KPCC and the “reasonable listener”

Posted on | April 11, 2011 | 1 Comment

If you don’t think KPCC is a great radio station, then you probably don’t listen to it. Between the conversational parsing of the day’s news by Larry Mantle and Patt Morrison, the exceptional feeds of shows from Terry Gross and Dick Gordon in the evening, the purely delicious “Off Ramp” and the mix of local and national reporting, the Pasadena-based public radio station is widely regarded as a pillar of Southern Californian journalism. Yet, like so many pillars in greater Los Angeles, that column may not be solid. A station memo leaked last Friday showed that  the station temporarily pulled sponsorship credits to Planned Parenthood when the reproductive health organization became the center of culture wars underlying the funding debates in Washington.

“Given that the budget debate in congress is focusing today on abortion in general and Planned Parenthood by extension, let us suspend airing any Planned Parenthood spots effective immediately,” program director Craig Curtis wrote his staff. “There is nothing wrong with the spots per se, or with our business relationship with Planned Parenthood, but for a few days their presence on our air might raise questions in the mind of the ‘reasonable listener’ regarding our editorial and sales practices.”

After the memo was leaked last Friday to LA Observed, today the station defended its decision. “KPCC’s decision to temporarily suspend Planned Parenthood underwriting credits on Friday was a routine procedural one. It was not about Planned Parenthood. It was about an underwriter that happened briefly to become the center of a major news story. When that happens at KPCC, our standard practice is to ‘bump’ credits to avoid the appearance of any conflict. This is a common policy at many news radio stations, and something that happens a few times each year at KPCC. Ultimately the suspension affected only two credits for Planned Parenthood that were scheduled for Friday afternoon. All Planned Parenthood credits have now returned to their normal schedule and placement on our air and on the KPCC website.”

Further challenged by this writer that reasonable listeners must look out after their own reasonableness and the station’s job is to remain immune to political winds, program director Craig Curtis wrote, “The ‘reasonable listener’ I referenced in my leaked internal email is an actual legal standard often invoked in broadcast law and regulation, as in ‘the reasonable listener test.’  The intended audience for my email (our staff) would have understood the context for that reference. I would never have used it in public communication without an explanation. The policy in question is designed to prevent questions about our editorial motivations. That takes priority over the possible momentary need to move a few underwriting credits.”

One feels for Curtis. Public radio has been under attack by the same forces targeting Planned Parenthood. But the decision to briefly pull sponsorship acknowledgements for Planned Parenthood wasn’t about the reasonable listener, no matter how KPCC might define the term. It was about the station’s resolve in a shit storm. If Planned Parenthood was an acceptable sponsor on Thursday, short of some gross malfeasance by the advertiser, it should have remained one on Friday. Whatever one thinks about Planned Parenthood, or any other sponsor, if KPCC’s news side is independent from its sponsors, then manipulation of sponsorship acknowledgements should not be necessary. KPCC has been telling us that it needs more of our financial support in the face of threatened budget cuts. It clearly needs more than our cash. It needs our instruction about what we expect from it. If cowering in political storms and squirrelly manipulation of sponsorship credits is OK with you, give it a pass. If it’s not, write the station.

Update: LA Observed has more on KPCC calling the suspension “routine.” The delicacy on our behalf feels more like cowardice on theirs; that, or they think the reasonable listener is an idiot. Either way, it’s depressing.


One Response to “KPCC and the “reasonable listener””

  1. Brent (Breathing Treatment)
    April 11th, 2011 @ 9:58 pm

    They flinched. Sometimes a flinch successfully avoids a punch. Sometimes it shows that you’re scared.

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