My visit to inspect the public files at Chicago Public Media

Posted by Scott - October 16, 2012 (entry 693)

"It's just past the Billy Goat Tavern," the Navy Pier cleaning woman explained.

I had been to Chicago Public Media only once before, and for a similar reason - an unannounced drop-in inspection of what is called the public file. But that was pre-9/11 and the place was called Chicago Public Radio then.

"My name is Scott Sanders, I'm here to look at your public file," I said into the little sound opening. The receptionist buzzed me in from an entryway with large WBEZ logos on its glass walls. After an elevator took me to a third floor lobby with a panoramic view of the south side's shoreline, the receptionist said "Thank you for coming," as I signed in at 10:35AM Monday October 15th 2012 and received my temporary name badge with "guest of Sean Aucoin" printed above my name on a lanyard.

Sean's job title is Continuity and Acquisitions Manager. I found him courteous and knowledgeable. After a brief wait, he lead me through several station hallways to a file cabinet. In the public file are things like license filings, equal employment opportunity documents, a booklet about the public file from the FCC. There is also a copy of a petition to deny the renewal of WBEZ's license because of one cuss. (You can find more about the public file here. And here is a link to petitions you can copy and adapt and file yourself at the FCC before the Illinois filing window ends November 1st 2012.)

Soon after Sean and I arrived at the public file drawers, I noticed CPM President and CEO Torey Malatia approaching so I said "Hi Torey". He pleasantly said "Hi Scott. Thanks for coming." Little did I know at the time that another story about the "Smiley & West" issue had come out that morning. This one was written by Laura Washington in the Chicago Sun-Times. I did not see Torey any more that day. (As of this writing, the story and the number of "likes" on the action's Facebook page are growing.)

Fully commercial stations are required to maintain a political file noting ad and program buys. Public stations do not - yet - sell candidates time. Commercial broadcasters are also required to provide the public access to all letters and emails they receive from the public. Public and community stations, sadly, are not required to do this.

A brief detour into public media history is necessary here. Back in the early Reagan years, the restrictions on commercialism in public broadcasting were relaxed. Around the same time, the rule requiring all broadcasters to make all letters they receive from the public available to the public was dropped for public tv and radio. What a coincidence!

So of course, I first asked Sean if any letters from the public are made available and, as I guessed, Sean said "No". But he then said, "We really want to though." I thought to myself, "maybe in ten more years".

I then asked for the bylaws of the Board of Trustees and the Board and Committee minutes. The undemocratic bylaws of Chicago Public Media's Board - which is entirely composed of unelected Trustees - are the governance rules the wealthy and powerful use to control both Chicago Public Media and knowledge. I was somewhat surprised that these items were available, as neither bylaws or minutes were in the public file at my previous visit. Also of interest were the FCC Ownership Reports and the required lists of donors, which are pretty lengthy. We determined that most, or, more likely, all of the public files I requested would be available through email. Everything required appeared to be in the public file. There were a few helpful documents in the file that were not required to be there.

I had some other informational requests and questions that related to other aspects of the "Smiley & West" problem. I asked Sean to ask Torey to characterize for us the general nature of the previous letters received about "Smiley & West" and tell us if they seemed organized, and to tell us more about the Arbitron ratings, and official station principles. In a follow-up email, Malatia said there were not an unusual number of letters concerning the show pro or con in the past, and showed some rough numbers that indicated that the ratings were down and not as high as other programming in similar slots. However, ratings have only a limited usefulness in public media. And given Arbitron's renowned issues with capturing minority listeners and Chicago's 32.9% African American population, putting so much weight on the ratings seems awfully dicey. Promotion and a time slot that better considers the schedules of churchgoers wouldn't hurt either.

I asked for a copy of the bylaws on paper, so we went through the large, bright and airy main news room to print copies. It seemed like just about any of these files would be available electronically upon request from CPM, though most of them are not available (yet?) at the station's web site or the FCC's.

The last thing I said to Sean before I left was that I wished Torey had found a few minutes because I would have asked him in person "Why did you give us so much red meat? You want to make people angry." And "Why are you using so many Fox News-type words when you talk about 'Smiley & West'?"

I suspect that I'll have time in the future to ask those questions and others.

"Nice hat," said the receptionist on my way out. Sean had said he liked it too earlier. "If you were to fold one side, it would be like an ANZAC (soldier)." she finished. "You're right. It would if I did that," I said.

I had worn my new Australian outback.

-- written by your humble WBEZhatesSmileyandWest Facebook action originator and site manager, Scott Sanders

Scott Sanders, a 2011 winner of the Nelson Algren Committee award, has co-founded a number of media activist organizations, including Chicago Media Action, and led efforts to constitute public community media centers with member-elected boards and to increase diversity on non-elected public media boards. He also led campaigns resulting in the only FCC fine of a major public TV station concerning commercialism. He is a video documentarian and a periodicals and technology librarian. Scott has produced social science research for MMTC, , and the University of Chicago, and the Trustee research in the study “Chicago Tonight: Elites, Affluence and Advertising” starting here on p.18 of the appendix. He is the author or co-author of articles for Truthout, link name Counterpunch, Z magazine, FAIR’s Extra!, and a number of daily newspapers.

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