How KPCC's Quest for Latino Listeners Doomed The Madeleine Brand Show
Brand and Martinez.
ILLUSTRATION BY SKIP STERLING
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.
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.
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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."
Second- and third-generation Latinos, though, were just right. That group, the research suggested, is both "well informed and has a strong desire for news programming that presents multiple perspectives of an issue."
All three segments had one thing in common: They were not listening to public radio. The CPB made its mission bringing that audience, with particular emphasis on second- and third-generation Latinos, into the fold.
Through the One Nation media project, announced in December, the CPB would provide Southern California Public Radio with $1.8 million a year for up to three years if grant conditions were met. Together with the station's own commitment to raise $3.8 million, the project would be worth $10.2 million.
KPCC is hardly desperate for money. Its last pledge drive, held in the spring, was just half the length of a regular pledge drive and still exceeded its goal by $200,000, a feat that's practically unheard of in public radio. With $11 million in pledge support annually, Southern California Public Radio can afford to pay its president and CEO, Bill Davis, a healthy $445,285 salary.
It also has a wealthy corporate parent: KPCC was taken over in 2000 by public radio powerhouse American Public Media, which is based in St. Paul, Minn., and produces both Marketplace and A Prairie Home Companion.
Still, KPCC could do a lot with the CPB's grant money: more reporters, more community events, more digital resources. It also could take The Madeleine Brand Show national.
WBEZ in Chicago has This American Life, WHYY has Fresh Air With Terry Gross, WNYC has Radiolab. But KPCC, even with its success both at fundraising and in local ratings, lacked that flagship show ready for national syndication — the kind of show that would put it on the map.
Why not The Madeleine Brand Show? It was incredibly popular, cornering about 2.6 percent of the L.A. market in its time slot -- the highest-rated show produced by KPCC. [Editor's note: A correction was made to this paragraph Nov. 1.]
Brand's show achieved those numbers with a small staff: It employed just four individuals, including Brand, when it premiered in 2010. By contrast, Day to Day, the nationally syndicated one-hour newsmagazine that Brand co-hosted until its cancellation in 2009, had 18 full-time staff members.
When the One Nation grant became available, it was presented to staff as an opportunity not only to take the show national but also to increase its appeal in Los Angeles.
There was only one hitch: The grant was meant to help encourage ethnic diversity in public media, and there was nothing particularly diverse about The Madeleine Brand Show. The station's attempts to change that seemed clumsy at best.
An L.A. native, Brand got her start at UC Berkeley's student radio station in the late 1980s. After graduation she started down the NPR career path: a stint as a local host of All Things Considered on a Buffalo, N.Y., affiliate, work as a contributor to Morning Edition and then a job co-hosting the national newsmagazine Day to Day.
Over 13 years at NPR, Brand became the quintessential public radio voice. Listeners came to know her as an incisive interviewer with a sharp wit, a firm grasp of the issues and a dry delivery that couldn't be further removed from commercial talk radio.
Like the majority of her show's production staff, Brand is white. She told listeners on the first day of The Madeleine Brand Show that she would feature regular segments on parenting, tech, Hollywood and business. The predominantly white, upper-middle-class audience ate it up.
But broadening the show's appeal to bring in a larger base of listeners — and fulfill the goals of the grant — meant changes to the show's content as well as its personality.
Viewers chafed. "Seriously?" one wrote on the station's website. "A story on tortillas followed immediately by a story on hot chilies? It's like a bad, vaguely racist joke."
It didn't help that, after nine months of fruitless searching for the perfect Latino co-host, the station finally settled on a sports radio host. Longtime listeners were livid from practically the minute A Martínez made his public radio debut.
It didn't help matters when a bizarre email — sent to a complaining listener by Southern California Public Radio president Bill Davis and first reported on L.A. Observed — surfaced.
When Day to Day premiered, he wrote, "My in-box was filled w/email complaints not dissimilar to yours complaining that Madeleine was 'shallow,' 'insipid,' 'an intellectual lightweight' ..." And when the station created The Madeleine Brand Show, Davis wrote, he got another round of emails, "describing her as everything from an 'adolescent schoolgirl in love with the sound of her own giggle' to 'a silly, stupid cow.'
"I know a thing or two about public radio programming," he wrote. "And I like what I hear with these two."
The furor only grew. In comments posted on the station's website, listeners sounded almost bereft. The old show, they wrote, was "perfect," "a jewel." They already missed its "warmth and sparkle."
They called out Brand's new co-host in terms more likely to be heard on Fox News than NPR.
"Pánderíng," one commenter wrote. "Affirmative action gone amok!!" howled another.
The biggest complaint about Martínez, though, was not his ethnicity so much as his sports background.
"I knew nothing of Mr. Martínez... from a sports program, Mmmm! NOT good!" clucked one commenter.
