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Malatia resignation from WBEZ highlights enduring conflict in public radio

Torey "South Side" Malatia, outgoing CEO of Chicago Public Media

Torey “South Side” Malatia, outgoing CEO of Chicago Public Media

On Friday Chicago Public Media CEO Torey Malatia, CEO announced his resignation, after two decades at WBEZ. Public radio listeners from outside Chicago may know Malatia as the man providing “management oversight” for This American Life, to whom Ira Glass always attributes an out-of-context quote from that episode during the program’s end credits.

Malatia has many detractors within the Chicago Public Radio listenership, and reaction to Malatia’s sudden departure has been definitively mixed. To me, the polarized reactions represent two signifcant and divergent visions for public radio.

Veteran Chicago media reporter Robert Feder broke the story Friday on his facebook page. The comments to this post vividly illustrate the reasons why many Chicagoans disdain Malatia, while others like the changes he made to WBEZ.

On one hand, many listeners remain upset about the elmination of most music programming on the station during Malatia’s tenure, as we see in this comment:

Maybe now we can get some music back! He started getting rid of music when he first took over. No Piano Jazz, and it was the last straw when he axed Blues Before Sunrise, which started at midnight Saturday-Sunday…and it was a locally produced show.

In addition, others object to Malatia’s perceived management style, which they characterize as autocratic and deaf to listener input. As this commenter puts it,

Malatia was autocratic and arbitrary in his decisions. However witty and intelligent he may have been, he treated his employees with contempt, firing them at will, and this contempt reflected, I believe, an even greater contempt for his listening audience. I cannot tell what he found truly interesting, he seems rather hollow at the core. This lack of passion or commitment to the people and things that ought to animate the programming of a public radio station explains his downfall. …

On the other hand there are listners who appreciate the changes in WBEZ, evidenced in this comment:

I listen to WBEZ more now that there is no music. Too much talk radio is so far right that it is nice to get a more balanced approach – or even a little lefty bias. If I want music, I’ll put on a music station (of which there are many). I rejoiced when it was announced that [former CEO] Ken Davis wanted to go all talk and have become a donor since Malatia took things in that direction.

This divide in opinion is not unique to Chicago, and can be seen at virtually every public radio station in the US. The operations that have two stations that with one dedicated to music, the other to news/talk, are spared a little bit. Nevertheless, if there’s one thing my twenty years in noncommercial radio had taught me, it’s that there is not a community or public station out there where change is tolerated easily by the listenership.

I moved to Chicago from Central Illinois five years, which is when I became a regular WBEZ listener. By reputation I knew the station to be the home of innovative programs like This American Life, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and Sound Opinions. The station had recently cancelled its last jazz program, and so I was a aware of the kerfuffle around that move.

However, as a listener, I’ve mostly enjoyed and felt well-served by Chicago Public Radio. I’ve been around public radio too long to expect the station to serve all of my information needs. As well, I expect public radio to strive for the political center, even though it will take on significant issues like poverty and race in ways that commercial media does not. To that extent, WBEZ has largely met my expectations. I don’t expect it to be Pacifica, and I am not disappointed.

It is difficult, if not impossible, for a public or noncommercial station to be all things to all listeners. Such a task has become much more difficult in the internet age, when an audience can more easily fulfill individualized desires with hyper-niche outlets. In a major city like Chicago, I’ve come to believe that a station trying to please everyone is a fool’s errand.

The crevasse between music and news/talk programming is especially profound, and I think most stations have to choose between these two program types. The simple fact is that listeners are more likely to tune in for either music or news, and stay tuned in for that. Therefore, I think WBEZ choosing to focus primarily on news/talk was a wise decision in keeping with how media use is changing.

At the same time, I do really understand and respect why listeners get upset when their favorite programs are cancelled, especially when it seems like a station is moving away from their personal taste. It can feel like a personal betrayal. But feeling that way does not make it real.

I see a larger trend at work, beyond the choice between music an news. What I’ve observed at WBEZ is a move to serve a younger, more diverse demographic. As we’ve also seen at NPR in the last five years, WBEZ has focused more of its local programming on music and culture that appeals more to an urban 30 year-old than suburban 50 year-old. Recently the station debuted new local monring and afternoon magazine programs that lean heavily on in-studio guests and call-ins, shifting the schedule of popular syndicated programs like Fresh Air. I can’t say that either program is my favorite, but I also think the experiment is important and necessary.

I do not know Torey Malatia, nor do I know anyone who works at Chicago Public Media. Of course, I have heard reports about his management style that match some of the comments I quoted. But I don’t have enough information to say anything definitive about his style, whether he was an autocratic and tone-deaf as some allege, whether he was a driven innovator who, like Steve Jobs, did not suffer fools, or if he was more collaborative in his management style, as others contend.

It often seems like forging change and innovation in non-commercial radio demands a strong, driven figure, who is willing to execute plans in the face of strong, vitriolic criticism and dissent. Walking the line between this and becoming a demagogue can be challenging.

As I’m sure any veteran program director or general manager can attest, almost any change to programming can bring in strong, flaming comments, critiques and outright insults. It seems to be a law that you will always hear from far more critical and angry listeners, than happy and satisfied listeners. And because a manager knows this ratio is so far off, it’s inevitable that the upset listeners will perceive the management as deaf to their concerns, often simply because their will is not done.

