CPB Office of the Ombudsman

Dialing for Radio Dollars

Joel Kaplan

November 21, 2011

"Dialing for Radio Dollars" was the headline on a Wall Street Journal column by Ralph Gardner Jr. last month. Mr. Gardner began his column:

"I'm not sure what's more remarkable—that there even exists a bobblehead of Alan Chartock, the head of Northeast public radio, the Hudson Valley's NPR affiliate, or that it enjoys pride of place on the ledge overlooking our stove."

Mr. Gardner's article goes on to paint a flattering profile of Mr. Chartock, who is president and CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio and professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Albany.

"The cult of Alan, who is 70 years old, reaches its zenith during its three-times-a-year $1 million fund drives, of which the fall drive is currently in progress," Mr. Gardner writes. "It's a testament to the man, and to the station, that listeners actually tune in rather than reach for the dial."

But not everyone who tunes in is enamored with either Mr. Chartock or his fundraising techniques.

Richard A. Peters wrote me to complain about Mr. Chartock:

"I am a registered Democrat. I listen to public radio and enjoy it very much. I would like public radio to continue with government support and I feel that the outrageous behavior of Dr. Chartock of WAMC and some like him jeopardizes the future of the medium. I also strongly object to the use of my tax dollars to support the personal opinions of Dr. Chartock."

Mr. Peters lists a number of specific complaints he has about Mr. Chartock. Among them:

- "Dr. Chartock is a rabid left wing advocate and makes no effort to hide his views on the air."

- During the recent WAMC fundraising campaign, WAMC sold "Occupy Wall Street" buttons for an additional 99-cent contribution.

- During that campaign, "Dr. Chartock constantly referred to the Republicans in the House as 'radical' intent on silencing public radio because it is an answer to Rush Limbaugh. This speaks directly to how Dr. Chartock views himself. If he is the answer to Rush Limbaugh, he should raise the money from sponsors and not the taxpayers."

I spoke recently with Mr. Chartock where he defended his behavior as an outspoken and liberal talk show host and responded to Mr. Peters' complaint.

"Our response is that I do not speak for the radio station," he said. "I am the president of the radio station but we have a First Amendment in this country and I can say anything I want. I won't be silenced by those who don't like what I say."

Mr. Chartock certainly has a First Amendment right to say what he wants. But as the custodian of a public radio station, he also has a requirement to follow the federal law that requires such broadcast stations to follow the standards of objectivity and balance.

Mr. Chartock says WAMC does that.

"We make sure that every voice gets on the radio," he said. "We interview every congressman—right, left and middle. We have open forums. Anybody who says anything, we read their statement."

In a follow-up letter (PDF), Selma Kaplan, vice president of WAMC, says that she, the radio station and its board of directors disagree with Mr. Peters' complaint that Mr. Chartock's "'outrageous behavior' jeopardizes the future of public radio."

"We understand that Alan is a person of strong opinions, and that he can be a lightning-rod for folks who may take issue with him on matters of one sort or another," says Ms. Kaplan's letter. "However, as a long-time on-air personality in public radio and professor emeritus of political science and communication at SUNY, Alan is eminently qualified as a political observer and commentator.

"His opinions and analyses—often strongly stated so as to stimulate thought, conversation and reaction—are continually sought out by both commercial and public broadcasters and media outlets in New York and nationally. In fact, a very positive piece on Alan and the way he runs the station's fund drives was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal. During fund drives, Alan is careful to emphasize that the opinions he expresses are his own and not those of the station.

"The important point to make here is that Alan's voice is only one of many on WAMC—the station regularly hears from observers, commentators, politicians (including all the members of our Congressional delegation) and others across the social and political spectrum. It is worth noting that two of these members of Congress are among the most conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives and both are members of the station.

"We work very hard to ensure that WAMC's programming is objective and balanced. Our audience tells us that they appreciate this balance and our service. This is one of the reasons why we have about 450,000 listeners per month."

I agree that Mr. Chartock has a right to express his opinions as long as the station makes sure that there are contrary opinions also being expressed. However, the real problem here, as I see it, is that Mr. Chartock is president of the radio station.

It would be one thing if Mr. Chartock were a political science professor at SUNY Albany hosting a radio talk show. It is quite another thing that he is the CEO of WAMC.

How does that affect the other employees of WAMC? Do they feel that they must follow their president's lead? Do people who get hired at WAMC believe that they must follow the positions of the station's management? It is not enough to say that the opinions of Dr. Chartock are his own and do not reflect those of the radio station.

It is clear from the record that Mr. Chartock is an able and successful public radio station president. He is also a knowledgeable and insightful radio station host. The problem is that he should not be doing both at the same time.

Even more problematic for WAMC, in my opinion, was its decision to offer Own Wall Street buttons as a premium for contributors. Mr. Peters, and I'm sure others, felt that this was going too far by implicitly endorsing the movement.

Ms. Kaplan disagrees:

"It hardly needs repeating that, even if WAMC did make a 'political statement' in support of OWS, its right to do so under the First Amendment is clear, as confirmed by Supreme Court in the League of Women Voters case in 1984, which struck down a provision of the Communications Act that prohibited editorializing by public stations.

"However, it was not WAMC's intention to take a position in support of OWS, nor is that a fair reflection of what happened. WAMC runs highly interactive (and successful) pledge drives. In addition to donations, we solicit and air all comments from listeners.

"During the pledge drive which began on October 10, it became clear from callers to the station that there was considerable frustration among our audience over the lack and nature of coverage of OWS on media outlets generally, and also considerable support for the goals of OWS (at least as they were perceived at that early stage in the movement).

"Responding to the audience energy on this issue, a WAMC volunteer created a design and we quickly acquired buttons that read, 'I support WAMC & Occupy Wall Street—99%.' We offered them as premiums for listeners who requested them, asking people to add 99 cents to their donation. As a result, WAMC received over 1000 calls making donations and asking for the buttons as a premium.

"This premium was only one of many that were available—the drive ultimately netted over 8000 pledges for over $1 million. No one (including Mr. Peters) complained to us about our treatment of the OWS during the pledge drive or otherwise commented on the content of the buttons.

"WAMC's coverage of the OWS movement has been objective and balanced. In addition to news coverage originating out of NPR, we have had commentary by at least two contributors who have questioned the goals or means of the movement.

"We have aired listener comments on OWS (both pro and con) and posted listener comments on OWS (both pro and con) to our station blog. We did not exclude or edit any comment that was critical of the movement."

But when I asked Mr. Chartock if the station offered any premium that would be desired by conservative members of his audience, he responded, "No, not that I can think of at this time."

I think the premium offer, despite its success, was a mistake. My colleague, David Rubin, the former dean of the Newhouse School, who is both a strong liberal and a staunch defender of the First Amendment, said, "even I think this was going a bit far. I doubt they would have given away buttons reading 'Kill Obamacare' and promoted them on the air." Still Mr. Rubin was pleased that Mr. Chartock and WAMC were standing up for their First Amendment right to speak.

For his part, Mr. Peters said the response from WAMC did not address his principal complaint—that the station was using tax dollars to further their political agenda. "I am not trying to suppress free speech," Mr. Peters said. "I object to using my tax dollars to pay for it."

WAMC is a remarkably successful public radio station. But its board of directors might want to rethink whether it is the best policy for WAMC's president and CEO to use that radio station as a forum to voice his personal opinions.

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