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Seniors Not Shy About Making KPBS 'Speak Out' a Lively Forum

November 19, 1987|HILLIARD HARPER | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — In an age of audacious TV personalities such as Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey, talk show host Doug Waldo is an anomaly.

Hired this year as host of "Seniors Speak Out" by KPBS (Channel 15), Waldo was told, in effect, to "stifle" his personality. The program's main drawing card and chief focus is not its host but the audience, Waldo was advised.

Most talk shows are built around a personality figure, said Wayne Smith, who created and produces "Seniors." "I did just the opposite. We had tryouts for the role of host. I said: 'It's not your view we want to get across. It's the views of the audience.' I made no bones about that."

The taped, one-hour audience participation talk show, aired at 4 p.m. on Sundays, breaks new ground for San Diego and for KPBS. It is San Diego's first "interactive audience" television program devoted to the concerns of seniors, Smith said. It is also KPBS' first weekly program using the audience-participation format.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 20, 1987 San Diego County Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 6 Metro Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Because of an editing error, Delza Martin was incorrectly identified Thursday in a photo caption accompanying a Calendar story about a San Diego television program called "Seniors Speak Out."

After a year of broadcasts (shows are repeated at 11 a.m. Thursdays), the concept of combining older citizens and the new medium of television looks like a pick that can click, Smith said. Television is known for capturing emotion, and the emotional interchange of ideas is what "Seniors Speak Out" is about.

During a show, Waldo, 38, is constantly moving, asking questions of an invited, involved audience of seniors. He rarely asks a question that draws less than two responses from the audience.

Old Globe Executive Producer Craig Noel, a guest on one program about "Seniors and the Arts," revealed a surprising regret about his 50 years with the Globe.

"I really wanted to be a film director," Noel said of his early goals. "I'm sorry in some ways that I didn't continue to pursue that portion of my work."

The audience can be as passionate as any on "Donahue." On "Senior Activists," the program that opened the fall season, a fiery debate broke out between audience members of two groups with diametrically opposed positions on nuclear disarmament. Waldo had to move the discussion to a different subject.

"There's an energy in the interactive audience format," Smith said. "You never quite know what's going to happen. It's a controlled and a not-quite-controlled environment. It elevates it to something more than a talk show."

Breaking the stereotypes of seniors is one of the reasons Smith wanted to do the show. The other reason was to give seniors a forum.

Smith was inspired to try a program dedicated to seniors after reading a profile in The Reader of senior activist Evelyn Herrmann, chief of senior citizens for San Diego.

"We've never really addressed that particular audience," he said. "And, mainly, the communication industry has shunned seniors."

He had to battle to gain approval for the program from the station brass, Smith said. It was uncertain whether such a show would attract an audience. It was expensive: last season cost about $120,000; this season is budgeted just under $200,000.

The logistics are complicated. Besides guests, the show must attract a new studio audience each week. Getting any audience to the studio at San Diego State University, where parking is nonexistent, is a major hurdle. But when many in that audience are in their 70s and 80s, it is asking perhaps too much to expect them to hunt for 40 minutes for a parking space, then walk a quarter mile or more to the station.

The solution was to hire a bus that brings about 45 seniors to each taping. That also added to the expense.

The ratings of last year's season of half-hour shows surprised the KPBS staff. The local ratings were comparable to shows distributed nationally by the Public Broadcasting Service such as "The Nightly Business Report," "This Old House" and "Evening at Pops."

Smith said a reason for the show's success last year were the subjects covered. He doesn't credit himself, but an advisory board of seniors, including Herrmann, he meets with once a month.

"I don't presume to know all the problems or joys that seniors experience," Smith said. The advisory panel steered Smith to programs such as one on elder hostels, where seniors may avail themselves of dormitory-like quarters similar to youth hostels for travel and study. They did a program featuring two seniors over a century old, "people who are totally self-sufficient."

Smith likes to put on such guests who serve as role models. "People in their 70s feeling old and feeble can look to these people and say: 'Wait a minute. They're 25 years older than I am.' "

One program that backfired was the very first show designed to showcase the way three former chief executives kept active in retirement. A number of seniors were upset with the show because the top executives were not common people, they said.

Last year's success was frustrating, though, because the 30-minute format limited discussion. The program was expanded to one hour.

"We were restricted in the shows we could do to the amount of information we could get across in 26 minutes," Smith said. That includes time for one or two guests and audience members to talk.

Expanding the show to one hour allows more viewpoints and time to discuss complex issues such as this Sunday's show on euthanasia and suicide. With the longer format, Smith was able to line up six guests, three proponents and three opponents of euthanasia.

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