I do not mean to defend any radio manager who chooses autocratic means or ruthless tactics. If this is indeed how Malatia managed, then I don’t think those means justify the ends. More importantly, I wish to ponder how difficult it is for any manager to make significant change an innovation at a station, without being perceived as a dictator, and perhaps therefore being inadvertently encouraged to be one.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a station manager or program director who was not accused by some segment of the listenership of being deaf to their concerns. The real problem is that there are too many definitions of what it means for a station to be accountable and responsive to its listenership. In particular, there’s very little agreement about how that mechanism should work in the first place. Even at community stations with well defined by-laws and listener-elected boards and representatives, these procedures are still insufficient for some. On top of that, for at least some segment of listeners, democracy and responsiveness simply equals, “I get what I want, and if enough of us yell loud enough, we ought to get it.”

This is not to give license to any station manager to ignore listener input, or to rule autocratically. Can Chicago Public Radio improve its listener accountability? I’m sure it can. But this is a process, and every station should strive for continual improvement.

I was quite critical of one recent programming change at WBEZ, when the station cancelled the syndicated Smiley and West program. Malatia himself put to rest any doubt that he had final say in the decision, and his own public comments about the cancellation certainly made it sound like the decision was kind of personal, too. I was not convinced by Malatia’s arguments that the program diverged from ““an environment of inclusiveness that provides an open stage for differences.”

I don’t think that Malatia or the station handled the situation well, nor was it the right decision. And his approach only served to strengthen critics who argue that the station’s on air talent is insufficiently diverse. I don’t necessarily agree with that charge in general, in particular because I’ve heard a couple of very good series reporting on race and the crises in Chicago Public Schools that paid signficant attention to the concerns of poor and minority communities. But the Smiley and West cancellation and Malatia’s comments do merit critique and examination.

To me, one of the greatest ironies found in anti-Malatia arguments has to do with his establishment of a second station, Vocalo. Initially designed to be programmed by listener contributed programming, the station has settled into being a more youth-oriented public station, featuring very diverse voices. Vocalo segments now air on Saturdays on the flagship station, WBEZ.

Understandably, many of the objections about Vocalo have more to do with how the new station was established–largely without notice, even to many on the board of directors–than necessarily the station’s programming. At the same time, it often seems like Vocalo is not given much attention or credit from left-leaning listeners for its efforts.

In fact, I think the Vocalo strategy is in line with my fundamental argument, that public stations are doomed by trying to be all things to all people. Instead, I believe the best thing is for there to be more stations that can represent more interests and audiences. It is better to have both Vocalo and WBEZ than to try and do it all on WBEZ (though many longtime listeners will argue WBEZ should try to do Vocalo programming at all).

This is why I am such a strong advocate of LPFM, community and college radio. I believe that communities should not have to suffice with just one community-oriented noncommercial stations, but should have many to choose from, each able to specialize more deeply on serving different audiences and communities–especially otherwise underserved ones. Of course, this means that some programming will be on lower-powered stations with smaller footprints, while other programs will be on the powerful stations. I admit this is a hierarchy, unavoidable as it is. At the same time, lower power stations can use their hyper-local signals to their advantage to better serve a geographic community than a high-powered station ever would.

Make no mistake, this post is not a love letter to Malatia, nor is it a celebration of his departure. In fact, I’m deeply ambivalent about his resignation, for all of the reasons I’ve cited, and because Chicago Public Radio will probably stay on the course it’s on, no matter who takes the helm next. Changes will certainly ensue, but I highly doubt we’ll see a return to music and talk mix that reigned in 1993.

According to Crain’s Chicago Business, Malatia was pushed out by the Board of Directors, due to concerns over low ratings and other issues. If this is true, then perhaps it was time for him to go. He had a long run as CEO, and I’m a strong believer that regular turnover in key positions is good for non-profits like public radio stations. His ouster should not be interpreted as a rejection of his policies over the last seventeen years, but rather an indication that a fresh perpsective is due.

I recognize that my take on things will be insufficiently critical for many passionate Chicago Public Radio listeners. I believe that the station can only improve its public service, and I see no reason to believe that station management, or Malatia, don’t share that goal. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

I certainly invite respectful debate on the past and future of WBEZ. More important to me is the debate about he future of public and community radio.

Will listeners and supporters permit station management to experient with new approaches to programming, even if that means slaying sacred cows? Or will that deep, and often overly personal, sense of ownership that some listeners have be allowed to dig in deeper and force an intransigently conservative line where the listeners who’ve been around longest determine a station’s path, no matter how well intentioned and politically liberal those listeners are?



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4 Responses to Malatia resignation from WBEZ highlights enduring conflict in public radio

  1. Marguerite Harvey July 29, 2013 at 9:02 am #

    I have no quarrel with the contents of the article, but there are grammatical errors that should have been caught: i.e. in the paragraph starting “I see larger trend”, either it should be a larger trend or I see larger trends, and in the paragraph, “make no mistake…..will probably stay on the course its on”, should be it’s on……

    • Jennifer Waits July 29, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

      Thanks for reading Radio Survivor! The typos have been corrected.

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