It’s been more than five years since Lamar Marchese turned off the lights in his KNPR office for the final time and waltzed into retirement. Had Marchese started this relaxing phase of life by plopping on a recliner and grabbing the remote, nobody would’ve blamed him—not after he spent nearly three decades growing the state’s first public radio station from a figment of his imagination to a multi-station network with more than 100,000 listeners across four states.
No, nobody would’ve blamed him at all—except Marchese isn’t the recliner-and-remote type. Rather, he immediately took advantage of his newfound freedom to get reacquainted with a long-lost love. “When I was in college I had done a lot of photography, but it sort of got put aside by having a 30-year career in broadcasting,” Marchese, 68, says from his part-time home in Indian Shores, Fla. “So when I was deciding what to do in my retirement years, I bought a Nikon digital camera and started taking pictures.”
Some of those pictures have since found their way into galleries and museums in both Florida and Las Vegas. His latest exhibit—Namaste: Faces of India and Nepal, a photo essay from Marchese’s monthlong trip to both locales in 2011—begins an 11-week run Oct. 20 at the Southern Nevada Museum of Fine Art in Neonopolis. While Marchese appreciates the opportunities to showcase his works, he cautions against calling this a second career. “I always thought of it as an avocation. I don’t want to work anymore. I’ve worked enough.”
How would you describe your photography style, and what was it about India and Nepal that appealed to you?
After coming back to photography, I decided what I really wanted to [photograph] was people in public places that I find of interest. So it’s sort of a mixture of photojournalism and portraiture. … It’s all spur of the moment where I see somebody I think has a cool face or outfit—I’m really interested in the human face and figure. Other people do landscape photography, that kind of thing, but to me, it’s people. And the people in India and Nepal are just so colorful and so photographic. The men love huge mustaches and beards, and the women wear these incredible neon saris that are so bright, with lots of gold jewelry.
I took 2,200 photographs over that one month, and it was painful to have to narrow it down to the 46 that are going to be in the show.
What was most enlightening about the journey?
Those countries are just so ancient and so different. It really opens your eyes. I called it the most “other” place I’ve ever been—the cows on the street, the holy men walking around painted in all these different colors. We went to the Taj Mahal, which everyone had seen pictures of, but you’ve never seen it until you’ve seen it in person, how incredibly gorgeous it is. … George Harrison, when he went to India, said, “The [farther] one travels, the less one knows,” which sounds counterintuitive, but I think it’s true.
How do you know if you’re a good photographer?
I see photographs when I walk around the world. So when I can match up the picture in my mind with the picture on the print, I know I’ve done a good job—at least in my estimation. That image that you have before you take the picture is actually the image you get. And that takes some skill and some knowledge, and I’m getting better; I think I’m doing better work [now] than I did a couple of years ago. … I read a quote from a photographer—I can’t remember who it was—who said, “The best photographs are the ones when you capture a moment that’s never going to happen again.” So that’s my sort of guide.
What was the secret to KNPR’s success overall and your success personally with the station?
Persistence. If nothing else, I am a persistent person. I think, too, we were filling a need in the community. Radio had pretty much given up news as a format—there was lots of talk, but not a lot of news. But we were fulfilling the need of an independent news source that wasn’t spinning the news one way or the other. Then the arts community was growing, so the classical music format found an audience.
As for my success, it was based on being able to recruit great staff and work with the board of directors to help get resources for the radio station. And it was just me saying, “I’m not going to let this go. I believe in it, I think it’s something the community needs and it’s worth fighting for.”
What’s your answer to those who ask: Is a public radio station really necessary?
It fulfills a need that no other media [can]. The programming is necessary and part of [helping to] educate the electorate so that when they make choices at the ballot box about whatever the issues are, if they listen to the station and hear what’s going on, they’ll hear both sides of the stories and they can make an informed decision. That’s an important part of what we do. So I think it’s absolutely necessary.
National Public Radio stations virtually have advertising. Why not just go all the way—wouldn’t it be less annoying?
It would change the nature of the institution. What we have now is called enhanced underwriting—it’s what the FCC allows us to do. There are restrictions on what you can say and what you can’t say, so you have to tread a pretty firm line.
There are some people who would say, “Well, just let them be commercial.” The problem with that is, since we rely so much on individual memberships, [those members might] say, “Oh, I don’t have to give that money. They’re running commercials, and the commercials are paying for the broadcast.” There’s an old saying in public broadcasting: Commercial stations are really all about delivering ears to advertisers. Our focus is about providing programming to people.
Who was the most memorable guest to appear on KNPR during your tenure?
[Former President] Jimmy Carter came in one day. He has a son who lives in Nevada, and some years ago his son was running for some political office. So Jimmy came to help pitch his son, and he happened to be at the radio station when we were doing a pledge drive. He said, “Oh, I want to meet all the volunteers.” So we took him back in the room where we have all the phone banks set up, and he went around the room and shook hands and took pictures with everybody, and was just as gracious as can be. Then he says, “I want to do a couple of spots for you guys. Put me in the studio and give me some copy.” So we did.
During your trip to India and Nepal, was there one thing in particular about the culture that was surprising?
