Ken Brecher’s ALOUD “Explanation”

Monday, November 25, 2018

Mr. Kenneth Brecher has finally made a public statement about his recent decision to “change” the ALOUD program at the Los Angeles Public Library. In this statement, which can be found at the above link, he first attempts to demean the audience that has attended ALOUD events for the past fifteen years as “literati (who are) at the heart of a small sector of the writing community.” In contrast, Brecher presents himself and the Library Foundation as populists who want to reach an audience that reflects “the library system’s 470-square-mile service area.” Unfortunately, his statement does not distinguish between his own personal agenda and the responsibility of the Library Foundation to act in a manner that serves the common welfare of L.A.’s reading public. The first person singular and the first person plural are disconcertingly conflated in his argument:

“The truth is we at the Library Foundation are changing ALOUD, and we’re changing it because we must.”

“I decided to restructure the program and fold ALOUD into a bigger portfolio.”

“I regret that the Library Foundation hasn’t been more forthcoming about the reasons for changing ALOUD. We kept silent out of respect for the former ALOUD managers, whose valuable work created a signature program.”

To put it bluntly, forthcoming “truth” needs to be more explicit about Mr. Brecher’s decision (“I decided…”) and the role that the “we” at the Library Foundation played in arriving at his decision.

Mr. Brecher’s expresses “regret” for his delay in presenting reasons for the changes he implemented, but the lapse does not seem to have been used well. His reasons hardly add up to making a case for imperative change. If this statement is the best he can come up with, he needs to rethink whether he is qualified to lead the Library Foundation.

Let’s begin with a promise he makes about the future of ALOUD’s core programming: “You can expect to spend many nights each year at the Taper Auditorium listening to compelling authors discuss their works for free.”

To whom is he making this promise? Given the limited seating, I doubt that even a tiny fraction of those who read his article will actually be able to attend the events. Nothing will have changed. It’s an empty promise, in part because it’s not really free. Tickets are first available to those who are members of the Library Foundation, which costs minimum of $50 a year. Attendance turns out to be one of Mr. Brecher’s main complaints about the discharged founders of the ALOUD program. I must say that he has a peculiar sense of gauging audience size. Over 70 percent of the seats were taken, on average, were filled. The fact remains that “no shows” are quite common at “free” events. After all, if something comes up, what is a person’s loss if one reserves a ticket and then doesn’t attend? Anyone who throws a party knows how lucky one is if even half the invited people actually show up. Brecher’s statement does not present any analysis of this kind of factor in relationship to attendance.

Furthermore, and more importantly, what is the viewership of the podcasts? How has that changed the nature of the event? Yes, there is a certain pleasure at seeing a cultural event “live,” but given how many people in Los Angeles do not own homes, but rent – and how much that rent has escalated in recent years – and how much people have to work to pay that rent — is it any surprise that more people might be watching via technology than showing up to watch it “live”? My guess is that exponentially more people now watch the interviews on-line. If they end up buying the book on-line, I suppose that cuts into the Library Foundation’s direct revenue, but isn’t the job of the library to promote literacy, first and foremost, and to concentrate on that rather than retail distribution?

Perhaps one of the most puzzling parts of Mr. Brecher’s argument, in fact, is that he is counting on book sales to raise money for the Library Foundation’s programming. This makes very little sense in terms of this project’s feasibility as cultural work. Your job, Mr. Brecher, is to raise money from those people and corporations who most benefit from the high profit endeavors that are central to major urban areas. No one at LACMA would ever claim that the program the museum runs in which people can rent a painting for several months should be a significant part of its fundraising efforts.

All this leads me to ask Mr. Brecher to provide a link in which the Library Foundation’s budget is put on line for all to see and study. I await his transparency. Given how long it took him to put together an “explanation” for his decision about the ALOUD program, I’m not exactly expecting any serious gesture in this direction. Until we see that budget, however, I don’t think anything he says should be taken as other than self-interest multiplied by defensiveness.

NOTE: On ALOUD’s website, the following answer is provided to the question, “Why do programs fill so quickly?”

“Library Foundation Members have the benefit of reserving for programs in advance of the public. Consider joining as a Member to receive this benefit,….”

Membership requires a minimum expenditure of $50 a year.

It would be interesting to know what percentage of those who are “members” have attended at least one ALOUD event during the past year, the past three years, and the past five years. This kind of detail is what is needed in order to assess the decision that Mr. Brecher made.