Power to the people

KIXE brings back Democracy Now!

Philip Smith is a middle-aged, talkative and relocated Ohioan who arrived in Northern California this summer and quickly got a taste of the wide mix of regional politics.

He came here from Austin, Texas, home of the popular Austin City Limits, to take the position of general manager for KIXE, the public television station based in Redding. Before he arrived in the North State, he’d hopscotched through the South, working at numerous commercial TV stations.

Shortly into his new post, he canceled the news program Democracy Now! because of its decidedly progressive take on national and international news, even though it aired at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m.

“Being the new guy and with the pressures that go along with that, we all know that public broadcasting is important, but it’s also struggling right now with the economy,” Smith explained in an interview last month. “I’ve been given to fits of insomnia and not really able to sleep. So I got up several mornings around 5 a.m. and I thought, ‘Well I wonder what’s going on this new station I’m here to support?’ And that was my introduction to Democracy Now!

Smith said that after watching it he was troubled.

“I know that one of the things that have hurt public television is the idea that it’s not straight down the middle and fair to everybody. There is a perception by some that it is conservative. There’s a perception by some that it is liberal,” he said.

At first the cancellation met with little reaction from the station’s viewers, including the conservative Redding-area folks as well as the liberals who live in the Chico region. The show had been airing since 2004, initially at midnight and then more recently at its less-than-prime-time 5 a.m. slot.

Then the story hit the Redding Record Searchlight newspaper and stirred up a few weeks of rumblings, threats and calls for Smith to go back to where he came from. He decided to settle the controversy with a vote of the public station’s members. Out of the thousand or so who monetarily support the station, 247 weighed in, with 168 saying bring it back, 50 saying keep it away, and 29 unable to decide.

It returns on Nov. 15 at the much more accessible hour of 8 a.m., which is precisely when the audio version runs on Chico’s KZFR community radio station.

The Public Broadcasting System, Smith offered, has been rated four years in row as the most trusted institution in America by the Roper Poll, the much respected survey of public opinion. “It’s not just the most trusted medium,” he said, “It’s the most trusted institution, period. And so when I watched Democracy Now! my impression was that it was a little bit of advocacy journalism.”

He said that advocacy, in his view, promoted a progressive point of view through the stories it covered and the angles it took.

“Now I don’t have a problem with that in and of itself,” he said, “but the thing is Democracy Now! kind of presented itself as a newscast. And I’m kind of a keeper of that image of trying to make sure the station presents all sides, and Democracy Now! to me doesn’t always present all sides of an issue. So I pulled the program off and did that in part to see if there was a reaction to it because I didn’t think we had any viewership.”

But apparently it did have some viewers. One of them is Emily Alma, a local lefty who’s been in the news of late on other matters, including recent public discussions protecting the Greenline.

“I did vote for it to go back on,” she said this week. “Some people don’t listen to the TV in the morning. Years ago I watched it at midnight. Now I listen to it on KZFR. I was surprised when I found out it had been taken off, but glad to hear that we won and it was coming back.”

Alma credited Smith for holding the membership election and putting the show back on.

“Good for him for listening to the people and being open minded,” she said. “But I was surprised he took it off in the first place. The show is fair and balanced, and they go into so much depth that sometimes it’s horrific what they unearth.”

For his part, Smith said that, while he was surprised by the reaction once it got some traction, there was another reason why he cancelled the show.

“I just don’t like that program,” he admitted. “It’s bad television from my production background. I just don’t care for it. But that isn’t the issue. I’ll bring it on back because KIXE is not about me. It’s about everybody else but me, quite frankly.”