the 'FolkScene' Music Died
The Los Angeles Times
Friday, October 27, 2000
AROUND THE DIAL
The Day the 'FolkScene' Music Died
The result of a dispute between station and hosts over ownership of the show has the community in an uproar.
By JON MATSUMOTO, Special to The Times
For 30 years, Howard and Roz Larman's "FolkScene" radio program on KPFK-FM (90.7) has been a unifying force in Los Angeles' small but dedicated folk music community. "It's our line of communication," explains Elaine Weissman, executive director of the California Traditional Music Society and the head of the annual Solstice Folk Music, Dance and Storytelling Festival in Calabasas. "It's our umbilical cord to the folk community and the larger community." Two weeks ago, that umbilical cord was suddenly severed, sending shock waves throughout the program's loyal community of supporters. A dispute between the Larmans and KPFK over ownership of "FolkScene" led the station to pull the plug on the show, which used to air every Sunday night between 7- 10 p.m. "FolkScene" was known for presenting an eclectic blend of music. Celtic and French Canadian folk musicians were among some of the little-exposed artists who found a home on the show. Better-known figures like singer-songwriter Richard Thompson, country legend Willie Nelson and ace guitarist Ry Cooder have also been featured. Many of these artists also performed live on the program, which added significantly to the program's prestige and appeal. "The folk community is totally freaked out [over the loss of the show]," says Leda Shapiro, a "FolkScene" supporter and an organizer of local folk dance events. "I don't think anybody could get on the air and do what the Larmans do. They have 30 years of experience knowing people in the community."
KPFK recently instituted a new policy requiring all of its programmers to sign an agreement handing over ownership of their shows to the noncommercial, community-supported radio station. It's a contract that the Larmans steadfastly refused to sign. The producers of a KPFK science and science-fiction program called "Hour 25" also chose to fold their show rather than sign the agreement. Programmers of two other KPFK shows have yet to sign the contract, but are currently in negotiations with the station. KPFK General Manager Mark Schubb declined to identify these programs.
Schubb says the station's ownership policy stems from liability and integrity concerns. The station wants legal control over determining what material broadcast over KPFK can be released commercially. This policy would have had particular relevance to the Larmans because the couple produced two "FolkScene" compilation albums in recent years and would like to release similar CDs in the future. The CDs feature live performances that have taken place on "FolkScene" during its three-decade history. Schubb worries that KPFK could find itself in a legal dispute involving copyright issues if it is not allowed to strictly oversee the commercial release of material originally broadcast by the station. "Copyright law can be very tangled," he explains. "An artist can think they wrote a song and forget they were sleeping with some evil manager, who signed away half the [rights to the] song [to somebody else]. Then there is a lawsuit about it later. So for us, the issue was proper indemnity for the station for these commercial enterprises. There might also be some unforeseen circumstance where we don't think it's appropriate to release something commercially, though mostly I assume [the Larmans and KPFK] would agree." Indeed, the Larmans and the station did manage to agree on the conditions for the release of "FolkScene" CDs in 1998 and 1999. KPFK received the indemnification it wanted, and it also received a quarter of the small profits generated by the two albums, which include live performances by artists such as Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams and Vince Gill. (The station earned about $2,000 to $2,500 combined from the CDs, which were titled "The FolkScene Collection" and the "The FolkScene Collection, Volume Two.")
But now KPFK wants a blanket legal assurance
that no KPFK programmer will ever commercially release broadcasted material
without its consent. Schubb says he is also trying to uphold the integrity
of the station, which he says is "the last broadcaster in Los Angeles that
is fully noncommercial." "We're not a commercial station so programmers
should not profit without our permission," he says. "We have a principle
that anything that is commercial should benefit the station. How much doesn't
matter because it's symbolic. Like we might co-sponsor an event, but we
want 10% of the door if there is a charge. When it's free we just co-sponsor."
The idea of relinquishing ownership of a program they have built over time was unacceptable to the Larmans. Like other programmers at KPFK, the couple has operated strictly as unpaid volunteers, which deepens their resolve to maintain ownership of the show.
Finding a Replacement May Prove Difficult
Roz Larman says they even brought in their own state-of-the-art sound equipment to KPFK to ensure that live performances were presented in high quality. "We've never, ever caused them any problems, and we never cost them any money," says Roz Larman. "In fact, this show costs us money. We just bought a $1,000 [sound] mixer to do the program. . . . I can't give away something that is our intellectual property that we developed 30 years ago. I can't give it to anybody." The Larmans acknowledge that finding a new radio home for "FolkScene" could prove difficult given the paucity of free-form radio stations in the Los Angeles area. Last Sunday, KPFK aired another folk music radio show in the Larman's old time slot. The program was hosted by Mary Katherine Aldin, an ethnomusicologist. Schubb says Aldin was merely filling in on an emergency basis. California Traditional Music Society's Weissman doesn't believe the local folk community will accept a substitute for the Larmans. "I wouldn't want to be the person who got into that space," she says. "I think it would be total anger, total rejection."
"People use radio like an appliance," responds Schubb. "If they find something they enjoy listening to, they'll listen to it. It's a wonderful time slot. Whatever we put there, we'll find an audience."
Meanwhile KPFK parent, The Pacifica Foundation,
is locked in its own dispute with "Democracy Now!" host Amy Goodman, which
has resulted in protest outside the station. That situation remains unresolved.
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times