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Mara Tapp Gets Her Wings/ Snuffing Out Sparks


I've just read enough versions of the same story about Frank Lloyd Wright to know the story could be a myth. Each is set in the Wright house known as Wingspread, named by Wright for its pinwheel design, which stands near Lake Michigan in Racine, Wisconsin. One night it rained. To choose the version of the tale told by Brendan Gill in his biography of the architect, the owner of Wingspread got Wright on the phone.

Herbert Fisk Johnson to Wright: "Frank, we're just sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner and your damned skylight is leaking. What are we to do?"

Wright to Johnson: "Move the table."

Johnson was the epitome of a Wright client--rich, enlightened, bullyable. Wright built him a home while he built him a corporate headquarters, the immortal Johnson Wax building in Racine. The work went on forever, and at one point Johnson sent a desperate letter that Gill quotes:

"I know it does no good to complain, as you are an artist so in love with your work that nothing will make you change your ideas of what the two buildings ought to be, even though it works a hardship on your client. You would rather tell the client whatever comes into your head as to the cost and the time to construct, at the start, just to sell the job and give satisfaction to your art....Why didn't you put me wise long ago as to the true costs and the time to construct? Would that be unreasonable to ask?"

Gill notes that Johnson accompanied his protest with a check for $3,100 to keep Wright going.

In Wright's eyes, Wingspread was his last and largest prairie house. In Gill's, it was "an exceedingly large mansion," far beyond the needs of the Johnson family and a "true folly." Johnson's third wife, a Hollywood actress, never felt comfortable there, but installed paintings, furniture, and knickknacks that allowed her to make do. Then Wright stayed overnight. Up at four in the morning, he banished these possessions to storage and, in his mind, put Wingspread right. Samuel Johnson would later write about his stepmother, "I don't think she and Wright ever spoke seriously after that."

Some 20 years after Wingspread was built, the Johnson family turned it over to the foundation Herbert Fisk Johnson had established. The Johnson Foundation has since carved out a singular philanthropic role for itself there. "No, we do not make grants," explains its extensive Web site. "Nor do we sponsor retreats, fundraisers, meetings of single organizations, or for-profit events. We do not rent our facilities."

Instead, Wingspread hosts conferences. Sometimes the initiative is taken by some nonprofit or government agency concerned with an issue the foundation favors, sometimes by the foundation itself. Some 20 to 40 people whose oars churn the same waters come together for a few days to argue through their differences and begin thinking collaboratively. "Wingspread conferences are about helping ideas to have consequences," the foundation says grandly. An emblematic conference was "Educational Radio as a National Resource," convened in 1966 at the initiative of Jerrold Sandler, director of National Educational Radio and an intellectual heir to Edward R. Murrow. The conference encouraged Congress to include radio in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, from which National Public Radio emerged in 1970.

Conversations From Wingspread was a radio program spun off from the conferences in 1972. The foundation offered it free to stations across the country, and at the program's peak nearly 200 carried it. Early on, most were commercial, though eventually half the stations were public. Interviewers such as John Callaway drove up from Chicago to tape conversations with Wingspread guests. Eventually a Spanish-language version was launched for Latino stations, and a similar program, The Issue of Race, for black stations. But in 1988 a new president decided it was more important for the foundation to reach out to policy makers than the public, and the radio shows died.

Last November Boyd Gibbons, former director of the California Department of Fish and Game, became the Johnson Foundation's president. "I think people are hungry for intelligent conversation," he says, "and this is a place where that happens." Believing that public opinion changes slowly if at all when savants talk only to one another, he decided to put Conversations From Wingspread back on the air.

Foundation trustee Paula Wolff, who's president of Governors State University, gave Gibbons the name of someone she thought could run the show. Wolff's suggestion delighted Gibbons, and last week Mara Tapp posted the following memo at work:

"I will be leaving WBEZ at the end of June to accept the offer of a new challenge to try and bring back 'Conversations From Wingspread,' a series of broadcasts respected and honored early on with a Peabody. I couldn't turn down the opportunity such a position affords me to work for an organization and a leader that place content above all else.

"I still remember with great warmth the early days of the independent WBEZ when I joined it in the fall of 1990 and the thrill of creating and offering good programming. I want to thank all of you for the chance to work with you over the years. It has often been a pleasure and I remain in great awe of much of what WBEZ has been able to offer its listeners over the nearly eight years of my tenure."

The note of gentle reproach no doubt explains why Tapp's memo mysteriously (and briefly) appeared on the WBEZ home page, to be chewed on by the unhappy faithful who've been complaining for months about the station's recent programming changes. One of the first of these eliminated Tapp's weekday-morning interviews. She became a "special correspondent" responsible for "long-form" reports, election coverage, and Live at the Library--an initiative of the Chicago Public Library, not WBEZ. "I guess I don't feel every story can be boiled down to eight minutes," she told me. "Even a long-form report at eight minutes is a whole lot less than an hour or six hours on a subject."

Tapp enjoys talking about taxi drivers who recognize her and add their two cents worth to some debate she might have waged on-air five years earlier. "Wherever I've gone I get literally accosted by people who say, 'We want this kind of programming back. Where is it? We want serious stuff.' I don't think they mean boring serious stuff. They mean serious, complex stuff that touches their lives. There is a great hankering, at a time when people feel the media getting simpler and more accessible and everyone is trying to dumb down. Our listeners want intelligent programming."

Tapp is taking a former WBEZ producer, Peter Cieka, with her to Wingspread, where she begins July 1. But it's a part-time job, and she'll continue to do Live at the Library back in Chicago. Wingspread has made a year's commitment to her; in that time she's expected to create some 26 hours of programming--interviews with writers she invites to Wingspread or with participants at conferences there. Wingspread, says Boyd Gibbons, "is where people come to confer about serious matters. This is a way of doing that with somebody who's highly talented at conversation, and then using radio as a way for a broader audience to listen in."

