On a mission to save WYOU

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Posted by madcityradio.com on June 24, 2009 at 21:01:37:

Music industry veteran Barbara Bolan wants to save community television
Jane Burns � The Capital Times 6/24/2009 4:09 pm

Anyone in rock 'n' roll knows the feeling of trying to take on the world. There's the passion, the idealism, the desire to get a message out there. There's usually also a reality check: Figuring out how to sustain it all without selling out or fading away.

Barbara Bolan knows this. A former music executive, she witnessed firsthand the rise and fall of some of the biggest bands and musicians in the world. Now the executive director of WYOU community television, Bolan is driven by the same kind of passion and idealism she felt in her rock 'n' roll days.

"Every day, we felt we were on a mission to save the world for music," says Bolan, 56, who began work at WYOU in October. Now, she adds, "Every day, it's like we're on a mission to save the world for community television. That's what appealed to me."

Bolan, one of the station's three full-time staff members, has her work cut out for her. WYOU is at that point where it will either succeed with some adjustments or quietly disappear. A year after a state law deregulated municipal cable franchises -- phasing out, in the process, fees that had traditionally helped fund community and government television stations -- WYOU and other media will need to find alternative sources of funding to remain alive. To do so, WYOU will have to address its reputation for eccentric and esoteric programming that critics say has limited interest to the wider community. And, on the flip side, it will need to convince viewers that community television provides an important alternative to corporate-funded media and a creative outlet for local citizens.

"I think it's important for people to know and understand they have access to the media," says Jigyasa Chander, who is an MATC student interning at WYOU. "They need to know they can have a voice somewhere."

The station is at a crossroads. Will it, like the all-female rock band the Go-Go's, run out of gas and be remembered with nostalgia? Or will it be more like veteran rockers R.E.M., adjusting intelligently and making so few errors along the way that it continues on a long and distinguished path? In short, Bolan's biggest challenge is to make sure the music doesn't stop.

After extensive lobbying by AT&T, state lawmakers passed the Video Competition Act and Gov. Jim Doyle signed the bill on December 2007. The act stripped municipalities of their regulatory oversight of cable contracts and transferred this responsibility to the state. Supporters of the law promised it would create competition and lower prices. Opponents argued that municipalities would lose control over their rights-of-way and consumers would have little recourse over fee hikes and poor customer service.

One undisputed impact: The franchise fees paid by cable companies to local communities would be phased out by 2011, thereby eliminating funds for public, educational and government (PEG) channels. In Madison, cable customers had paid 62 cents a month in such fees on their cable bill, which had been funneled to the city of Madison and on to WYOU and Madison City Channel (essentially a local C-Span). (The station for the Madison Metropolitan School District is not funded with PEG money.)

WYOU has been receiving approximately $140,000 a year in PEG funding, the majority of its annual budget. Mayor Dave Cieselewicz has already indicated he plans to cut that funding in half in 2010 to shore up other parts of the city budget. Unless the station finds a way to make up for that revenue loss, it won't be able to meet its payroll or pay the rent, Bolan says.

The Madison Community Access Channel was founded in 1974, two years before the Federal Communications Commission required cable systems in most communities to provide one channel each for public, educational and government access. Churches, civic and business groups were expected to be the main users. Instead, university students jumped at the chance to take to Madison's airwaves and provided such goofy programming as "The Vern and Evelyn Show," which featured two white mice. (One of the show's producers, Jim Mallon, went on to create "Mystery Science Theater 3000.")

The station went bankrupt in 1983, but public access was revived in 1985. As WYOU, the upgraded station created more live programming and expanded its volunteer force. Over the years, controversy has been its hallmark, from accusations of racy programming to debates about whether religion should be discussed on a channel that receives government funding.

WYOU's current programming includes coverage of community music events, niche shows created by members, programs aimed at immigrant communities, national progressive news programming such as "Democracy Now!" and the infamous local "Cooking With Bob" show, in which Bob Swokowski grills food and comments on the world around him.

But the station that made headlines a few years back because people thought Bob was grilling a cat also is a place where Boy Scouts come to learn about TV in order to earn a badge, where members of the public learn to use a camera or editing equipment and where kids attend summer day camp and learn how to create their own programming.

WYOU's staff and board of directors know the station needs to get beyond its eccentric reputation and connect with the larger community if it wants to stay afloat. Using community-funded radio station WORT as a model, WYOU's staff and volunteers are trying to rebrand and reintroduce the station as something for
everyone in the city.

