Patt in the Hat: Not Coming Back??

We, the listeners, do not need more global "crawl" or "personality" programming -- we need what Patt has under her hat -- and, until recently, shared on the air-waves. That famous hat is now sitting in the ring. Who will pick it up?
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On September 7, 2012, Los Angeles radio talk show host Patt Morrison said goodbye to her listening audience on KPCC, an L.A. public radio station, this way: "To all of you listeners in Southern California and beyond, to all of you who have come to Southern California from around the world and made Southern California the world, who have brought the voices of the world to the civil and civic discourse we've been pursuing here for more than six years in our daily conversation -- thank you."

This was a typically graceful and gracious speech by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, whose brightly-modulated broadcast voice was so distinctive that her listeners could almost 'hear" The Hat -- the trademark chapeau Patt sported in more visible circumstances: TV, onstage at various public events, and, as we say, "in person."

Her smart hats, worn stylishly, inevitably signaled both a slightly old-fashioned refinement (here indeed was a lady!) alongside a top-down authority -- this was a seasoned reporter. Who wears a hat these days? Only the very few who can keep it on and also carry it off.

The valedictory eloquence of her thoughtful farewell stood in stark contrast to KPCC management's close-mouthed handling of their cancellation of the show -- on the air since 2006. There was, by all report, no announcement or explanation by the station's administrators until days after the Patt Morrison show vanished -- literally "into thin air." Then, on the creaky-voiced Larry Mantel show, which had been re-positioned and extended in the wake of the Patt cancellation, there was a brief, vague reference to the termination by President and CEO Bill Davis, who murmured something about a "change."

An on-line petition signed by hundreds of supporters has not been acknowledged by the station. After I left a "complaint message" with a KPCC receptionist, I received a phone call from Russell Stanton, Vice President of "Content" (how can they give themselves these titles in all seriousness?) who informed me that he would "answer" my "questions" about the show's demise. He noted that Patt's time slot had been filled by other talk show hosts -- and a daily live BBC broadcast. He was particularly proud of the BBC live broadcast -- boasting that, "You can't get it anywhere else." I thought of asking him if he might have interest in purchasing a bridge in Manhattan -- and pointed out that I can, like the rest of the world, get the BBC live streaming on my iPhone, and plain old TV.

The big noise he was making about the BBC did provide a glimpse, however, into the backroom "strategy" behind the deep-sixing of Patt's show. The difference between format-familiar talk shows and "world-wide" media coverage (available on one's phone and beyond) -- and Patt's program highlights the difference in how the News has come to be perceived, and how we assess its significance, its ascension to "history."

What's taken for granted here is that KPCC and all other listeners would tune in eagerly to the plummy accents of the BBC readers, recounting global events -- yet would find little of import, even in this Industry town, on our own premises.

Patt didn't drone on about the same world events others regurgitated or riffed on -- she created a Town Hall, a two-way conversation. Listeners could talk and hear about subjects that mattered to them, wherever they were in California-at-large or SoCal or beyond -- education, the economy, the foibles of life here at the Pacific Rim. She orchestrated an a capella group - not a preached-to choir.

I'm not talking about regional boosterism (vs. the East Coast and Everywhere Else) -- rather Patt put forward the complexities of life: the ongoing civic life and culture of Los Angeles. Patt's reporter-trained powers of observation and commentary were on steady display -- acute and engaging, as she drew her callers out.

Those who listened to her early-afternoon show while driving (I fell into this category) often found it hard to turn the program off with the engine upon arrival at a destination. Many have sat, parked, late for an appointment, as I have, staring ahead, listening intently to Patt.

The immediacy of the discourse of guests and callers -- often in response to Patt's questioning of interviewees (including L.A.'s police chief, City Hall officials, authors, parents, LAUSD adversaries) was riveting.

In that paradoxical process that Patt understood so well and KPCC clearly did not -- what was familiar on a "local" level became universal in a very different sense than the BBC or CNN's steady diet of enormities. What was "news worthy" grew in "import" because it was analyzed with keen attention instead of "read." Patt's show was a conversation with a world -- of whatever size.

But even if we look to standard ratings as conventional proof of interest -- we find that Patt's show had good "numbers." And if one wanted to pull rank in that realm of numbers -- "Talkers" magazine, a national journal for and about radio talk show hosts, ranked Patt Morrison #47 out of 100 of its "heavy hundred," a list led by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Patt moved up 19 slots from last year's ranking - when she graced the cover of the magazine for her debut on the list. Her #47 ranking put her ahead of Terry Gross of "Fresh Air" -- and Patt's presence on the list was a first for a "local" public radio host. In 2010, The Nation magazine listed Patt on its "honor roll" as the country's most valuable radio voice -- and at the top of the list of regional radio shows that "should go national."

Many are urging the ill-advised decision-makers at KPCC to re-instate the Patt Morrison show -- but I fear that this would require a conversion, a turning-away from "exec-think", a type of "leveling" business model that seems to have permeated even public broadcasting.

We, the listeners, do not need more global "crawl" or "personality" programming -- we need what Patt has under her hat -- and, until recently, shared on the air-waves. That famous hat is now sitting in the ring. Who will pick it up?

-- Carol Muske-Dukes

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