Minds Over Matter, the deliberately nonpolitical Sunday night quiz show that Dana Rodriguez hosted on the nearly always political KPFA, breathed its last on May 11 after nearly four years on the air. Berkeley-based KPFA (94.1) pulled the plug on the call-in show, citing listener dissatisfaction. Minds Over Matter will be replaced by a show based on transcripts of historic trials — not exactly a lot of yuks.
As usual last Sunday, Rodriguez was joined by his two panelists, Leah Garchik, the San Francisco Chronicle's personals columnist, and Gerry Nachman, former Chron theater critic and scholar of old-time radio. For those outside KPFA's East Bay listening area, and those inside it who never caught the show, Minds Over Matter, well, mattered. It was a quietly subversive throwback to radio that was designed to be listened to, relying on humor and intelligence rather than cheap gimmicks to entertain and engage its audience.
Although the three regular participants were not paid for their performances, the show exuded class. Rodriguez set the tone with his well-modulated, radio-announcer voice; Garchik and Nachman echoed his dry, self-deprecating humor.
Minds Over Matter was an anomaly on KPFA, where most programming runs to the shrilly obscure or the ponderously arcane. The listeners who called MOM tended to park their politics before picking up the phone to guess answers to quirky and wonderful queries: Which city is a poetic form spelled backward? What was the first trial to be televised? What is the one city on Earth where a Jew is a gentile?
And audience members would pose questions of their own, asking for arcana like the linguistic link among the Jacobeans, Santiago, and St. James. (They all derive from the root name for James, which is Jacob.)
But this final night, all restraints were thrown to the wind — or, at least, tossed as high into a moderate breeze as the low-key Rodriguez and company would permit them to go.
“Fasten your seat belts,” Rodriguez cautioned, mock-seriously, at the show's start. “It's going to be a bumpy night.” Vowing, tongue well into cheek, to rip the lid off “this KPFA conspiracy,” he then segued into a question from Nachman on the etymology of the words “typhoon,” “amok,” “gung-ho,” and “juggernaut.”
Almost every one of the roughly 30 callers who got on air took time to praise the show or condemn station management before going ahead with the question-and-answer ritual.
One caller said he knew Minds Over Matter was doomed because “you blew the question on [lefty icon] Rosa Luxemburg. Are you members?”
One listener declared Minds Over Matter to be “more empowering than KPFA's series on menstruation.” Others ascribed the decision to kill the show to “corporate greed,” an odd position to espouse given KPFA's nonprofit status. Another caller may have been closer to the mark in blaming the show's demise on KPFA's lack of a sense of fun.
As is typical at KPFA, where no decision seems to be made with clarity, conflicting versions of how and why the show was killed have emerged. Rodriguez says his producer told him Minds Over Matter had been canceled because of a renewed emphasis at KPFA on “community” programming — that is, management wanted a show with a more political bent. He also says managers had offered to run Minds Over Matter five days a week for a half-hour at a time — a scheduling change that would have required too great a commitment from the unpaid panelists.
“I don't know if the offer was sincere or not,” Rodriguez says.
KPFA Program Director Ginny Berson says she never made Rodriguez a five-day-a-week offer, contending that the show was killed because it was unpopular.
Berson says when she upped Minds Over Matter's frequency from twice a month to its current once-a-week schedule in September of 1995, the increased exposure resulted in “almost no positive feedback.” Listener surveys and audience measurements, she says, produced “only negative” responses. “It's unfortunate you don't hear positive stuff until after you announce something is going off the air,” Berson says.
Higher visibility may in fact have led to the downfall of Minds Over Matter, as more die-hard KPFA subscribers started to run across the show's purposefully nonpolitical content. “Our safety net was that we were ignored for 3 1/2 years,” Rodriguez acknowledges, also pointing out that the MOM trio never participated in station meetings at the notoriously fractious organization.
Now he's hoping to draw the attention of the management at KQED-FM (88.5), KPFA's considerably more affluent and far-reaching public radio cousin in S.F. Rodriguez has sent a tape to General Manager Jo Anne Wallace, who says she has listened to it. But, she says, it's “too preliminary” to say if Minds Over Matter will earn a spot in her schedule.
Wallace says that radio programmers are increasingly aware that weekend radio audiences are looking for lighter entertainment, a description that, in the final analysis, certainly fits Minds Over Matter.
After all, where else could you ever learn that the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Israel was the first to be shown on TV, that Salt Lake City, Utah, is the only spot in the world where Jews are considered gentiles, and that Ukiah is the only city whose name spelled backward is “haiku