angry. But that is what they have done. Shirley tried to keep a count for me on the e-mails coming in this week addressing the 'day of silence' but when it reached 400, I told her not to bother. I certainly was not going to count them all and did not want to shove that task off on her. I know she, Martha, Eli and C.I. were already overwhelmed working the e-mail accounts on other issues, so much so that Kat worked the members accounts on Thursday and Friday. C.I. had 'benched' Ava and Jess so that they could have a free week.

Many e-mails from visitors opened with a statement that can be boiled down as, "I may be the only one who feels this way, but I want to draw something to your attention." No one got a personal reply from me. There were too many e-mails on this subject. Thank you, to the visitor I quoted above who noted in his single e-mail, "Feel free to quote any line or in full from the comments I left for KPFA." Thank you to the three women who composed the joint e-mail and noted which sections I could quote. They and none of the others writing were "alone." This was a huge issue. Thank you to everyone who wrote, visitor or member, because when I heard about the day off, I really did not get that it would be such a big deal. I assumed people would, as they did, go elsewhere to listen online. This is a topic I would not be covering on my own and I want to stress that because, obviously I am covering it, this is an example of how I can underestimate an issue and the e-mails can steer me to something that is much more important than I would have grasped on my own.

The three in the basement, who have to listen online because the airwaves broadcast is blocked out by wires or something in their building, noted they also have trouble with their cell phones when they are in the basement. But, in their group e-mail, they wanted it noted that they could, and did, go to Democracy Now! for that program. They wrote that they were patient but when it was time for Against the Grain and there was no broadcast that was "the last straw." That day's program, just FYI, was on media portrayals of abortion and they have archived it. I am not sure whether the three will listen to it because they made it quite clear that they can pick up KQED over the airwaves, which Kat explained to me is the area's NPR, and "we think we'll just stick with that from now on."

If the goal was to drive off listeners, KPFA succeeded. If the goal was to get the word out, they failed. If the goal was to telegraph, "We will gladly take your money but you are a second-class listener," that message was received. Tuesday, June 26th, they made that perfectly clear to many listeners, some of whom are now former listeners.

Possibly, had a station decidated to peace grasped that twelve hours of music programming in a 24 hour cycle was excessive, they never would have found themselves in the mess they currently are in? Looking at Pacifica's mission statement, I see nothing stating they will waste 12 hours of each 24 hour cycle by spinning tunes. Maybe I am missing it, but Lewis Hill really does not strike me as the precurser to Wolfman Jack.

I will give the last word to visitor Mark who noted, "It's irony that the same Democrats KPFA has been providing cover for, the same who now control Congress and do nothing, also did nothing to stop the internet rate increase. Looking back on that wh**ing coverage, I'm reminded of how the television networks refused to question the Iraq war in the leadup due to their desire for further consolidation. If KPFA thought putting a price tag on their ass meant Congress would protect them, I'm betting they think differently now."