Homogenizing WBEZ

There’s no suffering like the suffering caused by a good job suddenly vanishing, and last week Torey Malatia tasted of this particular agony.

Commuting to work, Malatia, who directs programming at WBEZ, was studying a Bob Feder column in the Sun-Times on the upheaval at his station. He spotted something that seized his heart. It was the lament of Stuart Rosenberg, host of two lively weekend shows, Radio Gumbo and The Earth Club, each a mix of music from every genre, era, and culture. Malatia understood Rosenberg’s pain. The day before, he’d fired him.

Rosenberg told Feder he was sorry he wouldn’t have the chance to sit behind the mike one last time and tell his fans good-bye. Although most of the many changes Malatia had announced for WBEZ would take effect in January, he’d pulled Rosenberg off the air immediately.

“Having been informed of my dismissal rather abruptly, the most difficult thing was realizing I would never have a chance to convey the depth of my appreciation, respect, and love for what listeners gave back to me,” Rosenberg told Feder. “It was a great and wonderful musical adventure for seven years.”

Rosenberg’s regret riddled Malatia with guilt. “I did make a mistake here, and I’m sorry about it,” he told us later. “He asked if he could do a good-bye show, and I didn’t think so. I think having a show on the air after it’s been canceled is a bad idea. It’s just like decay on the air. But I was on the train and I saw the Feder column and I thought, this is not a problem if what he wants to do is say good-bye.”

Rosenberg could say good-bye by “cutting a card”–that is, making a tape. His own voice would provide the segue into a new era. “We’d have Stuart cut something on tape saying to his audience whatever he wants to say,” Malatia later explained. “‘Thanks for listening. We’re moving on to other things.’ Whatever he wants to say.”

Malatia got off the train and immediately called Rosenberg with his fine idea. His enthusiasm did not prove contagious.

“He’d told me unequivocally he would not allow me to go back on the air,” Rosenberg said later. “And at seven the next morning he woke me up from a dead sleep in an agitated state. I said, don’t call me this early, and hung up.

“He called back and said something about cutting a card. It’s demeaning to sign off on a 30-second piece of tape after seven years of broadcasting. I understand that’s the world he comes from, but it’s not the world of WBEZ.”

In Rosenberg’s mind, the world Malatia comes from is commercial radio. Although Malatia worked in both public TV and fine-arts radio in Phoenix and then spent four years at WFMT, the ugly stain on his resume is his job just prior to WBEZ–a 14-month tour at squawk-radio WLS. At WBEZ he inherited the process Ken Davis began last year before he suddenly quit: rethinking the programming.

“I think we’re typical of a lot of radio stations that grew out of educational institutions,” Malatia told us. “If you look at the present WBEZ schedule, what you see is not any scheme, but what you have when you have time available and people who originally volunteer to come in and provide their talents.”

The notorious dichotomy at WBEZ has been between public affairs weekdays and jazz at night. Weekends traipsed off in yet another direction, marked by Garrison Keillor, Michael Feldman, Car Talk, the blues, the mambo, and Rosenberg’s jambalayas.

“If the radio station you are listening to is only a sometime pastime, why would you give money to it?” Malatia wondered. “You wouldn’t. People pledge money to a radio station because they find it really useful. Because they tune in all the time.”

He went on, “I was concerned that the weekend in some respects bore no resemblance to the radio station during the week. And the weekend is when you’re most likely to try the station. We don’t have a talk magazine on weekends. We don’t have as much news presence. So you’ll see some of those weekend shows replaced by news, information, and talk magazines.”

As the victim of this line of reasoning, Rosenberg does not admire it. He said, “WBEZ has gone from being what we might think of as a community resource and has become merely another player in the corporate communications arena–the only difference being it is avowedly nonprofit. The station’s mandate is to increase listenership and boost revenues.

“Something that has to happen,” Rosenberg went on, “is a certain homogenization. That’s something Torey said–he wanted the station to sound the same whenever he turned it on. He has a vision of radio that is, shall we say, standard. I’m not of that world. My vision of what I did on radio was to try to transcend the medium.”

We pursued the theory of homogenization with Malatia. He said, “What I tried to do in the January schedule, which is by no means the last schedule we’ll ever see, is attempt to find some kind of rational relationship or aesthetic relationship between the news and information we offer that is the bulk of our appeal to our audience and other things that might have some appeal to that audience.”

