Strange Days at WBEZ

A remarkable ten minutes of radio transpired last Monday morning on WBEZ, when Ken Davis returned to the air just long enough to bless the enterprise he’d abandoned.

Bloodletting is far too common at most Chicago media and the eviscerated honchos too anonymous for their rises and falls to matter much to anyone beyond the walls. But WBEZ is small and familial and innocent. And Davis was the familiar, excitable voice of morning’s Studio A and the triumphant fund-raising crusades. He’d also been program director for ten years, and they were very good years for the station, a time of growth, prestige, and emancipation. Two years ago WBEZ left the Board of Education to seek a separate destiny as Chicago’s listener-supported public radio. Now many of those listeners, having read on page one of the Sun-Times that Davis “resigned under fire,” were threatening to cancel their pledges. A public healing was in order.

So Davis came in to tell his former audience that he fully intends to support WBEZ and they should too. Davis explained that he’d been thinking for months about leaving and had left without rancor, although he didn’t pretend things were totally amicable. Actually, 12 days before general manager Carole Nolan joined Davis on the air to sing his praises, she’d rebuked him for sharing with TV-radio columnist Robert Feder an important memo he’d written. Feder’s story showed up on page five of the Sun-Times.

Irritated board members complained to Nolan that they didn’t enjoy reading the newspaper to find out what her program director was up to. In turn, Nolan dressed Davis down, her memo telling him “you overstepped the bounds of your authority” and declaring, “Announcing ‘your’ recommendations in the press was arrogant and a slap in the face for both our boards”–the board of directors and an advisory council formed when WBEZ became independent.

It’s time to go, Davis thought as he read this reprimand. His annual evaluation with Nolan was supposed to be the next morning. He came in and did his last show, sat down with Nolan, and resigned.

“It was the first time she ever questioned my competence,” Davis told us. “We’d just had an absolutely unusual working relationship. It was just very cooperative. And I decided this was the point where she needs to get somebody else to do this. I tendered my resignation, but it was not an angry resignation.”

His leaving set off alarms inside the station as well as beyond it. Feder called Davis WBEZ’s “living embodiment,” and few staffers would have disagreed. He was admired less for his management skills than for his enthusiasm and high-minded strategic vision. No sooner had Davis quit than an unsigned testimonial faxed from WBEZ’s Loop studio came to Nolan at her headquarters over on Pershing Road. “We believe Ken is a major reason for the station’s success over the years,” it declared.

A staff meeting had to be held late last week to calm the waters. The rank and file were reassured that Davis had left voluntarily and told his plans to overhaul the night schedule would hibernate until a new program director could be found–after a nationwide search in which the staff would participate. When the notion was raised of asking Davis to come back to absolve the institution, few employees found it anything less than dignified and appropriate.

A fairly ridiculous sequence of events had led to his departure. It began September 1, with Davis distributing a six-page memo that outlined what he called a “dramatic proposal” for scheduling changes. The changes, which he wanted discussed at a staff meeting eight days later, would have dropped jazz on weeknights in favor of “a news/issues format from 5 AM Monday morning to 8 PM Friday night.”

Later that day free-lance writer Bob Heuer, a contributor to Crain’s Chicago Business, was talking with a friend from the station. The friend mentioned that Davis wanted to ax jazz. With the Jazz Festival, which WBEZ carries live, only three days away, Heuer was especially startled by the idea, and he called Davis and asked him about it.

There was dead silence, Heuer tells us, and then Davis said, “Do you have the memo? Where did you hear about it?” Says Davis, “I remember thinking, Oh, Jesus! It’s been like four hours and now I’m getting a call from reporters. What I remember is that the story he started feeding back to me was really distorted–that we had dropped jazz. And my reaction was, well, that’s very interesting. Where did you hear this? There’s a story, but it sure as hell isn’t that.”

Davis believes the public has a right to know what’s going on inside a public radio station. He presumed–wrongly–that if Crain’s knew about the memo then Feder certainly did. “Rob Feder is the guy everybody calls–right?” So he called Feder himself to make sure Feder told the story accurately. When it turned out Feder hadn’t seen the memo, or heard of it, Davis faxed it to him. Feder added a note on WBEZ at the end of a column he’d already written, meaning to devote an entire column to the station a day later. But entertainment editor P.J. Bednarski spotted the note and asked for a news story immediately.

