A new place for 'Pepper & Friends'

Friday, July 17, 2009 | 10:43 a.m. CDT

Until last week, I had never watched an episode of "Pepper & Friends." A recent transplant to Columbia, I knew there was a local variety show that aired between soaps and morning news, but I didn’t tune in until protesters were pounding the pavement outside KOMU last week because the show was going off the air.

Curious to see what the hoopla was about, I clicked on for the first time to find three actresses scantily clad in medieval garb, singing and dancing like Shakespearean club-goers to hype a Jefferson City park production of "Macbeth."

From that moment I instantly grasped the show’s appeal, from its seven-piece bands and pet-saving missions to its homegrown commercials with sponsors such as the Appletree Quilting Center. By the time the show reached its cooking demonstration for a downloadable guacamole recipe, I was hooked.

Paul Pepper, the earnest host and KOMU veteran, is living a TV reporter's dream, devoting his time to the sort of feel-good feature stories that too often get tossed to the wayside by a diminishing number of reporters already swamped with breaking news and must-cover events such as council meetings and press conferences.     

To hear viewers talk about "Pepper & Friends" is to hear statements rarely made nowadays in conjunction with network television: “A community treasure ... ”; “It allows people to have a voice who don’t have a voice otherwise ... ”; “A way to stay in touch. ... ” As Pepper himself said, “it feels like just about everyone in mid-Missouri has come through our show.” 

Organizers of Monday’s demonstration have filed a complaint with the FCC and have hand-delivered petitions with thousands of signatures to KOMU general manager Marty Siddall and MU Chancellor Brady Deaton.

But you can hardly pin the blame on KOMU. Having volunteered there as a production assistant, I know it faces the same economic pinch as local television stations everywhere. The advertising revenue generated by Pepper & Friends simply doesn’t cover its production costs, according to Siddall. KOMU has not released the show's budget, however, leading some supporters to question Siddall's veracity. But given the enduring popularity of "Pepper & Friends" — 27 years and counting — it’s hard to believe KOMU would yank it unless there was no other option.

Few media companies today are run by crusaders that recall last names such as Hearst and Pulitzer. Today’s media moguls have more in common with Wall Street executives. That’s not criticism; that’s reality. Behind every idealistic news director is a no-nonsense suit demanding to know what’s being done to increase profit margins.

So what then?  

How about public access television?

"Pepper & Friends" should move to CAT TV, Columbia’s public access channel. Station manager Ryan Walker is all for the idea, though he was careful to stress that he welcomes any and all local programming, and "Pepper & Friends" would not receive additional funding or special treatment.

Originally founded on a platform of free speech and first-come-first-served, public access television eventually gained a reputation as a dumping ground for all things cheap and amateurish — the sort of sorry productions on which one might spy Troy McClure, the washed-up has-been of "The Simpsons" fame. 

But that’s not always the case. Many stars have gotten their start on a community television channel, from comedian Tom Green to The Food Network’s Bobby Flay. Low-budget? Sure. A notch down on the network chain? Admittedly, yes. But the opportunity — and more importantly, the studio space — is there.

In the era of high definition and YouTube, it’s doubtful that an old-fashioned throwback such as "Pepper & Friends" has enough glitter to sustain the MTV generation. Still, after an informal poll, I was surprised at how many students said they watch it. If supporters are serious about finding the show a new home, CAT TV is a possibility.

As for the man himself, Paul Pepper generously offered to take a pay cut by more than 50 percent, which would have reduced his salary to $25,000, but that wasn't enough to sway the powers that be at KOMU. Pepper also told me he was open to the idea of CAT TV or an alternate venue — but at the moment it's difficult for him to see past Sept. 18, the show's last scheduled day.

Still, if there's one person with the power to rally the community, it's Pepper. Coupled with grants and loyal sponsors — and producers who are willing to swallow their pride — the show could go on. Throw in the fact that the move would boost CAT TV’s profile, and it’s a win-win. Even Mediacom would consider getting involved in some capacity if “it would provide something of value to the local community,” according to their spokesperson.

Above all, what moving the show would require is a number of skilled volunteers willing to work long hours without pay.

Having stumbled through an introductory broadcasting course earlier this year, I’ll be the first to sign on.

Brian Jarvis is a journalism graduate student at MU.

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