My Turn: PBS should listen to listeners and viewers

Posted: Thursday, September 22, 2005

Bureaucrats typically won't admit to caving under political pressure. That's why it's no surprise that Greg Petrowich, general manager of the PBS station KUAC in Fairbanks, denies any connection between his unilaterally axing some popular KUAC-FM programming this summer and the carping from state and national politicians about the evils of public broadcasting.

For example, Rep. Jim Holm, R-Fairbanks, despises public broadcasting, having worked tirelessly in Juneau to kill it. In public comments that would make the Communists proud, Holm said of public broadcasting: "Unless we have control of what they print or publish, we can't give tax dollars to it." Petrowich apparently gets wobbly around such politicians, demonstrating scant understanding of journalistic integrity.

Using Holm's logic, public broadcasting should sanitize the government's incompetence amid Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, even as unfiltered media images have starkly revealed to the world the ever-expanding divide between rich and poor in wealthy America; government's failure to invest in infrastructure; and politicians' strange notion to protect property over human lives with "shoot to kill" orders that put the poor in even greater danger as they desperately scrambled for food and water in flood-ravaged New Orleans. (We'll see how long the media's recent "discovery" of the poor will last.)

Back in Alaska, instead of publicly standing up to Holm and defending the mission of public broadcasting and enlightening him about such things as divergent views, government censorship, and the First Amendment, Petrowich simply swept from KUAC-FM's schedule the sort of programming that offends Holm and his ilk. Then KUAC's general manager lashed out at KUAC's core supporters.

In a local newspaper commentary, Petrowich trivialized his own loyal KUAC listeners as "a relatively small but vocal group" because they dared object to his capitulation.

"They question our timing and incorrectly conclude that the changes were somehow influenced by politics," Petrowich wrote. "We failed to consider this potential public perception when we made our program changes."

By eliminating the well-respected "CounterSpin" program, Petrowich zapped the show that may well be one of KUAC's top call-getters during fund drives. "CounterSpin," a product of the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), counterbalances an increasing move to the right both at PBS and in the nation's shamelessly shallow mainstream media, the same ones that consider the runaway bride, Michael Jackson, and Tom Cruise's newest romance legitimate "news" worthy of blanket coverage while essentially ignoring, for example, genocide in Africa.

"CounterSpin" challenges powerful media entities. Judging from public reaction to Petrowich's move, public radio listeners appreciate FAIR's fact-based criticism of corporate media, which continue to shovel tabloid-style drivel at us and our children. The "CounterSpin" audience is growing nationally.

"We continue to add a few stations every year," says Peter Hart, FAIR's director of media activism. "It's very rare for a station to pull the show."

Petrowich now finds himself facing a patron revolt: the KUAC Listeners' Alliance, which recently launched a "conditional pledge" drive, reportedly capturing more than $3,500 in one day.

A KUAC listener petition wonders why critics like Holm attack public broadcasting for its perceived "liberal bias" while ignoring PBS's many right-wing voices, including PBS's conservatives-only Wall Street Journal Review.

"KUAC regularly offers us the views of arch-conservative extremists like Pat Buchanan, while never regularly featuring anyone who is as far to the left as Buchanan . . . (is) to the right," says the petition.

Meanwhile, if Petrowich digs in against reinstating"Counterspin" and other ousted programs, the next call he fields from listeners and viewers (who feel they are fighting for the integrity of public broadcasting) might well be for be his resignation.

One way or another, Mr. Petrowich will learn that longtime public broadcasting supporters want general managers who represent them. They don't want a meek instrument of politicians, bureaucrats, or businessmen seeking to remake public broadcasting in their image-or to kill PBS altogether.

• Susan Andrews and John Creed are journalism professors at Chukchi Campus, the Kotzebue branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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