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How KPCC's Quest for Latino Listeners Doomed The Madeleine Brand Show 

Thursday, Nov 1 2012
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The announcement came without fanfare that Friday in August, during the last 10 minutes of one of L.A.'s most popular morning radio shows: This would be the final episode of The Madeleine Brand Show.

Not quite two years before, Brand had premiered her eponymous hourlong show at 9 a.m. on Southern California Public Radio, 89.3 KPCC. "This show is going to be a little different than what you're used to hearing at this hour," Brand told listeners that first day.

She was right. Brand's show was a departure from the stuffy BBC Newshour she replaced. She played Skrillex between segments, featured a regular pop culture segment called "Awesome/Not Awesome" and hosted comedy team the Sklar Brothers. Those items might be interspersed with, say, a dissection of the defense spending bill, or a sound-rich, 12-minute feature about a deadly flash flood on the L.A. River.

click to flip through (5) The co-hosts, Martinez and Brand, in happier times
  • The co-hosts, Martinez and Brand, in happier times
 

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In its first 23 months The Madeleine Brand Show gained both listeners and acclaim. It had the highest Arbitron share of any show on KPCC, and in February it added a Golden Mike for  "best news and public affairs program" from the Radio and Television Association of Southern California to a trophy case already boasting awards for writing, reporting, features and use of sound.

That's why the announcement on that Friday in August was so shocking. Brand sounded almost somber as she told listeners that, starting the following Monday, she would be joined by a co-host. Henceforth the show would be known as Brand & Martínez — and, it soon became clear, the show would make an aggressive push for Latino listeners.

Gone was Brand's theme song by indie band Fool's Gold; in its place was the trilling pan flute of "Oye Mi Amore" by Maná, a Mexican rock group whose popularity peaked in the 1990s. Suddenly, instead of the usual segments about Downton Abbey and disputes at a Brooklyn co-op, there was a segment about the death of a tortilla magnate, followed by one on Hatch chile season. And then there was Brand's co-host, an import from ESPN Radio with virtually no hard-news experience, a guy who had distinguished himself as a vocal advocate for steroid use.

Other news emerged soon thereafter: Southern California Public Radio also was canceling The Patt Morrison Show — the two-hour call-in program that, over its six-year run, had become an L.A. institution. It would be replaced by The BBC Newshour, and Brand & Martínez would double to two hours. Just one month later, Brand herself left KPCC altogether, making her announcement that August morning not a harbinger just of change but, effectively, of the end.

Brand & Martínez was on air just four weeks, but its abrupt introduction and rapid demise still has L.A. talking.

Listeners have flooded the station with angry comments and threats to withdraw support. Martínez, who went from landing one of the most coveted media jobs in L.A. to facing a phalanx of nasty commenters, has gone into bunker mode, ignoring requests for comment (including the Weekly's) and only occasionally surfacing on Twitter to ask people to give the show a chance. Meanwhile, the station's managers have been forced to defend their expansion plans — and the very idea of older white men designing programming meant to appeal to Latinos.

Ultimately, the story of Brand & Martínez's brief, unhappy run isn't just the story of the spectacular flameout of one of the most promising new public radio programs in the country. It's also a story about corporate interests, commercial appeal — and the battle over the soul of public radio itself.

Public radio has a problem: its white, rapidly aging audience. At September's Public Radio Program Directors conference in Las Vegas, top brass from public radio stations from California to New York fretted that ratings are down across the country.

It's precisely the problem Southern California Public Radio tried to address by introducing a Latino co-host to The Madeleine Brand Show.

The nonprofit, which includes KPCC and two smaller affiliates — KUOR 89.1 in Redlands and KVLA 90.3 in the Coachella Valley — first started pondering the idea in earnest a little more than a year ago, when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) broached the prospect of giving it some grant money.

The taxpayer-funded CPB doles out $364 million annually to public radio and television stations — those stations' largest single source of funding.

Bruce Theriault, CPB's senior vice president of radio, says staffers first began researching Latino audience potential five years ago. The research broke up Los Angeles Latinos into three segments. Recently arrived immigrants, the study found, "expressed little interest in news [and] no awareness of public radio, and felt generally well served by commercial Spanish-language radio." First-generation Latinos are "solid consumers of both news and music" but have "complexities that can make it a difficult market for public radio to reach."

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