Copies of Davis’s memo were already in the mail to board members. Most of them would already have read it if Feder’s story had been delayed one day. Davis didn’t get that day. He saw the Sun-Times the next morning and knew “there was going to be a protocol problem.” Nolan called and she was furious. “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” Davis reminded her, pointing out what a tribute it was for proposed changes at WBEZ to be deemed page-five news. “I thought I had kind of prevailed,” Davis told us. The memo from Nolan arriving the next day made him realize he hadn’t. Actually, Nolan became so upset she faxed board president Allan Arlow in Mexico to tell him what happened.

“In 20/20 hindsight,” says Davis, “if I’d waited 24 hours to call Rob Feder, none of this would have happened. But I stand by my judgment.” He hadn’t wanted Feder boasting that the Sun-Times had obtained a copy of a secret WBEZ memo, and he hadn’t wanted Feder screwing up the story. “I think that’s skillful handling of the trade press,” Davis said. “But I also think it’s fairness and openness. Apparently some board members thought it was wholly inappropriate public discussion. Needless to say, I don’t agree.”

So he quit. Quitting was easy; he’d been talking to Nolan for months about quitting. As he said on the air, he’s a “hopeless cause addict,” and WBEZ today is far from that. It’s a thriving hierarchical institution, and he’d become what Crain’s would call him, a–shudder–“top executive.”

“I’m a real crash-and-grab sort of guy,” he explained in his on-air farewell. “I like to plan for what we’ll do at three o’clock this afternoon, not what we’ll be doing in 1997.” But you quit on the eve of the Jazz Festival, we reminded him. “That’s a good example,” he said. “I’ve gone from being the guy out there at three in the morning to pack up equipment in my truck and haul it back to the station to being a guy on the guest list.”

He also quit after setting in motion a sweeping reassessment of the programming. This makes sense only to Davis. “I’d been the number one defender of music programming,” he said. “I’d made pretty solemn promises to the staff and listeners that it wouldn’t change. And then I came to the conclusion it had to change, and I found Neil and Chris [Tesser and Heim, the two Jazz Forum hosts] and others were essentially calling me on my word–“Were you lying?’ What happened in my own head was a feeling that it’s tough when you’re the guy who put it all together to say let’s take it apart and put it back together a different way. It should be someone else.”

Quitting Words?

The next program director will inherit the thinking in Ken Davis’s memo, which his abrupt departure in no way discredited. It’s an intriguing document. He wrote, “WBEZ, as you know, became the first single station in history to raise two million dollars in listener support this fiscal year.

“We now work at one of America’s most listened-to, and arguably its most generously supported, noncommercial broadcast facilities, and it’s time to think about the next phase of our growth. Chicago needs a radio station which is fully dedicated to the presentation and analysis of the myriad social issues which confront our citizenry. [But] there aren’t enough people who want that kind of detail and quality to support a radio station. Unless, of course, that radio station supports itself noncommercially. . . . There’s only one conclusion. WBEZ must become a full-time news/information/cultural and public affairs radio station during the weekdays. . . . For the first time in its history, WBEZ would become a primary-source radio station. With hourly newscasts throughout the day and live BBC at night, it would truly be an always-live, always on-top-of-it station. A listener would have the immediacy of WBBM with the gourmet sound of NPR.”

What about jazz? Davis revealed that he’d been talking to WDCB in Du Page County about a “programming partnership.” WDCB would take over jazz full-time, and WBEZ would promote it.

“This stuff is radical,” Davis wrote. “I know that everyone who’s reading this is wondering about their own job, or that of their friends. I know. I’m wondering myself. Some of my closest friends have told me to give up Studio A in favor of someone stronger. Others have counseled the opposite. . . . I don’t want to be deceptive about this memo. What’s outlined here is my vision for what I believe WBEZ should do at this time. It’s not a decision, because that decision will be made after every point of view has been heard and considered. But the decision cannot be made by a committee or even by staff vote. It will be made by me, with major input from our three department directors. . . . The decision will be approved by Carole. Both the Board and the Advisory Council will be kept fully apprised and may wish to express a view in some formal fashion. But a decision will be made, and probably within the next few weeks. At that time, we’ll begin the task of assigning personnel to the new responsibilities.”

Do these sound like the thoughts of someone on the verge of resigning? But one reprimand later, Davis did.

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