"When I joined the station, it was lovely. It was a sleepy little backwater where anybody could wander in and do their thing," says board president Rick Richards. "It's got to be a little more aggressive and a tight ship now. That's better, really, because what we're being forced to do to survive is connect more broadly with the community and that's what we should have been doing all along."

The station is in the second of its fund-raising campaigns since the cable bill was passed. It began at the Marquette Waterfront Festival two weeks ago and will wind up with a concert at High Noon Saloon on July 12. Besides making money, the events are about meeting people, reminding viewers of the station's recent move from Charter cable channel 4 to 95 (or 991 on digital cable) and talking about WYOU's mission as a public access station. It's something Bolan has done in full force since she came on board, with the hope of finding additional support to make the station self-sufficient.

Bolan says the PEG funds, though a blessing, were also a curse because they invited complacency.

"It allowed for this little station to limp along and not have to do much and that check was going to arrive in the mail with nobody having to jump up and down too much about it," she says. "It was sort of moving along at the pace the money let it move. There didn't appear to be an ongoing and engaged interest to say, 'We could be more.'"

Music was always Bolan's first love. After graduating from the University of Michigan in the early 1970s she decided to try her luck as a performer and went on the road with the Hirschberg Circus and Bar Mitzvah Band.

"But we never played any circuses or bar mitzvahs," says Bolan, who was the group's singer. "We had keyboards, bass, tuba and wore some costumes, and played a lot of mini concerts and coffeehouses." As bandmates left to get real jobs or go back to school, Bolan headed for Southern California to continue in music.

"I'm very proud to say that once I got to Southern California, the first check I ever got paid by A&M Records was from the studio, because I did some background vocals," Bolan says. Her performing career never took off, but Bolan nevertheless stayed in music. She began as a receptionist at one record company, and then moved on to work in distribution for A&M Records. Her work included ordering finished records for the label. In 1978, she had a release from a new band, but didn't give much thought to ordering any extra copies of the album.

It was "Outlandos d'Amour" by The Police. "I remember to this day I made the gross mistake of ordering 600 units for 13 western states," she says. "Then 'Roxanne' hit and boy, were we scrambling."

That mistake didn't hurt Bolan in the long run. In 1981, she found a new job as sales manager for a new label, I.R.S. Records. I.R.S. presented cutting-edge bands, and much of what the label released became the sound track of the early '80s. Disco was dead, punk never went mainstream, new wave was emerging, world music began to influence pop music and I.R.S. melded it all together.

It was Bolan's job to make sure record stores had what they needed of the I.R.S. bands, even making personal visits when the bands toured. She was also quickly assigned to help promote a new group the label had signed. This time, Bolan knew this could be something big. The band was the Go-Go's and their first single was "Our Lips Are Sealed."

I.R.S. Records was being marketed like its sister label in the United Kingdom, and because of that, its singles were priced higher and usually ended up in the import racks. Bolan says she knew I.R.S. had a hit on its hands, but it wouldn't happen if the single was priced at $2.98 like most of the label's other 45s. She persuaded label bosses to price "Our Lips Are Sealed" at $1.69, then the going rate for singles.

"We had to have that project handled by people who knew how to move quantities quickly because we were going to have an explosion," Bolan says. "I argued successfully to get that Go-Go's single marketed at $1.69 list price. And the rest is history."

Bolan calls it a modest success story, in terms of her contribution. The single cracked the Billboard Top 40 (and the follow-up, "We Got the Beat," hit No. 1). The band's first album, "Beauty and the Beat," soon became the label's first gold record (to mark 500,000 copies sold) and then platinum record (1 million copies sold).

The Go-Go's career took off, and so did Bolan's. She traveled with the group -- which played in Madison on that first tour in 1981. She arranged record store appearances, made sure the stores had the records in stock and talked up other I.R.S. clients. She ate bad food and rode the tour bus. "There were years that I lived, breathed, ate, drank, slept Go-Go's," she says.

From there, Bolan moved into marketing the label's acts. She worked with a wide range of performers, including General Public, the Buzzcocks, Wall of Voodoo, Concrete Blonde, the Alarm, the Lords of the New Church and Timbuk3. She worked with R.E.M. on its entire I.R.S. catalog of eight records, leading the push for the band to be on that new-fangled technology, the compact disc. In 2007, she reunited with R.E.M. in New York when the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"I saw firsthand the best of what a band could be," she says. "That band delivered every record, on time, within the budget. And every record was a stepping stone to the next, to the next, to the next in terms of creating a career path."

