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WBEZ Gets an Earful

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Give us 12 or 18 months, says executive producer Doug Berman. Then we'll know what the public thinks of the news quiz Berman just brought to WBEZ. There are straws in the wind already, however--censure so sharp it could poke your eye out.

The feisty regulars on the WBEZ Web site, who by and large despise everything station manager Torey Malatia's done to overhaul programming at Chicago's public-radio station, have focused their contempt on Berman's Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me. That's fair enough. If one hour-long program must be flailed for all Malatia's sins, real and perceived, Wait, Wait has been just insipid and annoying enough to earn that place at the whipping post.

A sampling of the early reaction:

"I can't listen to 'Wait Wait.' It actually depresses me. It kills my enthusiasm for public radio."

"The premiere of 'Wait Wait Don't Tell Me' was the worst piece of radio I have ever heard, period."

"Listening to 'Wait Wait' last Saturday actually caused me to feel depressed all day."

"The show was downright painful to listen to. It was devoid of humor, energy, pace and anything else that might have made it interesting."

"I also no longer listen to WBEZ on Saturdays at all. Too depressing. The quiz show is truly awful."

"Malatia and his little crew are going to do exactly what they want with WBEZ, including keeping an obviously bad program on the air even though listener comments are uniformly against it. What does this tell you? WBEZ programming is designed to please corporate underwriters, not listeners."

"I understand that WBEZ is in large part responsible for the costs of 'Wait Wait Don't Torture Me.' I submit that paying anything for this amateurish drivel is an insult to your members exceeded only by having to actually listen to such stilted and awkward dross."

One critic did his best to be fair: "I'm no fan of 'Wait Wait' either, and have said so in this forum, but I also don't imagine that this page is a valid sampling of listeners at large. (Though I would like to know where the 'fans' are hiding....Honestly, I haven't met ANY.)"

So it goes, says Berman. "People's habits change slowly. First the people who don't like what you put on go away, and then the people who like it slowly find it."

Malatia has no idea how many fans the show's attracted, though he says pledges held up nicely from 10 to 11 AM during the latest fund drive. "I'd guess there are lots of people listening," he surmises, "because it's coming off a very popular program, Car Talk, and a lot of people are sampling." According to Arbitron, some 370,000 people tune in WBEZ each week. At last report, about 54,500 of them listened to the final quarter hour of Car Talk, and about 45,100 to the first quarter hour of Michael Feldman's Whad'Ya Know? Of course, that was back in 1997, when Whad'Ya Know? still began at 10 AM (Wait, Wait's spot now) and was broadcast live.

That golden age is gone, and the Web site mourns it: "I curse the marketing strategy of sandwiching Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me in between two quality (might I add humorous & talented) shows (of which Wait, Wait... is neither). Please lose it, and return What-da-ya-Know to its proper time slot while there is still time."

"If we really must have the show, put it in the 9:00 time slot now occupied by Car Talk (a show on tape already) and leave Michael Feldman's show live."

"Live radio served audiences well in a bygone era," says Malatia. "[But] time specificity for program choices becomes less meaningful in an era where you can time-shift anything you want, not only through tape but through Internet audio and Internet recall of programs or program samples. You can listen, if you want to, to Morning Edition at 9 PM. Our audience, all audiences, are becoming increasingly used to the fact that time is a fluid thing. The idea of listening to something on radio because it's live, happening right now, begins to weaken in meaning when that kind of habit begins to exist among listeners. I'm not sure the fact something is broadcast live carries with it the kind of potency it carried in the past."

Judging live radio passe despite its modest charms, Malatia felt free to move boldly against the weakness he detected in his blockbuster Saturday AM lineup. "People who listen to Car Talk are by and large not people who listen to Whad'Ya Know?" he explains. "There's a churn at that point, where one audience leaves and another enters. So there really was a fire wall there." Slipping an unknown new show in front of Whad'Ya Know? wouldn't cost Feldman his audience, Malatia reasoned, because Feldman wasn't inheriting his audience anyway. Malatia even imagined his new quiz show hanging on to Car Talk's listeners and increasing that of Whad'Ya Know?. "People turn their radio off after Car Talk or turn it on for Feldman," Malatia says. "That's why we did it."

That, and the fact that in Malatia's view the Saturday schedule "had in many ways pretty much reached its peak and begun to decline," in terms of both quality and audience. "You reach a certain point at which things have become fairly predictable and stale."

So exit Metropolis in the afternoon. Exit hosts Aaron Freeman, who quit, and Andrew Patner, who was fired. Enter Best of Eight Forty-Eight, recycled highlights of the breezy interview show WBEZ now broadcasts each weekday morning from 9:30 to 11. Eight Forty-Eight is the new basket Malatia's put most of his eggs in. "You won't be getting any $ from me anymore!" one disgruntled listener posted. "I've just paged back through all the pages of viewer comments on this web site, and I don't see where you ever got the impression that your listeners asked for these changes you've made."

"I know you're unhappy," replied Malatia pleasantly. "But let's rehearse this, and maybe move from the close-up to the bigger picture. There are, maybe, upwards of 30 regular posters in these last several web pages. All of them intelligent, devoted listeners with a point of view they have had an opportunity to clearly articulate. And that's good and important, and we take it all with due weight. AND there are over two years of comments, letters, and use patterns of listeners tracked that led to the changes."

Perhaps the undertone of amiable condescension triggered something in Patner, who slammed his own oar down into the churning on-line waters. "Now at least this small band of 'intelligent, devoted listeners with a point of view they have had an opportunity to clearly articulate' have some idea of what it has been like to work at WBEZ the last several years and why you no longer hear the work of Stuart Rosenberg, Linda Paul, Cheryl Corley, Laurel Homer-Shapiro, Adam Davidson, Kirsten Pendreigh, Steve Cushing, David Boodell, Elizabeth Rogers, Neil Tesser, Dayna Calderon, John Dempsey, Aaron Freeman, myself, Benji de la Fuente, and Pete Cieka as a part of the 'WBEZ family' (and hear significantly less--if anything--of Mara Tapp, Victoria Lautman, and Richard Steele)."

Patner told the Web-site regulars to ask Malatia to post the "extraordinarily pernicious document called 'The Walrus Report'...[a] remarkable work of consultant mumbo-jumbo from an outfit in Green Bay, Wisconsin, that specializes in advising public radio stations on how to homogenize themselves." A curious listener asked Malatia to produce the document; the station manager didn't acknowledge the request.

To me, Malatia said it's a multivolume analysis of "audience movement" during 1996. "It showed what was pulling people in and not pulling them in." It helped Malatia decide that though there was nothing wrong with Metropolis that five producers couldn't fix, the show would never get more than one. "I made a judgment that Monday-Friday was what we most needed to do," Malatia said. He assigned Eight Forty-Eight four producers and an executive producer and took Metropolis off the air.

As for Wait, Wait, the report "showed that NPR news listeners are the strongest component of our audience. The idea of an NPR news show might have some validity."

Doug Berman had been thinking along those lines for a couple of years. When he persuaded NPR to produce the show outside the Beltway, Malatia volunteered Chicago. "So we're giving it a shot," Berman says. "I think it's better every week."

From the Web site:

"I'm certain the builders of the Titanic were proud to launch what they thought was a great ship, but even they had to admit something was wrong after it sank. They didn't keep tossing money into the water. How much does this program cost WBEZ and NPR?"

A reasonable question, since WBEZ passes the hat to pay for things. Malatia posted a reply.

"I prefer to think of this effort as the Queen Mary, but it doesn't matter what I think. We've heard from fans, too. We'll see. Thanks."

Needless to say, these pleasantries didn't satisfy.

"You ignored my question. How much does Wait WaitDTM cost WBEZ and National Public Radio? Those of us who support WBEZ should know what amount we are paying for this disaster each week."

"You meant to type 'delight,' of course," Malatia responded. "The WBEZ portion of the costs largely provide the show's infrastructure. We provide administrative and clerical help, as well as staff sharing as needed. And heat and air conditioning and all that kind of stuff. NPR controls the actual cash-outlay operational budget, and NPR does not share its details with WBEZ nor burden us with its obligations. Thanks." (Malatia told me that NPR reimburses the station for office space. "We probably break even.")

Reacting to Malatia's "You meant delight" comment, another of the faithful raged, "Malatia probably thinks he's being funny, but given the context, his little quip is obnoxiously insulting....The listeners DON'T LIKE 'Wait, Wait,' and it's obvious why--but Malatia is in denial."

Berman is remote from the fray. A sort of glorified consultant at this stage of the creation of Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me, he's based in Boston and takes the long view. "I produce Car Talk--that's my day job," he told me. "When we started that show in 1987 the comments we got back were equally vicious. I remember people would write to us--we didn't have E-mail in those days; people were mostly writing on stone tablets. People said it's vulgar, not funny, not helpful, not interesting, didn't belong on public radio, and all the guys did was laugh at their own jokes. The audience that liked what was on before--in most markets classical music--went away and found something better, and a new audience came in. And people got to like them more as they got to know them more."

I may not know Wait, Wait well enough. I've listened three times since it went on the air January 3. It's getting there, but "there" doesn't look like much of a destination. "I just love the idea of a news quiz," Berman said. "I think NPR listeners are news junkies, by and large, and it's nice by the end of the week to be able to enjoy some of that stuff you took in during the week and have fun with it. We thought it would be a natural."

But Michael Feldman might already have been doing what can be done with those possibilities. Wait, Wait wants to delight, divert, and educate us with a stream of bright chatter on topical matters delivered by witty panelists engaged in a casual point-based competition, while call-in segments persuade the hinterland multitudes that they're an essential part of the action. But there's a difference between bright chatter and wit. There's a difference between lively interplay and the calculated interjection of a smart remark. Wait, Wait dishes up virtual bonhomie: host Dan Coffey's in Chicago, scorekeeper Carl Kasell's in Washington, and the regular panelists are likely to be in studios in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles. And though Coffey announces, "Now it's time to bring on the listeners," then offers a telephone number, the fact is the show was taped on Friday morning. Those listeners were names on file, called by the producers and told to stand by on hold. (Car Talk fakes immediacy the same way.)

"Ideally, it would be nice if they were all in the same place," says Berman of his panel. "But it's also nice being able to reach out into different parts of the country. In the very beginning they didn't know each other, so it was a little bit hard. But now as everybody's gotten more comfortable, it's not a problem anymore. People spend a lot of their lives on the phone--we'll never meet, presumably. Terry Gross does 90 percent of her show [Fresh Air] by phone. Over time it will be just as good the way it is."

To make room for this new exercise in verisimilitude, Whad'Ya Know? too is now on tape in Chicago. The losses are clearer than the gains.

News Bite

A troubling solicitation came our way. "YES!" said the letter from the American Battle Monuments Commission. "I want to help build America's National World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., a long overdue tribute to the men and women who helped win World War II, both overseas and on the home front. Future generations must always remember their sacrifices."

We hadn't realized the public would ever need to be reminded that Americans fought in that war. But then we spotted this item in the trade magazine Editor & Publisher: "Correction. An article about newspapers as collectibles...incorrectly refers to the war that the United States entered after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. It was World War II." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Terry Malatia photo by Lloyd DeGrane.

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