Another listener begged: "More Dodgers and Lakers Talk! Oh please! NO!"
The position for which A Martínez ultimately would be hired was posted by Southern California Public Radio in December, shortly after the One Nation Media grant was formally announced.
"The co-host serves as one of two defining voices for a two-hour national newsmagazine that will evolve from The Madeleine Brand Show with a focus on the Latino and other ethnic communities/interests/issues," the advertisement read.
Over the next several months, just about every rising and established Latino journalist in Los Angeles, including some already employed by KPCC, applied for the job.
There was a sense within the community that "whoever would get this job would become the preeminent Latino reporter in Southern California," says O.C. Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano, who pens the "Ask a Mexican" column that appears in this newspaper. (Both O.C. Weekly and L.A. Weekly are owned by Voice Media Group.) "Because of all the attention paid to it, because of all of the money behind it and, frankly, because there is no leading, crusading voice out there."
About two dozen applicants were considered for the job and given interviews with top management. Candidates were asked to write the introduction to the show that is read at the top of the hour, along with a script for a one-on-one interview that the applicant was asked to conduct live. And they were tested on how well they could banter with Brand.
As months went by without a consensus candidate, the selection process became increasingly scattershot. Staffers grumbled that Craig Curtis, the program director who led the hiring effort, would hear someone on the radio once and then bring in the person for an interview.
By this time, even from the outside, it was clear that Brand was not enthusiastic about the prospect of hiring a co-host. On May 14, Brand, who managed The Madeleine Brand Show's Twitter account, tweeted "Hey @NBC: is your new show Next Caller about someone I know...?"
Next Caller, which had been set to premier on NBC, is about a radio host whose boss brings in a co-host against his will. "What if I refuse?" the host asks. He's told he'll be fired.
(Brand repeatedly declined the Weekly's requests for comment.)
Ultimately, the station offered the job to CNN's Nick Valencia, a local boy from Eagle Rock who studied journalism at USC. He didn't have radio experience, but he did have serious news chops, having cut his teeth reporting on Mexico's drug war.
In June, almost a year after the station began pursuing the grant, Valencia turned down the six-figure position.
Enter A Martínez.
Like Brand, Jorge Martínez grew up in Los Angeles — in his case, Koreatown. But that's where their similarities end. Where Brand attended Berkeley, then Columbia for her master's degree, Martínez played baseball at L.A. City College before transferring to Cal State Northridge, where he received a journalism degree.
He hosted pregame shows for the Dodgers for 10 years and then rose through the ranks at ESPN, ultimately earning his own show, In the Zone.
He became known as A (not an initial, just the letter), by his own account, because an early boss used to yell "Hey, Martínez!" when he wanted to speak with him.
It was Craig Curtis, a sports radio fan, who first identified A Martínez as a potential hire, according to a KPCC insider. But ultimately, it was Russ Stanton who made the call.
Stanton toiled as a business reporter for four smaller publications before landing at the L.A. Times in 1997. He ascended to the post of editor in chief in 2008 — only to step down in mid-December 2011. [Editor's note: A correction was made to this paragraph Nov. 1.]
In January, Southern California Public Radio announced that Stanton had been selected after a yearlong search for a vice president of content. More than 100 candidates had been considered.
During his own interview process, Stanton recalls being shown a slideshow that depicted 11 years of uninterrupted growth in audience and donations to the three public radio stations — even through the recession.
It was quite the contrast to the Times, where, during his tenure as editor, Stanton oversaw "withering" cuts that took the staff from 900 to 550. At Southern California Public Radio, the organization was in the process of doubling its newsroom staff.
For all his news experience, Stanton had no experience in public radio — and, as with A Martínez, that may have been part of the point in hiring him.
Stanton took over the hiring process for Brand's co-host soon after he arrived at the station. He says one of the main reasons A Martínez was chosen for the position was because he didn't sound like what people were used to hearing on the NPR affiliate.
"He doesn't sound like public radio, which was by design. We feel very strongly that the population and therefore the audience of Southern California has been changing pretty dramatically and pretty rapidly over the past decade or so," Stanton says.
There's an alternate take on that impressive-sounding talk: The station was desperate. It had been almost a year since KPCC began talking to CPB about the One Nation grant. Station insiders say the nonprofit was starting to breathe down Southern California Public Radio's neck to find a co-host or lose its grant money.
Eager to land on someone and get the switch-up moving, the station ended up going with someone who, essentially, scored high on the banter test.
But Stanton stands by his call.
"If you look at market data for the five counties of Southern California, the literal face of it is changing, and if you're an English-speaking medium in this market, you've got to adapt to those changes or you're not going to be growing, and you're putting yourself on track to being irrelevant in the not too distant future."
This gets to the heart of the upheaval at KPCC: After cornering the public media market in Los Angeles, the station now is going after the commercial market.