Things didn't go as easily with other bands. The Go-Go's had a meteoric rise, but creative and personal conflicts led to their demise just a few years later. Bolan had a blowout with Jon Anderson of Yes because the band's manager insisted she arrange an in-store appearance to promote an album that hadn't yet been released, so no fans showed up. The lead singer of the punk band Suburban Lawns threw her microphone into the crowd, injuring a fan who was standing right next to Bolan, who then had to smooth things out so the label didn't get sued.

From I.R.S., Bolan moved on to Virgin Records America as a senior vice president of marketing. She helped market Tina Turner, the Spice Girls, Lenny Kravitz and David Bowie, among others. She reunited with I.R.S. founder Miles Copeland and became general manager at his Ark21 Records before moving to become senior director of international marketing for Rhino Entertainment.

But the last decade has been a volatile one in the record industry, as CD sales have given way to file-sharing and downloading. The industry has been downsizing, and Bolan didn't make the cut in a round of layoffs at Rhino in 2007. Like so many rock acts that she worked with, it was now time for Bolan to reinvent herself.

Bolan thought for a time that she would eventually end up in music publishing, the kind of work her husband, Dan Howell, did. "It would have been a way to stay in rock 'n' roll and age gracefully," she says.

But her husband died of leukemia in 1998 and when their daughter, Amanda, went to college in Berkeley, Calif., Bolan was reminded of how much she liked college towns. She started thinking about trying out the nonprofit world and thought Madison, where her sister lived, might be a good place to make the career switch.

Bolan moved from Pasadena, Calif., in April 2008 without a job and bought a house on the near east side, a location made all the more attractive when someone at a networking meeting told her, "That's where all the unusual people live."

A few months later, her daughter, now working for a recording studio in California, saw on an Internet job site that WYOU was looking for a new executive director. Fundraising and increasing the station's public profile would be priorities for the new director. TV experience was less important, Richards says.

Bolan was hired in October.

"She seemed to have an energy and an excitement about WYOU and what community television is all about," Richards says. "That really clicked with the poor staff people who had been down in the trenches slogging away trying to survive without leadership."

Right away, Bolan changed the station's business practices, outsourced the bookkeeping and brought the staff and board together to rebrand the station. The staff ramped up its Internet and social networking presences, too.

"She sketched out a new budget for 2009, showed us how we were going to become more diversely funded and off we went on the thrill ride," Richards says.

Bolan's background in the music business, where she became adept at juggling different personalities and multiple duties, benefits WYOU, says Robert Lughai, the station's education and program director.

"I'm really impressed with how she's dealt with everything, how she's managed different projects and dealt with people," he says. "This is all volunteer, so it can be hard to get people to follow the rules without (ticking) them off. We depend on them for content and to get us programming. She's managed all that."

Bolan's plan goes beyond fundraising. Working with Lughai, she wants to rework programming to make the schedule less random and to make sure the high-quality work appears in prime time. Bolan is also looking to perhaps secure nonprofit underwriting for specific prime-time programming. And she wants to increase the station's opportunities to make money, either by selling copies of programming, offering more classes or hiring out staff to provide technical assistance. The governor used his veto pen to strike the word "non-commercial" in the new cable law's description of PEG channels, opening the possibility for other kinds of funding.

"I'm going to use the dreaded 'A' word -- advertising," Bolan says. "We're going to look into that as well."

This spring, the station began streaming live on its website. Station staff thinks that holds the promise that perhaps, one day, "Cooking With Bob" could find a cult following online. Big new ideas aside, there are no plans to drop Bob, whose Facebook fan page is "I'd Rather Be Cooking With Bob."

"While some would call that show the albatross around the station's neck, I think that it's an opportunity for it to be a catalyst," Bolan says.

WYOU staff and board have met with the mayor's office twice, including earlier this month.

"I told them they've done a lot of work expanding what they do and raising their profile," says Rachel Strauch-Nelson, communication director for the mayor's office. "I think they've done a good job with it. They're going in the right direction to reach their goal of being a self-supporting community television station."

The biggest challenge, say the station's staffers, isn't money. It's time. They believe WYOU is now on the right track, too, but the hourglass is turned on what could be its final year, even with only half its funding slashed.

"If we had another year after this one to get our plan in place, we would survive," Lughai says. "We're a different station than we were. People don't know it."

It's an uphill battle, Bolan admits. And, she's been there before.

"A month before the Go-Go's released their first record, it was touch and go if I.R.S. was going to be dropped (by parent company A&M Records)," she says. "We needed to have a big success."

She hopes that can happen here, on a much smaller scale. "I want to win this," she says. "I want this channel to succeed. I have fallen in love with this place."

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