Friday, January 06, 2012

The Trouble with WCQS

About a week ago I read an article in the Citizen Times Newspaper [LINK] about the troubles at 88.1 WCQS in Asheville, North Carolina.  Western North Carolina Public radio used to be branded as "NPR News, Classical Music and More."  Earlier this year, their new executive director, Jody Evans effectively got rid of the "and More."   WCQS became what Alan Bernard at Poormojo News Wire calls an "NPR Zombie." Their local programming was all but wiped out. Being a radio network this removed local and regional programming from not just one station but from all of it's affiliates and repeaters: W298AY, WFQS, W269AY, W237AR, W234AS, W218AB, W209AD, and W209AE.

Enter Fred Flaxman. Mr. Flaxman, is a former public radio and television executive who retired in the area. Previous to the troubles, he had volunteered to serve on the station’s community advisory board. That's how he discovered they hadn't bothered to have one for over a decade. That happens to be a violation of the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act.

After some urging, a programming board was formed, but Ms. Evans mostly ignored them. Then this year, made some radical changes cutting local programs like “Conversations,” “Byline” and “Evening Rounds.” She didnt' even both to tell them until after she did it. Flaxman and thirty others banded together and filed a petition with the FCC to deny their license renewal. This is a rare event, the only recent similar petition I can think of was pointed at KPFT following a big board shake up. So I reached out to Fred for some more details, and he was kind enough to oblige me.

JF: I'm familiar from your bio that you helped found WETA, and were also at WTTW after that. Could you tell me how you got started in radio? I'd venture to guess you didn't start at WETA.

FF: My first work in radio was for a campus station at the University of Michigan and as a paid script writer for WUOM-FM, Ann Arbor, writing what the announcers said for live concert broadcasts. I majored in journalism there and worked in public relations and as a newspaper reporter and magazine writer/editor before joining WETA-TV, Washington, D.C., as special assistant to the general manager. In that capacity I wrote the proposals that brought in the funding to put WETA-FM on the air, and then became its founding manager.

JF: Having worked in both public television and public radio do you feel you have a preference for any reason?

FF: Yes, I prefer radio because it is a more personal medium. It doesn't take lots of people and money to get things done. Television is more creativity by committee. Basically, I'm a writer, which is even more personally creative than radio.

JF: Did you have any connection to WCQS, previous to this?

FF: They did broadcast six of my "Compact Discoveries" programs as specials, shortly after I moved here six years ago. They have not broadcast any of my programs since. You can find out everything you might want to know about "Compact Discoveries" programs at You can even stream the programs on demand via links to PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. You'll also read there what professional public broadcasters and listeners have to say about these programs.

JF:  Ideally what should have WCQS been doing with their programming?

FF: Before making any major changes, they should have asked the advice of their Community Advisory Board and conducted surveys of their members and listeners to get their input.

JF: How do you feel about the syndicated NPR programs that make up their schedule now?

FF: NPR is a tremendously valuable service, but the future of local public radio stations lies in their service to their own local and regional communities. This is because satellite and Internet radio makes it possible to receive NPR programming without tuning into a local station.

JF: I have read that you helped found WETA-FM, when you look at that station today how do you feel about their programming in respects to their listeners in DC?

FF: I listen to them on my Internet radio and they seem to be doing an excellent job of serving the classical music listeners of their area. WAMU-FM in Washington, D.C., serves the area's audiences for public affairs, news, and talk programming. I advocated that kind of split of responsibilities when I put WETA-FM on the air in 1970, but couldn't get WETA to agree to it. I'm glad it finally happened for the benefit of the Washington, D.C., radio audience.

JF:  In your vision, what is the ideal way for a public radio station to be programmed?

FF: It should be programmed with input from the public via a Community Advisory Board, surveys, letters, e-mails, phone calls, independent producers, etc. It should not be programmed in a dictatorial manner without such input, as has been the case here with WCQS.

JF:  Are there any stations left still working from that play book?

FF: I hope so!

JF:  Do you have any immediate plans in radio land?

FF: I love retirement and just doing what I want every day. That includes making radio programs out of my love for classical music. I sure don't want to be involved in management any more, and absolutely hate fighting with a local public radio station. But I know we could have a terrific station in Asheville if we only had management that was responsive to our great community! That is why I have joined with others who feel the same way to file the Petition to Deny with the FCC.