KPCC is, in fact, growing its audience. But while it transitions from the insular world of public radio geeks to a larger stage, it's experiencing an awkward adolescence.
The big news on Aug. 24 — five days into the new Brand & Martínez show — was that cycling champion Lance Armstrong had quit fighting charges, brought by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, that he used performance-enhancing drugs while racing.
The charges ultimately cost Armstrong his Nike sponsorship and seven Tour de France titles. He's been banned from competitive cycling for life.
It should have been the perfect opportunity for Brand's new co-host to show off his strength: sports. And that's why it struck some listeners as odd that it was Brand who reported on the biggest sports story of the year.
The decision might not have surprised listeners who were familiar with Martínez as host of In the Zone on ESPN 710, where he distinguished himself as a strong, stubbornly vocal advocate for steroid use.
"I have strong feelings about steroids and HGH [human growth hormone]. I think everyone should be on something. I like the game better. I like sports better that way," Martínez said July 14 while discussing the Roger Clemens mistrial on In the Zone.
He felt it personally. "For the first 35 years of my life, I never got the results in the gym that I wanted," Martínez said of his own steroid use, on the same episode. "I know that feeling of failure, of frustration, of working so hard and not getting what you wanted out of something...."
But the problem was not that Martínez made his name defending the use of steroids both on his own ESPN show and as a guest on others. The problem was not even that Martínez admitted to using steroids himself.
The chief problem with Martínez's reporting on Armstrong that day was this: Martínez had been paid by at least one testosterone company to promote its product on the air for ESPN. Yet station insiders say he did not understand how his past endorsement of a legal product could be interpreted as a conflict of interest if he was reporting on Armstrong's illegal use.
Martínez did not respond to multiple interview requests, but a representative for ESPN 710 confirmed that Martínez has on the air endorsed testosterone products that were injected into him by a doctor.
Asked about the station's position on the matter, Stanton contrasted Martínez's role at ESPN Radio, where he had "to opine and to be provocative," with his new one at KPCC, where his job is "to inform our listeners by asking smart questions and engaging the expert guests...."
Martínez, he says, "is doing a good job on both those fronts."
Three weeks after Brand took the lead on the Armstrong story, Brand and Martínez put on a normal show, featuring all the regular segments: Friday Flashback, Weekend Alibi, the Dinner Party Download.
And so it stunned listeners when an announcement came two hours later via a press release posted on the station's website: Effective immediately, Brand would be leaving Southern California Public Radio.
Within the station, Brand's exit did not come as a complete surprise. Management knew she was unhappy. But the official statement said only that Brand was "leaving KPCC's morning lineup in order to pursue other career opportunities."
Since Brand's departure, Martínez has reported at least twice on the continuing fallout from Armstrong's steroid use. But he has not disclosed to KPCC listeners his previous sponsorship by the testosterone maker.
One week after Brand's startling departure, Southern California Public Radio went into full damage control mode. On Sept. 28, president-CEO Davis was a guest on the only show left untouched by the changes: AirTalk With Larry Mantle.
He answered numerous questions about the shakeup on Brand's show — as well as the cancellation of the much-beloved Patt Morrison Show.
"Programming decisions are not a democratic process," Davis told Mantle. "We live in a multiethnic city and we should be trying to reflect that more throughout our programming and throughout our staffing."
Brand herself seems to agree.
Of the One Nation grant, she told trade magazine Current, "I am totally in favor of those goals." She added, "I think it's a great idea to increase minority audiences that are not being served by public radio. Two thumbs up for that." Regarding her abrupt departure, Brand only said that "outside offers just became too attractive" to stay at KPCC.
For KPCC, then, the question is not whether changing its programming to appeal to an ethnically diverse audience is a good idea. (Everyone at least gives lip service to the idea that it is.) The question is whether three older white guys — Bill Davis, Russ Stanton and Craig Curtis — are the right people to decide what Southern California diversity should sound like.
"You can put someone with a Spanish surname on the air, but I think most importantly you need to have a production team — producers and editors — who have lived this life and intuitively get it," Max Benavidez says.
Benavidez was project director at Los Angeles Public Media, which was created in 2009 by a $2 million grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting very similar to the One Nation grant.
The grant was awarded to Fresno-based Radio Bilingüe, the most successful Latino public radio organization in the country, boasting more than 100 affiliates.
The 2009 grant that created Los Angeles Public Media was trumpeted as "first-of-its-kind, multiplatform" programming for Los Angeles' "young, diverse and underserved audience." A raft of minority journalists were hired.
But the organization could not convince any radio station with a signal in the Los Angeles area to host its programming. First Southern California Public Radio walked away from the project, and the possibility of broadcasting on California State University Northridge's signal fell through, too.
