“In any democracy, when we know what the issues are and we know what the political people are about, if we understand the issues and the people, we can connect to the political process; you need to have this information, the airwaves are the people’s airwaves and they should be used in part to inform, educate and empower people to connect to the issues of the day” – Bill Rosendahl, May 14, 1945 – March 30, 2016 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcRQNzlZkLc).
A free exchange of ideas – and an informed public – are pillars of a healthy democracy. Bill Rosendahl brought both to Santa Monica for almost two decades.
Between 1987 and 2003, Rosendahl produced some of the greatest public affairs programing this nation has ever known, operating out of the Century Cable (later Adelphia) studios at 2939 Nebraska Ave. in Santa Monica.
Starting with his flagship “The Week in Review,” and then later with “Local Talk” and “Beyond the Beltway,” Rosendahl’s format was to convene a panel of three or four diverse political/community voices and leaders, and then bring on three or four guests, one at a time, over the course of an hour.
Rosendahl would open with a one-on-one with the guest. Then after a few questions he went to the panel, who would further engage the guest, with Rosendahl moderating the scrum. (http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/node/49307)
Panelists and guests were chosen from civic and governmental leadership throughout Southern California, as well as around the state and nation, as others visited the region. The result was a series of highly accomplished, thoughtful community leaders, debating the issues of the day, coming from a range of different backgrounds and perspectives – and with Rosendahl asking direct, pointed questions when they needed to be said.
Not only was this stimulating, but when ideas and leaders are directly engaged in this manner, we gain a critical level of political accountability. Unfortunately this happens infrequently in politics. In providing it on a consistent basis, Bill Rosendahl’s programing was a civic service of the highest order.
Santa Monica election coverage
As Rosendahl’s programing grew in popularity and influence, it became an important stop over for many local, state and national politicians, even some world leaders. By the late 1990s, programing not only reached over 800,000 subscribers in the Los Angeles Region (in prime areas from Eagle Rock west to Pacific Palisades, and south to Redondo Beach and Orange County) but some became syndicated to public affairs outlets around the country.
At the same time, Rosendahl consistently and enthusiastically devoted time and resources to covering Santa Monica politics. From 1990 to 2002, he produced Santa Monica City Council election candidate forums; and from 1992 to 2002, School Board election forums for the Santa Monica-Malibu USD. He also featured several issues and initiatives, including a special program on the 2001 Santa Monica Living Wage ordinance.
I first got to know Bill Rosendahl in May 1994, when he hosted a debate on Santa Monica’s Propositions D and E. I appeared that night as an advocate for the “yes” side, in favor of the referendum against the City’s 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan that would appear on the June 1994 primary election ballot. The “no” side outspent us by about $250,000 to $5,000. As one (of many) resource-poor neighborhood activists, I remember feeling demoralized when the “no” campaign’s wave of expensive citywide mailers began to hit.
Democracy means all voices
The one bright spot in that campaign’s last few weeks was appearing on the Century Cable-hosted debate. It was the one time we got to be on an equal footing, not just based upon money, but upon ideas. I remember the refreshing decency of being treated in that manner. That is part of what Bill Rosendahl offered to so many people, by giving their ideas a fair hearing – both as a Los Angeles City Councilmember from 2005-2013, and through his public affairs programming before that.
Rosendahl’s programing was also inclusive within the partisan context – not always an easy thing to do. He gave TV time to candidates from all the ballot-qualified parties – not just the Democrats and Republicans, but also to Greens (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgXBWoRLKUM), Libertarians, Peace and Freedom, Reform Party and others.
He believed the airwaves were the public’s airwaves, that people had the right to hear from ballot-qualified candidates, and he was going to make sure it happened. This from the same person that had multiple major, powerful politicians pass through the Green Room each week to appear on his show.
Bill Rosendahl lived in both worlds.
The Green Room
When you arrived to do the show, you went to the left down the hall to the makeup room. There you found Connie Cole, a delightful upbeat person who made you look just right for the studio lighting, and whose positive attitude helped get you into the right mind for the show. She was with Bill for 15 years. Adjacent was the Green Room, a six by five foot room that everyone went into to wait before going on air. Bill would pop into both rooms, and then head into the studio.
The Green Room was its own world, and led to incredible spontaneous interactions and networking between all kinds of interesting people. As an elected official and a Green Party spokesperson (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6GwPE4gbnUw), I was fortunate to be invited several times to appear on Bill’s programs. In the process, I made many long-lasting and valued connections in the Green Room, with people that I would likely never have otherwise. Multiply this by over 3,000 shows and thousands of more guests – and the breadth of community created is itself a great contribution resulting from Rosendahl’s innovative programing.
Victim of corporate irresponsibility
In 1999, Century Cable was bought out by Adelphia Cable (http://articles.latimes.com/1999/mar/06/business/fi-14401). While nothing changed immediately, there was concern from the beginning – given the conservative orientation of Adelphia’s ownership, that it was not committed to public affairs programing. That feared result eventually came to pass.
As Harvey Rosenfeld of the Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog non-profit observed – himself a periodic guest and panelist – “after 3,000 or so broadcasts, the bean counters at Adelphia cable decided California didn’t need quality public affairs programming any longer,” (http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/node/49307).
As fate had it, I was at Bill’s house in Mar Vista the morning he received the official news from Adelphia. He was clearly disgusted. But he also took it in stride. By that point it was expected, as was Adelphia’s overall general corporate irresponsibility (http://www.nbcnews.com/id/5396406/ns/business-corporate_scandals/t/adelphia-founder-john-rigas-found-guilty/).
In response, Bill left broadcasting and moved directly into the political world he had been broadcasting about, and impressively won two consecutive elections to the Los Angeles City Council.
What if and the 2016 election
Bill Rosendahl had a great run on the LA City Council (http://www.11thdistrict.com/remembering_bill). But what if in an alternative universe, he could have been head of a west coast media organization that reflected his media values, and would have done public affairs programming on a higher level?
Imagine Bill Rosendahl hosting gubernatorial and presidential debates, and in a format that gave the opportunity to get into depth with the candidates and the issues.
Too often in politics, messaging is overly measured and controlled. Bill Rosendahl’s programming broke that mold. The enduring value of his work – and a reminder of his spirit – is that it is possible, even in politics, to be fair, transparent, inclusive and humane.
During 16 plus years, Bill Rosendahl produced and moderated more than 3,000 critically acclaimed public affairs television shows, and was awarded the Cable Ace Award, The Diamond Award, the Freedom of Information Award, the Los Angeles League of Women Voters Public Service Award and the Beacon Award for Cable’s Free Air Time Project.
His public affairs television programming is now in an archive at Loyola Marymount College, drawing on programs done for Century Communications and Adelphia Communications in L.A. between 1987 and 2006.
Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica City Councilmember (1996-2004) you can reach him on Twitter at @mikefeinstein.