Friday, November 19, 2010

Media: The End of God Talk?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - About a week ago, word leaked that the radio station recognized by many as the premier commercial talk radio station in the English-speaking world, KGO Newstalk 810 in San Francisco, California, was making its first schedule change since the resignation of long-time General Manager Mickey Luckoff. While most attention focused on the end of the live broadcast of Dr. Dean Edell, the doctor whose medical advice show has aired in the afternoons on KGO since 1978, the most devastating change is the cancellation of the Sunday morning God Talk show.

Dr. Dean Edell is not being canceled. Instead, his live show will no longer air on KGO weekdays at 1 pm, but instead on tape delay from 1-4 pm on Saturdays (a slot which has been filled by rotating guest hosts since Bob Brinker quit broadcasting on Saturday), and from 6-8 am on Sunday. The Noon News, which has come and gone over the years, will return to the schedule, and legal talk show host Len Tillem moves into's Edell's current slot. In addition, Brian Copeland's "haiku of talk radio," currently airing from 9-11 am on Sundays, would be extended to 8-11 am, the standard show length on KGO. That leaves no room for the current occupant of the 6-9 am Sunday morning slot, God Talk.

That show also has a long history on KGO, having been on the air since 1979 with only three regular hosts. I discovered the show in the mid-1990's while living in the Bay Area when it was hosted by its second host, the now-infamous Bernie Ward; I never had the pleasure of hearing original host Tom Hunter, who passed away in 2008. While it might have been on Sunday morning and called "God Talk," it was nothing like other religious programming I had heard. Nobody quoted scripture; it was perhaps best characterized as a newstalk show focusing on ethics and values. Host Ward was willing to take on hypocrisy in any religious institution, including his own Catholic church. He was one of the most outspoken voices against the priest child abuse scandal as it first broke. More than anything else, though, the early hours of the show gave it a very intimate feeling and it spawned a community of generally ecumenical people that wanted to bring out the best in religion. Anyone that listened in that era looked forward to hearing from Susan Prather of Fresh Start, Stan from Oakland, and Steven from Santa Rosa--not to mention the theme of "Amazing Grace" played on bagpipes.

That community was badly strained after Ward was taken off the air in December 2007 and ultimately jailed for trafficking in child pornography; not long afterward, Stan from Oakland and Prather both passed away. Interim host Ravi Peruman, a KGO reporter active in interfaith circles, did a yeoman's job of trying to hold it together until a permanent host was named--and what a pick it was.

Brent Walters, owner of a 25,000 book library and professor at San Jose State University, took over the show in spring 2008 and took it to a new level almost unprecedented in commercial talk radio. He began exploring various religious topics by putting them in a detailed historical context, which often revealed amazing chasms between those times and modern practices. The information content of the show became like that of a college class, but the inclusion of callers kept the emphasis on community. KGO had often been called the "college education of the airwaves," but it had never been so true as when Brent Walters was on the air. Not a polished broadcaster at first, he rapidly learned the medium, choosing the new themes, Linus of Hollywood's "Sunday Morning" and Scouting for Girls' "I Need A Holiday" to wonderfully set the mood for each show.

In announcing the cancellation of the show last Sunday, Walters stated that the decision was final and no amount of public outcry was going to save it. However, in his newsletter this week, he stated that the response to the announcement had been loud enough that the station was considering an abbreviated show or "guaranteed weekly podcast." It seems there is room to contact KGO Program Director Jack Swanson, General Manager Diedra Lieberman, and even Citadel Broadcasting President Farid Suleman--who is rumored to be the driving force behind the schedule change--to try to save the show.

For those (like me) concerned about the future of KGO, the very fact that Walters was given two weeks notice demonstrates that the classiness of the station has not yet disappeared, something many credit to Swanson, who has been in his role continuously since 1994 as well as from 1982 to 1990. Will Brent Walters join the likes of David Brudnoy (in 1990), Bernie Ward (in 1997), and Steve LeVeille (in 2009) as hosts saved on the air by their listeners? Only time will tell, but if he is not, the quality of my Sundays will decline considerably.


Glitch said...

Brent Walters announced on the show today that an abbreviated God Talk will air from 5-6 am on Sundays, replacing an hour of Pat Thurston's overnight show. The show will also be podcast. Thanks, Jack.

Dr. GLZ said...

I listened to the show today and was saddened by the news. As a lifetime KGO listener I feel that have made a mistake. The program was well done, intelligent, balanced and soulful. Brent Walters handled the announcement with dignity and class. I might find myself, at times, in a different theological spectrum than Professor Walters but his ability to deal with those same differences without name calling and hate is a true gift. Thanks for the spiritual drive time that I have enjoyed these past years Brent. It is my hope that KGO finds a new permanent home for God Talk.

Glitch said...

Dr. GLZ's comment comes as KGO again has decided to cancel God Talk. We'll see how things roll this time--Jack Swanson is not around as an adult presence.