Saturday, May 20, 2006

VPR Community Forum | May 19th Meeting

On Friday, I attended my first meeting as a part of the VPR Community Forum. The concept of the forum is to have listeners provide feedback and suggestions to the staff at VPR regarding programming, coverage, etc. As I've written before, my reason for joing this forum is to provide a voice for folks younger than VPR's typical listeners (45 and up) and ultimiately push to have some good indie rock on the station. Having said that, going into this thing I had a bit of a feeling like I was tilting at windmills. It was going to be a long shot but why not see what happens.

The meeting was held in one of the conference rooms at the Elley-Long Music Center at St. Michael's College. I had never even heard of the place and, from the outside, it didn't look like anything special; just a long building with a high vaulted ceiling. So, I was very surprised when I went inside and looked around. In addition to the conference/small performance rooms, the last third of the building is a large performace space. It's a pretty cool space. Huge stage with high ceilings but lots of suspended tiles to keep the sound low (see photo). I clapped in the middle of the room a few times but, despite the hardwood floors and windows, there wasn't much of an echo. Nice. I've since learned that the place is the home of the Vermont Youth Orchestra but I wonder if it's rented out for other bands. Parking would be a problem but it would be cool to see a band with an intricate sound perform in there.

I then headed over to our meeting room, found my table and woofed down a quick continental breakfast. A quick look around the room revealed exactly what I was expecting to see...a lot of older folks. There was one other guy that appeared to be in his 30's but everyone else looked 10-40 years older than me. It certainly didn't look like a crowd that wanted to hear The Go! Team.

The meeting started with some general opening remarks and presentations as you would expect. Then the moderator posed a question to the group: What's the purpose of public broadcasting? I don't remember everyone's responses but the discussion lasted a while. Knowing I was eventually going to want to make a plug for some indie rock programming, I decided to lay a bit of a foundation for my later plea by standing up and stating that the purpose of public broadcasting is to fill in the gaps created by the market failures of commercial radio stations. If there is a demand for a type of programming that isn't being satisfied, public broadcasting should pick up the slack. aka indie rock.

The discussion took a weird turn when some lady said that the purpose of public broadcasting was to provide programs for more intelligent people. Huh?!?! Thankfully, the other guy in his 30's immediately laid the smackdown on her by standing up and saying "I think we should keep the elitism out of this." The scene gave me a bit of a chuckle.

After a break, we broke up into groups of about six to discuss what VPR should look like in five years and what the station should add. The first lady at our table to speak said VPR needed more younger listeners. Hey! Right on. I liked the way this was going. But then I realized she was talking about kids as she suggested teen discussion programs and whatnot. In hopes of steering the conversation back to attracting post-college listeners, I brought up my idea of better music programming. I specifically mentioned KEXP, The Current and WRUV's Exposure program. The other people at the table seemed to like the idea but when it came time to report back to the full forum on what each table discussed, that suggestion got shortened to "attract more youth." Foiled!

The interesting thing was that, as each table reported what they had talked about, almost each table mentioned that VPR should attract a younger audience. Hey, it sounded encouraging! At least everyone's thoughts were in the right spot. However, my encouragement quickly dissipated when they opened the floor to individual comments from people. Anyone could suggest something to add or remove from the VPR schedule.

All of these people that had twenty minutes earlier had said they wanted to bring in younger listeners, now stood up and said "MORE OPERA ON SATURDAYS!" or "BRING BACK SUNDAY MORNING BACH!" or "I WANT MOZART ON MONDAYS!" What the fuck?!?! These people wanted to pull in younger audiences with dead musicians? Obviously, they really didn't give a rats-ass about bringing in a younger audience. Just wanted more of the same. At this point, I felt my hopes sink through the floor as I looked for a wall to bang my head against.

But before I was fully dejected, I stood up to say something along the lines of, "I'm confused by the difference between what I was hearing earlier and what I'm hearing now. A little while ago you all said you wanted to bring in younger listeners but what you are now asking for...that's not youthful music that anyone I know is going to listen to. If VPR wants to bring in folks in their 20's and 30's, they should add programming from KEXP in Seattle, The Current from Minnesota Public Broadcasting and they should pick up WRUV's Exposure program since it may be going off the air when WRUV moves to their new smaller studios. Those kinds of programs would attract younger folks."

My comments were then written on the board with all of the other suggestions and the conversation immediately went back to "ANOTHER HOUR OF FOLK MUSIC ON SUNDAYS!" Ugh! This was the final part of the meeting besides lunch. So, at this point, I was feeling like this may have been a big waste of time. It didn't seem like my fellow forum members were truely interested in pushing for a more contemporary music schedule.

Then something kind of amazing happened. While going to grab some lunch, a few staff members stopped me to say they wanted to talk about what I had said during the meeting about adding some indie music to the schedule. It turns out that the staff has been wanting to do this for a while and were excited to have someone stand up in this forum and express that view. The Director of Programming, Jody Evans, then asked if we could talk about the idea during lunch.

Hold your hats, folks. It turns out that Jody is completly on board with this idea. She a 36-year-old lady who digs Clap Your Hands, Jolie Holland and others. She totally gets it. I was stunned. Suddenly, my wish of hearing good music on VPR actually seemed like a realistic possibility.

Jody said she would like to add in some good indie music but it isn't as easy as I had thought. The stations I had mentioned earlier during the meeting, don't create programs for sale to other public broadcasting stations and creating some original programming is difficult due to obtaining legal rights to the music. I'm not a lawyer so I don't understand all of the rights issues but I take her word on it. However, she said there are some interesting music programs that can be purchased. It's just a matter of wading through all of the options to find the right programs to purchase. Then it's always a matter of deciding where it would fit into the schedule.

I know it's a long way to go from a promising lunchtime conversation to actually hearing indie rock on VPR but after talking to Jody, Michelle and Jill and hearing where they're coming from musically, I'm incredibly encouraged. This may actually happen folks.

By the way, before I left, I recorded one of those VPR testimonials that they play during the fund drives. For all the reasons I had trouble recording my 30-second intro on Contrast Podcast, I struggled recording the testimonial too. So, if you hear some moron prattling on during the next fund drive, that may be me.


Jim said...

Way to fight the good fight. Sooner or later, people will get it. At least the programming director is on the same page with you.

K. said...

Grats Murph.

I wish I could have been there to put in a plug for more Joan Baez.

nico said...

Sweet. Power to the people and all that good stuff!

Sometimes the powers that be just need to hear one person say "yes" or "I want that" to pull the trigger on something they've been hesitant to do.

I know I had some success getting a concert presenting organization to diversify and update their offerings beyond what appeals to people that are 5,000 years old. Don't get me wrong, those people need their needs met too, but when one demographic in public institutions get served more than others, it's bad for everyone.

Keep fighting the good fight.

Bob F. said...


Do you know Michael K from the BS music & Metro boards? He spins indie and does some news shows at an NPR station in Athens, Ohio...I bet he could lend some insight into how they work. Lemme know if you want a hook-up.

Flatlander said...

Thanks for the encouragement, guys.

k, I bet you couldn't even name a Joan Baez track. Unless some DJ has done a remix with one of her tunes...ha! Now that I think of it, besides the few Dylan tunes she sings, I can't name a Baez tune either. And I feel kind of good about it.

Bob, I didn't know Michael was involved with public broadcasting. I'll have to shoot him an email. Thanks for the tip.

cresmer said...

Thanks for the fascinating report. And thanks for representing at the meeting. I'm one of those 30ish listeners who wishes the station would try a little harder to woo my demographic.

Flatlander said...

Cathy, You're welcome.