Back in the 1990s when I was Director of News at American Public Radio (Public Radio International) I did a number of interviews with the leaders of public radio. I used them as part of an orientation I did for new Board members and employees about the history of public radio. (I’ll be posting more audio from these interviews in future weeks.)
One of the people I interviewed was Wally Smith. At the time, Wally was the GM of KUSC in LA. Today he is President of Peconic Public Broadcasting and runs WPPB-FM serving the Hamptons on Long Island.
Wally Smith had an important role in the creation of American Public Radio in 1983. That was also the year of the “NPR financial crisis” caused by overspending and foolish business ventures. The shock of almost loosing NPR to bankruptcy caused Smith and others on the NPR Board to request that CPB change the way it funded much of public radio.
Up to that point, NPR received direct funding from CPB. Smith, Bill Kling and other members of the Station Resource Group, succeeded in getting CPB to channel programming funds to the stations who then “shopped” with NPR.
This created a market economy for public radio programming and made possible the near-instant success of American Public Radio. MPR’s A Prairie Home Companion – a program NPR turned down earlier – became an essential program for public radio stations.
The founding organizations of American Public Radio were Minnesota Public Radio, KUSC, WGBH, WNYC and WGUC. After creating APR, the leaders of the organizations held a celebration party at a resort in California. What could possibly go wrong? Wally Smith tells the story: