COLUMBIA — Liz Schmidt will draw a black border around the Sept. 18 box on her calendar. For her, it will be a day of mourning, the last day “Pepper & Friends” will air on KOMU/Channel 8.
Schmidt and more than 60 community members met Wednesday to discuss actions that could be taken to challenge the cancellation of KOMU’s long-running local talk show.
The town hall style meeting was true to the community content of the show attendees were trying to save. Despite a light-hearted opening with a song about crossing bridges sung by meeting facilitator Larry Brown, the mood at the meeting turned serious as attendees voiced opinions and concerns about the reasons for taking the show off the air.
“We wanted the public to be able to come out and try to get answers from the three people that would know the answers to the questions,” said Nancy Atkinson, who helped organize the meeting and gather petitions from the public.
Organizers of the meeting invited all parties involved, including KOMU general manager Marty Siddall, MU Chancellor Brady Deaton, MU Vice Chancellor of Administrative Services Jacquelyn Jones and the show's host, Paul Pepper. While Siddall, Deaton and Jones were unable to attend, Pepper was there.
The agenda of the meeting originally included a question and answer session with Siddall, Deaton and Jones, according to Mary Hussman, who also helped organize the event. Instead, questions for them along with the evening’s discussion were recorded and will be delivered to each individual on Thursday, Atkinson said. Cutout boards in the shape of those absent were set on chairs and labeled with names to represent the absent parties.
The primary reason for canceling the show, according to an original news release from Siddall, was due to budget issues. Siddall was unable to return phone calls Tuesday and Wednesday. However, Mary Jo Banken, director of the MU News Bureau, took media calls on behalf of Siddall.
Banken was unable to comment on Siddall's reasons for not attending the meeting. A statement from MU, approved by Siddall, Deaton and Jones, was also released Wednesday. The statement provides further detail about the cancellation and KOMU’s commitment to community service, and Banken said the statement was meant to be read at the meeting in lieu of Siddall’s attendance.
The statement said criteria for making operational decisions to cut the program was directly related to the academic environment at KOMU, which is affiliated with the MU School of Journalism and provides a training ground for broadcast students. Because it is a learning environment, it is “imperative” not to operate at a financial loss, according to the statement.
“It was basically a business decision, and you’ll see that when you look at the budget,” Banken said.
According to the operating budget for “Pepper & Friends,” the show lost $74,211.50 in the 2009 fiscal year. The statement also pointed out that efforts to work within a budget were not solely aimed at “Pepper & Friends” but resulted in the elimination of 13 jobs in the weeks prior to the decision to eliminate the program.
At the meeting, responses to the statement, which quoted the revenue and cost of production, were generally ones of doubt about the accuracy of the information.
“I cannot agree that it’s the money,” Pepper said at the meeting. Pepper said he and co-host James Mouser both offered to take a pay cut that would cover almost the entire loss but said Siddall did not accept the offer.
The general consensus of the meeting was one of taking action to keep the show on the air. Already, petitions and letters have been delivered to Siddall, Deaton, Jones and the Federal Communications Commission in addition to a protest outside of KOMU last month. Atkinson said she felt responses to the efforts have been “canned answers.”
“I call it propaganda,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson said she has received a letter from Siddall that did not satisfy the answers to her questions. She said it addressed efforts from KOMU to include the community content featured on “Pepper & Friends” in other news segments.
KOMU plans to keep content similar to “Pepper & Friends” in its morning programming and will feature the popular “Pet Corner” segment of the show on the 5 p.m. newscast, according to the MU statement.
However, community members still voiced concern at the meeting over the loss of community content and decided to take action in various forms including researching the show's advertising revenue and taking legislative action.
“This is just one in a series of public statements,” Brown said.