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LAID-OFF KUAT EMPLOYEE QUESTIONS STATION'S COMMITMENT TO CLASSICAL MUSIC

A former employee has called out Jack Gibson, the general manager of Arizona Public Media—the umbrella entity that houses UA public-media entities KUAT Channel 6 and radio stations KUAT FM 90.5 and KUAZ FM 89.1/AM 1550—after another round of cutbacks.

Steve Hahn, who worked with KUAT FM 90.5 for much of his 24-year Arizona Public Media tenure—most recently as its music director—was one of three people released from the radio side in an early May layoff cycle that affected four full-time and three part-time employees within the organization.

Hahn says the latest cuts have decimated the classical-music operation.

"The (radio cutbacks) were very key positions," Hahn says. "One was our full-time classical announcer (David Harrington, in the position for more than a decade), and (another was) my position, leaving a grand total of two full-timers for the entire radio operation: the program manager, who's not even on the air, and one full-time morning classical announcer (James Reel, who also serves as the Tucson Weekly's art editor). Every single other person there is a part-timer."

Hahn was already upset about KUAT's use of a syndicated satellite feed from Minnesota, added to the station's cycle in the evenings and overnight. He argued that the feed hindered KUAT's continuity regarding musical selections and the delivery of DJs. He said the latest cutbacks could move the station further in a generic, less-locally influenced direction.

"I see the systematic destruction of this station. This classical format is an award-winning format. ... We have listeners from all over the world. We were named one of the best classical formats in the country by American Record Guide magazine. My programming. Our announcers. This is disregarding the legacy we have as one of the finest classical music stations in the country. Why? When you see the systematic degradation of the station and its resources, you wonder if (Gibson) is trying to prove the station can't succeed. Will it then fail so he can justify selling the signal? There are still broadcasters in this market who will pay millions of dollars for a nice FM signal. That can fund a lot of television production."

Hahn says the radio station has been required to refer to itself as being under the banner of Arizona Public Media, a move he feels has led to a loss of identity for KUAT, the radio station. Further, Hahn believes the use of television personalities to read radio news was meant to benefit the TV side of the operation—at the expense of the radio side.

"The news department has been decimated. It's in the worst shape it's ever been in. This affects the news side of the operation, but the classical side as well," Hahn said. "(Gibson) did this by creating this category of employee called the 'content producer.' Nobody is any longer a reporter. If you look at the staffing, only two guys read news. The rest are TV guys who come over on loan occasionally. I think it's a specific strategy to eliminate that identity. There's no reporting done at all. It's an embarrassment for a public station. (They) get the (Arizona Daily) Star in the morning and rewrite a couple of stories. They don't even do phone interviews.

"Half the time, our promotional announcements on the radio stations are promoting television programs. It's almost like they're feeder stations for the television programming."

Gibson defends the direction of KUAT-FM and Arizona Public Media, and notes that Arizona Public Media's membership support continues to grow, which is not the case at all public-broadcasting organizations around the country.

"We have no plans to expand use of the satellite classical music service from Minnesota Public Radio beyond the evening and overnight hours ... where we have broadcast the service for years," Gibson says in an e-mail. "The remaining hours, those with the greatest audience, will still be uniquely programmed by our own staff, and presentation of the music will continue to be by local announcers. We are also investing in our radio infrastructure. We have just received a grant, which we will match with local dollars, to upgrade our aging AM transmitter to the new (high definition) radio format."

Gibson also argues that cross-platform promotion is beneficial to all aspects of Arizona Public Media.

"After the radio community relations director resigned to take another position at the University of Arizona in early 2004 (before I arrived in Tucson), it was decided to combine and coordinate the marketing for all of the stations in the group within a single department," Gibson said. "We recently enlarged our public-relations and marketing staffs and have made great and very effective strides in cross-promoting television and radio programming on all of our platforms, including the Web, in order to reach larger audiences who are likely to be interested in the programming we provide on other platforms."

This focus on image has led to some discontent within the organization. Hahn is the second long-term former employee (former news reporter Bill Mortimer was critical of Arizona Public Media's direction in an interview with the Weekly last July) to publicly chastise management. It's rare for former media employees to lash out at the old boss. Part of that is likely due to hush clauses included in severance packages, along with the fear of burning bridges, which might reflect poorly in future job searches.

Privately, criticisms of Gibson's reign have been plentiful.

"I don't want some weasel-y PR guy at the station saying, 'Hahn's disgruntled, and we had to get rid of him because of budget problems,'" Hahn said. "This is an open secret by now. His whole thing is PR and image, and nothing else matters than spinning that image. The first day he arrived, he did this cosmetic upgrade to the station area, which is located in the basement of the Modern Languages Building. We had to get new tile and pastel accents and neon signs, all this bullshit to present this image of just how successful we are, while we've abandoned our core mission of serving our audience with substantial programming."

More by John Schuster

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