San Marino City Club 1st Vice President Dick Pearson saved the best for last when introducing Bill Davis, Chief Executive Officer of Southern California Public Radio, as Tuesday’s keynote speaker.
“It is Bill’s voice you hear over the air when he is having one of his famous fundraisers,” Pearson said, as the San Marino Center broke out in spontaneous laughter.
Davis was quick to capitalize.
“Who has listened to the fundraisers?” he asked, as hands shot up into the air.
“Well, thanks to those who have given and I am NOT going to be asking for money tonight.”
As the laughter subsided, Davis began with an homage to the organization itself.
“These clubs are very important,” said the La Cañada resident. “Our audience is not unlike what we have here tonight. Public radio listeners are more likely to be well-educated and affluent.”
Which led Davis to his second point.
“We are really trying to expand our audience,” he said. “We are reaching out to the African African and Latino communities.”
Davis reported that Southern California Public Radio recently hosted a focus group looking for answers to the demographic question.
“One guy actually got up from his seat and began to beat on the window,” Davis recalled. “He said ‘Los Angeles is changing and we trust you to tell us. We don’t trust the Los Angeles Times or ABC. We trust you!’”
Davis quickly segued into the main topic of the evening: President Donald Trump’s proposed cuts to public broadcasting.
Over the years, there have been multiple attempts to eliminate funding for public broadcasting,” said Davis. “The initial response is that this is an attack on public media.
I don’t believe that. The proposal is usually part of a narrow and specifically targeted program.”
Davis did say that Trump’s plan is “unprecedented.”
“Not since the drawdown in 1946 and 1947 after the end of WWII have we seen such cuts to public programs. The elimination of public broadcasting is this tiny sliver in a much, much broader attempt to limit the scope of government, the reach of government. I don’t have any quarrel with that.”
Davis did say that, traditionally, funding for public media has come from Republican senators representing rural areas.
“PBS and NPR mean a lot more to those in Alaska and Mississippi than in Los Angeles,” Davis said. “And the cohort of moderate Republicans has gotten smaller and smaller.”
Davis said that the elimination of public broadcasting “is not higher than 50-50 right now, but it is higher than it ever has been before.”
“My sense is, you have not seen this movie before,” Davis said. “I am cautiously pessimistic instead of cautiously optimistic.”
Davis shared that he believed funding for public media will be used for horse trading at a later date.
“This is not a bad thing,” he declared. “Public media has traditionally been dependent upon generosity of the audience. Communities like Los Angeles. New York and San Francisco will respond. Federal funding is the nuts and bolts of public media so I don’t know what’s going to happen in places like Nebraska, Wyoming and Mississippi. There will be other ways we can configure ourselves and we will make sure we are more reflective of the cities we serve. I don’t see this as an attack. It is not doom and gloom. But we will be more dependent on financial support and the engagement we have with our audience members.”
Davis mentioned that Southern California Public Radio has a current budget of $40 million, which is funded by $15 million of individual contributions and $7.5 million in corporate gifts. The remainder is made up of government funding and gifts from foundations. He projected a probably 10% cut in staff if public media is not supported by the federal government.
Davis said that Los Angeles has the “most listened-to” public radio station in the country and his biggest challenge is “hanging on to our talented staff. And that has only gotten worse.”
He then listed a handful of employees who were wooed away by other media firms.
There was an audible gasp when Davos mentioned that 97 percent of all American people listen to the radio.
“It’s an incredibly resilient form of media,” he said. “The amount of time spent listening to radio has been going down and who knows when the point will come. Radio was able to create a level of community that strengthened bonds between people who didn’t know each other and couldn’t see each other.”
He also said that media usage skews towards “the individual control of each person.”
Therefore, audience engagement is more important than ever. Davis talked about a program called ‘Unheard LA,’ a series of meetings and storytellings throughout Southern California.
“We are going to see if that is successful, to get out into the community more,” Davis said.
“We are holding up an accurate mirror to the imperfect paradise that is Southern California.”