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The Public Radio Wars : Can Npr And Apr Coexist?

Last of four parts.

October 11, 1985|DENNIS McDOUGAL | Times Staff Writer

All things considered, a program like "Small Things Considered" ought to have been the kind of wholesome, imaginative children's programming that public radio would welcome with open arms.

If "Small Things Considered" ever does become the nationally syndicated daily kids' call-in show that its New York producers want it to be, it will be in spite of--not because of--National Public Radio.

Former National Public Radio producer Keith Talbot did not count on the objections of his ex-employers when he decided last year to take his unique after-school program to a national audience.

In the era of shrinking NPR resources, he seemed to have done everything right.

He sought funding directly from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which, in turn, successfully urged the MacArthur Foundation to underwrite the program with a $450,000 grant. His New York prototype program won six national broadcast awards in less than a year, including the prestigious Peabody Award.

Perhaps most significant of all, he got up to 250 calls a day from children who were hooked on the music, spelling bee, quiz and conversation show.

Then NPR's attorneys threatened legal action if he didn't change the name from "Small Things Considered" to something that did not parody the name of NPR's best-known program, "All Things Considered".

On Sept. 2, "Small Things Considered" became "Kids America".

"I have no comment about the name change. I just can't talk about it," an obviously angry Talbot told The Times. "I worked at NPR eight years. Eight years. . . . "

"The program was offered to NPR for distribution, and the name was deemed by counsel to be a copyright infringement, that's all," said NPR's executive news director, Robert Siegel.

Talbot took his program to NPR's chief rival, American Public Radio, which began test marketing "Kids America" on nine U.S. stations this month--including KCSM-FM in San Mateo on the West Coast.

"At a time when kids are generally mesmerized after school by reruns of 'Gilligan's Island' and 'Hogan's Heroes,' I believed parents would be quite thankful to have such a program," Talbot said.

If all goes well, APR--under the leadership of President William Kling (a disaffected former NPR executive)--will begin offering the show to all 300 of its affiliates within the next year.

"They are willing to entertain new ideas and take prudent risks," Talbot said. "I think they are very professional and very competitive with NPR."

Siegel said that NPR is still willing to take risks and entertain new ideas. He points to the new weekend version of "Morning Edition," scheduled to debut nationally Nov. 2, as an example. But NPR management does not invest in such a project these days until it is very sure it will be able to keep it alive long enough for it to catch on with a wide audience.

Marketplace programming, as practiced by APR, can be as risky as it is on commercial television where new shows come and go in a matter of weeks, Siegel pointed out. He said it is as if an occult hand had arbitrarily determined which television show got a second season and which did not. The same thing is equally true of APR's radio programming.

"The invisible hand is also a very arbitrary hand," he said. "There are a great many successes in commercial broadcasting that were failures when they first began. Look at '60 Minutes' . . . 'Hill Street Blues.' "

APR had its own failure last month when the year-old "Business Times," produced as a daily half hour of financial news from New York, was canceled. Siegel said he believed it did not have enough funding to sustain it until it found its audience.

"One thing that a centralized organization like NPR can do is marshal its resources to help a program survive the thin times," he said.

Coming off just such a sustained two-year lean period, NPR, under the direction of President Douglas J. Bennet since 1983, is not as daring as it once was.

"I'm very pleased that the company, coming off the crisis of '83, has taken a solid two years to make its next jump (with the new weekend 'Morning Edition')," Siegel said.

He doesn't fear that APR will put NPR out of business with its more adventurous undertakings. The news and information heart of NPR will always survive, Siegel said, even if its member stations have fleeting flirtations with exotic APR programming.

"In dealing with individual stations, we are the loyal and tolerant wife," he said. "I think they'll discover we're the meat and potatoes. If they fool around on the side with other ladies, we know they'll come home. We deliver."

Perhaps Talbot continues to speak from anger now, when he says that NPR is no match for APR's marketplace professionalism. But he is not the only ex-NPR producer who believes there has been a rise in APR's commitment to quality programming at the same time financially strapped NPR seems to have withdrawn from the innovative programming of its pre-1983 glory days.

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