The organization created content for a website called LA>Forward, but in June 2011, Los Angeles Public Media suspended operations. The organization lost its funding when Congress cut $30 million from the CPB's budget last spring — and most digital-only projects got the ax.
The irony about all the trouble KPCC has encountered in its search for a Latino host is this: Back when it was a scrappy college station, KPCC had a hugely successful Latino-hosted show with massive grassroots support. It was called The Sancho Show.
The Sancho Show started as a one-hour program in 1984, but over 16 years on the air grew to six hours. On any given Saturday evening, Daniel Castro would be joined in the booth by 10 to 12 volunteers answering phones.
"I could have all 12 or 15 lines lit up for three hours straight," Castro, a silver-haired college administrator, remembers with a laugh. "We had a following. It wasn't three people listening. We had a following from Santa Barbara all the way to San Diego."
And that was just on the phone lines. "There were times when I could go out in that parking lot and have a parking lot full of low-riders — two or three car clubs would show up. I went out there one time, there was a whole motorcycle club out there. I had Boy Scout troops, USC Latino Alumni Association — it was crazy, folks from all kinds of places would show up," he recalls warmly.
The idea was to play multigenerational music — from bolero to the Texas Tornados, Linda Ronstadt, Canned Heat, Tower of Power, Malo — the kind of stuff the family could sit around and listen to together. That act alone, Castro believed, would strength the family unit and the community.
In 1998, Vice President Al Gore called The Sancho Show "a perfect example of non-elitist public programming." In 2000, KPCC yanked it off the air.
Minnesota Public Radio was taking over the station and transitioning to an all-talk lineup, one that left no room for The Sancho Show.
Castro wasn't even allowed to say goodbye on the air.
When he asked why he couldn't do a final show, as Castro told L.A. Weekly at the time, the general manager said, "We don't believe you need six hours to lament why you're not going to be on the air anymore." Castro added, "That's a quote."
Madeleine Brand, of course, did not get to say goodbye on the air, either. In the same press release announcing her departure, the station added that she'd been replaced:
"89.3 KPCC and Southern California Public Radio announced today that Alex Cohen has been named co-host of its 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekday newsmagazine show, joining current co-host A Martínez at the microphone beginning Monday."
The new show settled on the name Take Two, chosen, in part, as a self-aware nod to the show's early stumbles. ("At least they didn't call it 'Take Dos,' " one Latino listener quips.)
This week, Brand started a new job at KCET's public affairs show, SoCal Connected. At a dress rehearsal attended by the media, Brand sat across the table from longtime host Val Zavala, looking almost like a co-host. Her official title: special contributor. Brand will be conducting a nightly interview segment.
The biggest difference between radio and television, Brand tells reporters, is "makeup. I got up in the dark at a quarter of 5 every morning to do my radio show, so not a lot of time to do full makeup."
She declined to discuss her departure from KPCC, other than to say, "Of course I miss radio — I love radio. It's my first and longest-lasting love."
One question that remains is whether KPCC, like The Madeleine Brand Show, will lose all resemblance to its former self as it pivots to attract a new and different audience.
Part of the answer may come when its fall pledge drive — set to begin Nov. 7, the day after the election — gets under way. Listeners have threatened to withdraw their support. Now, for the first time since the loss of Madeleine Brand and the cancellation of The Patt Morrison Show, they will have to put up or shut up.
Stanton says the station takes the threats seriously. But so far, donations in August and September are up about 10 percent over the same time last year: "Those are early measurements, but those were two good months while we were getting an awful lot of complaints."
The other question is whether Latinos will tune in. The Arbitron ratings, while not conclusive, are encouraging. The "average quarter hour" ratings among Latino listeners, which averaged 4.9 in the months preceding Martínez's hire, rose to 7.2 in August, and then more than doubled to 15.3 in September.
And, at the end of October, Arbitron released even more encouraging news: KPCC has gained 100,000 new morning listeners since Martinez was brought on—up from an average of 322,000 tuning in at least 5 minutes a week in August, to 422,000 in October.
If the numbers can stay that high, they'd suggest that the naysayers are wrong and Bill Davis was right. Maybe he, Stanton and Curtis do "know a thing or two about public radio programming."
But there's one thing that Davis clearly was not right about: Brand & Martínez.
In his email to an upset listener just after Martínez was hired as co-host, Davis pleaded for patience.
"Programs usually need at least a year — sometimes two — to work out all the kinks/bugs," he wrote. "So, please check back with us after a year or so. By then we'll be able to see whether Brand & Martínez achieves its potential."
Editor's Note: Two corrections were made to this story Nov. 1. We initially overstated the success of The Madeleine Brand Show; it was the highest-rated show produced by KPCC, but was still bested in the ratings by NPR's Morning Edition. Also, we failed to count one of the papers Russ Stanton worked at before the L.A. Times -- he toiled at four smaller newspapers, not three. We regret the errors.
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