Tapp says, "We have four issues we'll be taking a look at, tentatively--civility, politics, race and ethnicity, and liberal arts and specialization. I hope to draw people like Jamaica Kincaid, Orlando Patterson, Charles Johnson, John Q. Wilson, Molly Ivins--you get the picture. It'll be like the very best of the programming we did here at WBEZ. We did a live show five days a week with a very small, overworked staff. We almost never had the opportunity to edit. These programs will be edited. They'll be really highly produced."

Gibbons thinks there's a market for Conversations From Wingspread, but until Tapp produces a few hours he can shop around, he's only guessing. "Having been a writer much of my life," he says, "good pieces of writing will find their publishers. And radio too. If this is interesting to broadcast we'll find stations." Public stations, he presumes.

Ideas with consequences don't guarantee crackling radio, certainly not ideas that speak soft and humbly. Fortunately Wingspread rose in a spirit of untrammeled egotism. Brendan Gill recounts the time, after the house was built, when Wright lunched there and was stricken with indigestion. Assuming the worst, he lay down on a couch in the living room and beckoned to Herbert Fisk Johnson's daughter Karen. "Come and watch how a great man dies," he told her.

Snuffing Out Sparks

"Critical thinking, I guess, is only appropriate so long as it's not in the school paper," Dianna Stampfler was saying.

Do they teach critical thinking at the Otswego, Michigan, middle school? I asked Stampfler, deposed adviser to the award-winning Bulldog Express.

"Supposedly. It's in the curriculum course descriptions. They can critically think as long as it doesn't go against what the school wants. They can critically think as long as it's the same opinions the school has."

Stampfler is bitter. She preached truth telling during her four years at the Bulldog Express, and for her efforts the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association gave the paper top honors. Last year, when allegations of shoplifting marred an eighth-grade ski trip, the paper's staff dutifully wrote and edited a report of the scandal. But a new principal who insisted on reviewing all copy before publication spiked the story.

To editor Dan Vagasky, then 14, this was censorship. He protested to the nearby Kalamazoo Gazette and contacted the Student Press Law Center in Virginia, which found him a pro bono attorney from Grand Rapids. When the Associated Press picked up the story, Otswego, a town of about 4,000 in southwest Michigan, felt America's eyes on it.

Stampfler wore two hats--Bulldog Express adviser but also PR spokesman for the school district. She found herself in a ludicrous position, explaining away a change of policy that broke her heart. "Students will still learn how to write, they'll still do their interviews--they'll just do it in a positive way," she told the Gazette.

What's happened since I wrote about the Bulldog Express 14 months ago is not good news. "A couple of months ago we had a settlement with the school board, and the lawsuit was dropped," Vagasky, who's gone on to high school, told me. "It's based around a set of guidelines for the paper which gave them a real strict set of restrictions on what they could censor, such as pornography, things like that. They couldn't censor things because they wanted to."

The original Grand Rapids attorney moved to California last November, and the Bulldog Express case was wrapped up by Devin Schindler of the same firm. Schindler sent me the new guidelines--and I don't see the basis for Vagasky's mild enthusiasm. The new rules echo in too many particulars guidelines that the superintendent of schools submitted to the school board last spring. They were so one-sided and contrary to the spirit of a free press that Stampfler sobbed in the hallway after the school board adjourned, and Vagasky's attorney decided to go to court. (The superintendent of schools couldn't be reached for comment for this story. The middle school principal didn't accept or return my calls.)

Under the new rules an article cannot be rejected "solely because of its political, religious or ideological point of view, provided it is age-level appropriate," or "solely because it casts the school in a negative light." This is far more enlightened language than last year's prohibition against "material that promotes political, religious or any other ideological agendas." But the new guidelines guarantee the principal a "topic list" to look over before articles are even written, plus five school days to review articles before they're published, and they establish a "responsibility flow chart" that places the superintendent of schools at the top of the pyramid. The powers that be can suppress any article "inconsistent with...the goals and mission of the building."

In short, the new guidelines strike me as no protection at all against any administration that doesn't take student journalism seriously. "The district would not agree to anything close to what we wanted," Schindler acknowledged. "But if we continued the suit, the likely result would have been the elimination of the paper altogether. That was balanced against keeping some semblance of a paper and maybe over time increasing the amount of leeway writers would have over their stories. I don't think we wanted to be responsible for eliminating the paper, even though everyone felt strongly Dan's position was the right one to take."

In addition to removing her as adviser, Stampfler told me, the school district reduced her hours as its flack. In response, she resigned and took a job with the West Michigan Tourist Association, 40 miles away in Grand Rapids. An English teacher named Celeste Vogan took over as adviser of the middle school paper.

Vogan told me that the Bulldog Express was renamed Dog Pound Update. It changed not only in name but in look and philosophy. She described Dog Pound Update as "an avenue for kids to write in, not a newspaper. It wasn't anything like the Express."

Stampfler called the paper "absolutely pathetic."

Schindler told me he settled to avoid eliminating the paper altogether, but that happened anyway. Vogan said student interest collapsed, and therefore Dog Pound Update won't be back in the fall. I asked Vogan if this disappointed her. "Not at all," she said. "I'm not a journalist. I'm not a journalism teacher. I don't know anything about journalism."

Stampfler created an award-winning journalism program. Now it's history. Is that a loss to the school? I asked Vogan. "No. A lot of middle schools don't have papers."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Boyd Gibbons photo by Bradley Meinz/ Mara Tapp photo by Lloyd DeGrane.

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