My daughter went with me, and she lives in Los Angeles, and when she got back she said, “You know what I really learned to appreciate? The garbage man.” Because in India, the people keep their private spaces very clean, but they don’t seem to have a notion of public responsibility—everybody just throws their stuff out the door, out the window. So the whole landscape—the rivers and the countryside—is just covered with garbage. … It’s just a different way of thinking about how you run a society.
What inspired you to launch Las Vegas’ first public radio station?
I have a master’s degree in communications from the University of Florida, so I was familiar with public radio when I was going to school. And also when I was [working] at the university in Kentucky, [there was] a public radio station. When we got to Vegas in 1972, no public radio—there was no classical music, there was no NPR news programming. So I thought there was a need and started working to put it on the air, and it took 4½ years from the time we incorporated till we actually got it on the air.
It was rough going at the start, but was there a moment when you knew the station would be able to stand on its own two feet?
I can tell you there were a lot of sleepless nights when I was worried how I was going to make payroll, because it was pretty iffy in those first couple of years—it was tough. But as we matured and we gained new listeners and more supporters, it became easier to go to a bank and say, “Hey, can we get a line of credit, so if the cash flow isn’t flowing we can borrow the money for a few weeks [so] we can cover payroll?” Then we built a building at Sam’s Town—we were in the parking lot of Sam’s Town from 1980 to 1998, until they decided they wanted to expand and we were right in the way. So we moved to the community college and cut a deal with the president to give us a 99-year lease on 1½ acres of land. Then the Reynolds Foundation gave us a $4.5 million grant to build a building and equip it, so we were pretty much on our way at that time.
By the late ’80s we were pretty secure, in that we had a little bit of federal money, we lobbied and got a little bit of state money. But mostly it was all individual contributions—about 85-90 percent of the money that comes into the station. We do get some corporate money and a few grants, but it’s mostly individuals.
Is there a particular accomplishment at KNPR of which you’re most proud?
The splitting of the format into two [stations] was a big accomplishment. We applied to the FCC, and it took nine years to get the FCC to give us a second frequency in Las Vegas. Because as long as you’re doing two different formats, you’re only pleasing some of the people some of the time.
We started out in very humble circumstances—we were originally a 5,000-watt station out underneath the Silver Bowl [now Sam Boyd Stadium] for almost a year. So growing the infrastructure over 30 years to encompass a regional organization—because we [now] serve parts of Arizona, Utah and California, in addition to most of Nevada—and raising a $2 million endowment fund for the station, which is still there, all those are things I’m proud we were able to do and proud that I had a hand in sort of honchoing.
What’s the most challenging aspect to public radio, and where are the advantages?
Raising money is always a huge challenge. Right now, the station is bumping up against a $5 million annual budget. Even if you take away the federal funding—which is about 10 percent, so maybe $400,000-$500,000—that means you’ve got to raise the rest of that money. And that’s every year, not once; it’s continual. And in the economy we have now, it’s even more difficult. Luckily, though, as a media outlet, we have a voice, so we can go on the air and raise money. As obnoxious as it is, it’s effective, and we do pledge drives on the air a couple of times a year. Unlike other stand-alone nonprofits, we can go on the air and ask people, and people respond. You can’t do that if you’re the symphony or the ballet—you don’t have the voice.
What was your philosophy when it came to soliciting funding?
I’ve always said there’s one rule of fundraising: If you don’t ask, you don’t get. So I did a lot of asking. And I didn’t mind getting turned down—I got turned down a lot. But every so often you’d get a big win, where someone would surprise you with more than you thought you were going to get.
The more Las Vegas changes, the more what stays the same?
The same sort of handful of people are the ones who still move the town. I used to say there were 400 people in Las Vegas who made the town run. The city has grown a lot, but it’s still a small group of people who do that.
Speaking of changes to the city: Have you had a chance to experience The Smith Center, and as someone who is big into culture, did you think you’d ever see the day such a venue would be in Las Vegas?
You know I haven’t [been there] yet, but I’m looking forward to it. I did think sooner or later it was going to happen, and they got the right mix of leaders to put it together, and I’m very pleased that it happened. Again, the Reynolds Foundation was instrumental with that, as they were with helping [KNPR]. Down here in Florida, we’re on the Gulf Coast near St. Petersburg and Clearwater, and every little po-dunk town has a performing arts center—big halls like The Smith Center. Of course, Florida has a lot longer history than Nevada.
What’s your favorite Las Vegas portrait that you’ve taken?
The Pauites up on the reservation north of Las Vegas have an annual pow-wow, where the Indians invite tribes from Arizona, California and Utah to come in, and they have this competition where they do dancing and singing and chanting. And for the last two years, I have shot that event. Last year, there was a young Indian boy in full regalia—he was probably 14 or 15—and he was chewing bubble gum, and as I walked by him, he popped a bubble. So I said, “Do it again.” So he chewed it up and chewed it up and blew another bubble, and—pow—I took the photograph. So here’s this picture of this Indian boy in this Indian regalia with this big bubble covering his face. That photograph and the Pauite event will be part of my next show in May 2013, I think at the Rainbow Library.