Larry Mantle

AirTalk Page Seared By Angry Listeners

I’m not surprised that some "AirTalk" listeners had no interest in hearing Michael Jackson's memorial event this morning. But I am taken aback at the tone of many of the comments about our decision that were made on the "AirTalk" page. The reasons that listeners gave for why we shouldn’t have aired the memorial were varied. Some thought Jackson’s eccentricities and the allegations of child abuse disqualified him from getting this level of attention. Others apparently thought his contributions to music weren’t significant enough. The news judgement we made in deciding to air the memorial is certainly worth debating. However, the bigger sense that I got was that some listeners felt betrayed – as though KPCC blindly followed the lead of commercial and cable news networks in deciding to air the service. They saw KPCC as sullied by carrying the local memorial of a man who provided years of tabloid stories, and whose death has been milked by broadcast media.

In fact, we made the programming decision before we knew who would, or wouldn’t, be carrying it. We debated it internally, but ultimately decided that it was a huge local (and global) story. We weren’t co-opted by a malevolent popular culture and media machine. We base our coverage of a story not on whether there’s over-saturation in other media, but on what’s the right amount of attention for us to give it. This was clearly going to be the most talked about event in Southern California for some time, and we weren’t going to refrain from airing it just because others were covering Jackson’s death in every lurid detail 24/7.

I am as passionate about hard news as anyone, spending hours daily reading background on public policy and issues that have a big impact on our lives. However, on the day of Michael Jackson’s memorial, there’s no question that I would’ve been listening to this major live event over listening to how the legislature and Governor haven’t made progress on the budget. I don’t own a Michael Jackson CD or have his music on an MP3 player, but, as a news junkie, I would be tuned in for his memorial.

I didn’t follow Princess Diana’s life at all, but watched her funeral out of interest in how much impact she had on popular culture. These mass events are ever rarer in this era of balkanized media and, therefore, provide a great learning opportunity. Seeing and hearing what Michael Jackson means to many African-Americans is particularly interesting. After all, this is a man who many thought spent his adult years trying to flee from his skin color.

I completely understand listeners who say they don’t care for Michael Jackson’s voice, don’t enjoy the genre of music he made, and don’t get what fans who bought millions of his recordings saw in him. I also understand that some people found Jackson personally off-putting. If that’s how you feel about him, you probably wouldn’t listen to his memorial. I get that. However, given that many public radio listeners are fans of Jackson’s music and of the performers who took part in the memorial, I don’t understand why disinterested listeners would feel betrayed by KPCC airing it. If Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley would’ve had large public memorials at the Forum, would those have been mistakes to air? I’d hope not. Many people were critical of Sinatra’s personal behavior, but his popularity, influence, and length of career were astounding.

As I wrote yesterday, Michael Jackson’s influence on music and popular culture is huge. There are few figures in American music who have matched his appeal and multi-racial impact. And it’s important to remember that popular culture is news. Every day, including today, KPCC covers all manner of governmental, political, and public policy news. But when a pop culture story of wide-ranging interest occurs, we need to be on that as well. Just because it’s the fodder of tabloids and entertainment news, doesn’t make it inherently unworthy of our attention.

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