Which brought Malatia to why he spared jazz but dumped Rosenberg.

“I then considered what direction we needed to go in music. One possibility I really did consider quite a bit was doing a modified Gumbo-esque program–go after the fringes of alternative rock plus progressive, folk, and world music mixed together. This is actually done at some public radio stations with great effect.”

But, he went on, “A lot of the elements of that format are found at major competing radio stations, for example ‘XRT and to an extent Q-101. I would have to find ways of wooing an audience that had found its place at full-service, high-profile radio stations. The key would have been to do it better, but that kind of qualitative difference is often hard to get across, especially when you don’t have a promotions budget.

“The other side was to look at our jazz operation–we are known as a jazz station–and revitalize that.”

Said Rosenberg, “If Torey thinks what I did sounded like Q-101 or WXRT he’s got beans in his ears. They play nothing but rock music. The fact of the matter is, you can find jazz elsewhere. There’s plenty of jazz on the radio dial. You can find talk elsewhere. I think Torey wants something he can understand, and he can’t understand what I do. He can’t understand someone who embraces the whole world of music. I believe the pluralistic vision that lies at the heart of public radio’s mission was served well by my programming.”

No, it’s not all rock at those other places, Malatia insisted. “They experiment around, especially at ‘XRT. There are periods when they’ll depart from the main Monday-Friday schedule. That’s the electronic stuff [Rosenberg used to play], not the acoustic stuff.

“Some of that will be incorporated into the mix we play during the week. A lot of it,” he conceded, “is lost.”

Parting Words

Since Rosenberg wasn’t going to be saying an on-the-air good-bye, we offered him our column.

“It was a wonderful ride,” his valedictory rang. “I learned as much from the people who listened to my show about what was valuable about music and about life as I hope they learned from me. It was a wonderful opportunity and I’m sorry that it had to end the way that it did.”

Just a few days earlier we’d been speaking with another silenced media figure. In its relentless crusade to deliver news cheap, the Tribune has been doing a lot of trimming at the margins. Its gardening, stamps, and coins columnists have gotten the boot in favor of syndicated or wire-service talent, and latest to go was the antiques writer these last 21 years, Anita Gold.

Gold’s Friday editor allowed her to say she was going fishing. But she had a much longer personal note in mind for her ultimate Sunday column. She was told to forget it. “I don’t think that’s fair,” says Gold, who left the stage brimming with squelched poetry.

“I can’t tell you who I’ve sat down on the floor with and played with their collections,” she confides. “These are big men in industry, but it doesn’t matter. You’re reduced to the joys and pleasures of being a collector.

“Do you know one of the biggest highs a collector can get is getting something in the mail? Most collectors will not open the package one, two, three. They’ll look at it, they’ll walk around it, they’ll touch it, they’ll kind of wait a while until they open it up–because it’s so exciting. And when they open it up it’s that distinct musty smell of whatever it is in the box that’s so old, and then they unwrap it so carefully. And it’s such a high! A noncollector can’t understand it. It doesn’t really matter what you collect, fruit jars or swizzle sticks.”

It’s clear that far too many journalists are shuffling to the scaffold choked with unuttered eloquence. So send your last words to us. As a public service we’ll print them if they meet our standards of nobility or bile. We only regret this offer comes too late for Diane Crowley, made a nonperson in September by the Sun-Times. But here’s good news: you can still hear her voice. If late one night you crave the measured tones of sanity, call 321-2989 and hear Crowley say, “I’m sorry I can’t get back to you personally because of the number of calls, but I hope there will be room for your letter in a future column. And thanks for reading ‘Dear Diane.'”

‘In These Times’ Gets Ahead

In These Times apparently will stay in business. Founder-editor James Weinstein told us the last-gasp campaign that began last spring raised about $340,000. Furthermore, the Chicago-based biweekly negotiated away about $90,000 of its $285,000 in debt. “So we’re ahead of the game a little bit,” Weinstein said.

There’s one hitch. The National Writers Union has been hounding ITT for what seems to Weinstein like forever. The journal owes writers at least $40,000, but maybe a lot more. Weinstein says he’ll pay the debts he knows about, set aside $20,000 to cover the ones he doesn’t, and run ads inviting writers who think he’s stiffed them to make claims. Weinstein is eager to launch a massive, sustained, and expensive subscription drive, so he wants to come to terms with the NWU in the next few days. If for some reason he can’t, all bets are off.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.