Current Online

Soundprint can’t earn its keep,
won't get handouts

Originally published in Current, May 25, 1992
By Steve Behrens

Broadcasters who call Soundprint "the soul of public radio" should put up their money to keep it going, CPB Radio Program Fund Director Rick Madden told petitioners seeking a reprieve for the show.

Actually, Madden was a little less direct than that. Responding to a petition from 356 participants in this month's Public Radio Conference, he said "the future of Soundprint and other series is properly vested in the stations."

Petition organizer Ruth Hirschman [later Ruth Seymour], general manager of KCRW-FM, Santa Monica, says Madden's turn-down "escalates the battle" to save Soundprint. She warns: "We'll have to go to the next rung"—incoming CPB President Richard Carlson, then congressional committees and on up.

CPB's rebuff leaves the staff of the Baltimore-based radio documentary series looking into Plans B, C and D. Executive Producer Bill Siemering says he aims to keep the program in distribution at least through December, finishing its fifth year on the air and fulfilling its contracts.

Madden originally gave Soundprint the bad news early this year, after an advisory panel of 11 producers and broadcasters reluctantly recommended against Siemering's request for about $312,000, or 38 percent of its planned 1993 budget.

Soundprint has not been able to get much underwriting, according to Siemering, and couldn't raise station carriage fees enough to cover the loss of CPB aid. Stations fees now cover just $85,000 or about 14 percent of the program's budget, by Madden's figures. Stations pay fees of $260 to $1,820 a year through American Public Radio, the distributor.

The CPB advisory panel's vote on cutting off aid to Soundprint was "by far the most agonizing discussion" by the panel that approved 24 out of 64 finalist proposals this year, says panel member Craig Curtis, program director of WUNC, Chapel Hill.

Though the panelists were full of praise for the program, they also questioned its cost, audience size and weekly half-hour format, according to Madden.

In addition, the program collided with a CPB policy that the Radio Program Fund is intended to start up new programs, not maintain them. The fund helped start up Soundprint and gave the program $1.6 million over five years.

Curtis says the panel had to work with the rule "that programs have to wean themselves" from CPB aid.

Weaning lets CPB reserve its Radio Program Fund—$4.5 million next year—for new programs. The theory is that CPB gives stations $53.8 million in direct grants that they can spend as they choose on programs already established.

The deal in 1987

Madden explains in his memo to the petitioners: "Beginning in 1987, CPB and the stations established a partnership in which the stations receive 93 percent of CPB radio funds to sustain programs and CPB retains 7 percent to create new ones." He adds: "I ... have not heard a request that this partnership should change."

Siemering would say so. He contends it isn't realistic to expect every worthy new program to survive after being weaned from CPB assistance and that the policy should be reconsidered by a task force on national programming that he proposes (see commentary, page 14).

If public radio develops a new way to pay for continuing series, it may be just in time to help Fresh Air, the daily NPR-distributed interview show from WHYY, Philadelphia, which has been given a year's notice that it will lose its CPB aid.

Weaning has killed off other series—for instance, Michael Dalby's Soundbites comedy modules stopped production in December—but there have been some survivors, too, where other funding sources were available.

West Virginia Public Radio's Mountain Stage received CPB money for just two years, in 1987 and 1988, and now gets by with money from concert tickets (about 10 percent of its budget), station fees (25 percent), the state network (25 percent), the state tourism office and Ashland Oil, says Executive Producer Andy Ridenour.

Soundprint, by its nature, isn't an ideal vehicle for a tourism office, oil company or ticket sales. And foundations—the program's major funding hope in recent months—usually won't make a grant unless the program fits their topic and their approach to it, says Soundprint development chief Joyce Ritchie.

For Soundprint's acclaimed programs on breast cancer, Ritchie thought she might get help from two groups devoted to working against the disease, but the prospective underwriters couldn't accept what had been produced. "We weren't using their preferred spokespeople. We weren't being positive enough. You have to present things from their perspective. You have to compromise your journalistic integrity."

While Siemering and the champions of Soundprint imply that CPB's faith in the station marketplace has the scent of Reaganism, Madden and others contend that most public radio stations are expressing their program priorities by neither carrying nor paying for the half-hour weekly series.

"Which is the more genuine measure of stations' commitment to Soundprint—a petition or the reality of the 20 percent Soundprint usage by CPB-eligible stations?" Madden asked in his statement last week.

Where's the beef?

CPB agrees that Soundprint "helps define the uniqueness of public radio," he said, but while CPB has put up more than half of the series' production costs through 1992, the stations have provided less than 10 percent.

"If the stations believe additional funding to sustain Soundprint is a higher priority, they will find a way to fund it," he said.

Both NPR and APR have evolving mechanisms to assemble production funds, Madden told Current. "I don't think the market has spoken yet [on Soundprint]. It's premature to say that."

If kind words could be taken to the bank, Siemering would be funded through the rest of the century. The petition, signed by 356 broadcasters at the PRC in Seattle said the program "provides a home for stand-alone documentaries where talented producers can realize their vision touches the audience in a way that straight news cannot ... was created and fostered by the foremost visionary in public radio ... truly defines the uniqueness of public radio ... is the very kind of program that justifies federal funding."

In the minds of defenders, the program is inseparable from Siemering, who joined public radio's pantheon by creating and producing All Things Considered.

"We're not going to let people like Bill Siemering get cancelled by the likes of Rick Madden," promises Hirschman.

To Current's home page
Outside link: Soundprint's website.

Web page posted Feb. 27, 2002
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2002