Project for L.A.’s youth of color still lacks FM channel

The masterminds of efforts such as NPR’s Bryant Park Project and Chicago Public Radio’s Vocalo know well the difficulties of cultivating new, younger and more diverse audiences for public radio.

Now imagine giving it a go in one of the country’s most competitive media markets, Los Angeles. That is the assignment from CPB accepted by L.A. Public Media, a multiplatform service managed by Fresno-based Radio Bilingüe and tailored for younger listeners of color.

Imagine further, eight months after taking the assignment and a $2 million grant, there’s still no FM channel to use.

LAPM is preparing to launch in July, but probably online instead of on the air.

The licensee of an FM channel that may have appeared promising at one time, KCSN, decided last month to switch to Triple A music instead. The station has no plans to budge from that format, says interim g.m. Karen Kearns.

Without KCSN or another broadcast partner, the project leaders are considering simultaneous use of whatever broadcast and digital platforms they can muster. And with greater reliance on nonbroadcast platforms, observers say, the project’s local editorial focus may change.

The multicultural setting presents both opportunities and challenges for L.A. Public Media. The upside: L.A.’s large contingents of Latinos, Asians, African Americans and Native Americans ages 25–40 that LAPM intends to attract. LAPM says those constituencies amount to a population of 1.8 million.

Yet the budding news and information service must stand out among the dozens of other stations crowding the radio dial, as well as other web-based news sources.

Doing it without an FM channel would have been inconceivable not long ago, but today’s younger audience increasingly goes online for news rather than to the radio. LAPM’s research shows that would-be listeners frequently start their day by checking their mobile devices or computers. They turn to radio more for music.

“We hope to be a prime news and information destination point for our target audience whether it is online, on-air or both,” says Max Benavidez, project director. To that end, LAPM is hiring staffers experienced with multimedia.

Benavidez and others acknowledge, however, that LAPM’s goal of a full-time FM channel remains crucial to building audience by granting a path to L.A.’s drivetime commuters. So far, such an outlet has proved elusive. The city’s most successful public radio stations have hunkered down into successful and complementary niches (stats at right), leaving few potential partners that could easily switch to a new format.

Still, Los Angeles presents a “number of good possibilities” for channels that fall short of full regional coverage, says Tom Thomas, co-c.e.o. of the Station Resource Group. He declined to share specifics, citing proprietary discussions, but noted that L.A. hosts a number of college stations and other noncommercial licensees lacking CPB support.

Getting a better signal over the long term will be “much more difficult and potentially costly” for LAPM, Thomas says. But other services in public radio, such as Minnesota Public Radio and Colorado Public Radio, began their journeys to successful and far-reaching multiservice networks with signals that were less than ideal. These included AM frequencies, for example, or FM stations with incomplete market coverage.

“That’s the likely scenario” for LAPM, he says. “You find a foothold someplace that is workable and available that you can afford, and if you’re successful, you work up from there.”

Competing amid cluttered spectrum

Los Angeles has emerged in the past decade as a dynamic market for public radio. In spring 1999 the city’s public radio stations shared a collective cume of 67,600, according to SRG. By spring 2008, the last comparable period before Arbitron disrupted ratings comparisons by phasing in Portable People Meters, that collective cume rose to 106,500 — a 57.5 percent increase. Public radio’s nationwide audience grew 20 percent over the same period.

Competition in the market increased with KPCC’s switch to news under the direction of Southern California Public Radio, an offshoot of Minnesota Public Radio. The station now attracts more listeners than KCRW, the city’s other main outlet for public radio’s national news programs, and is second only to KUSC in audience.

In turn, KUSC’s classical format recently drew both the largest weekly cume and average–quarter-hour listening of any public radio station in the country (story below).

In this crowded landscape, LAPM aspires to find a niche. Its small startup staff is now based at NPR West in Los Angeles. Chief Content Officer Nicole Childers, a veteran of ABC News and of NPR’s News and Notes, is bringing on producers as LAPM prepares to launch online in July and an hourlong program for broadcast by the end of the year.

LAPM is now testing programming on focus groups, the latest stage of research gauging the habits and preferences of its desired audience. Research so far indicates that the target listeners commonly get their news on the Web and through mobile devices. A market study of 628 respondents in the target demographic groups found that while 91 percent are interested in news and information, less than 15 percent get it from public radio.

“They don’t like how public radio sounds like their parents giving them the news,” Benavidez says, and they want news in shorter segments with a more casual tone. LAPM also hopes to involve the audience in the programming via social networking and other online exchanges, says Childers.

Childers and her staff are developing programming for pilot testing online and for auditoriums of listeners in coming months.LAPM made no content available for review, but tweets at twitter.com/lapublicmedia have linked to two video segments on YouTube.

No dice in Northridge

LAPM is pursuing broadcast partnerships with various outlets in Los Angeles, Benavidez says. But the lack of an agreement raises questions about how and where the service will connect with its audience and the scope of its focus on happenings in Los Angeles.

KCSN may have once seemed a promising partner—one of the few noncommercial stations in the area with a format in flux at the time LAPM was getting off the ground. Licensed to California State University, Northridge, in the San Fernando Valley, the station has struggled to build audience and fundraising in recent years.

Meanwhile, California’s state universities have faced significant budget cuts, prompting CSU Northridge to reassess priorities for KCSN. The school carries 80 percent of the station’s budget, says Kearns, KCSN’s interim g.m. and an associate dean.

In 2008 the station stood to lose its $89,000 Community Service Grant from CPB because it fell short of fundraising and audience requirements. When Arbitron stopped using diaries in Los Angeles, KCSN’s cume was about 60,000, Kearns says. Its audience is now too small to be accurately measured by Arbitron’s meters.

University leaders persuaded CPB to extend support for another year while KCSN attempted to find a more appealing format. It retained its longtime format of classical music on weekdays and Americana on weekends but switched to Triple A programming weeknights.

Even with the changes, the station failed to keep its CSG, so the university laid off all of KCSN’s paid on-air staff last fall and automated weekday music. On March 1, it dumped classical and went all-Triple-A to boost audience.

That move aims to build on the relative success of KCSN’s Americana programming on weekends and to fill a gap in formats carried on other stations in KCSN’s coverage area, says consultant John Sutton, who advised CSU on the change. With a signal of just 360 watts, KCSN reaches only a portion of northwest Los Angeles. Its new version of Triple A aims for a middle ground between KCRW’s eclecticism and the more mainstream approach of commercial radio, Sutton says.

As CSU tweaked KCSN’s format, university leaders met with CPB and Radio Bilingüe several times to discuss L.A. Public Media. But “it didn’t seem to be the right fit,” Kearns says. CSU plans to build a new performing arts center next door to KCSN, which made a music format a “much more symbiotic relationship,” she says.

The university also wants to use the station to give students experience with marketing, public relations and the music industry.

Bruce Theriault, senior v.p. of radio at CPB, calls KCSN’s move to Triple A “a little strange.” Almost two-thirds of CSU’s undergraduates are Hispanic, African-American or Asian/Pacific Islander. “It’s quite amazing that they chose a format that appeals most heavily to non-minorities,” he says.

But Theriault acknowledges that LAPM has taken longer than initially expected to start producing content. Radio Bilingüe has said that has delayed arrangements for an FM channel.

KPCC, another potential outlet, withdrew from the project in 2008.

LAPM’s lack of a channel-holding partner to date is “a tragedy,” says Maxie Jackson, president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters and an advocate for more diversity within public radio and its audience. “It’s at once tragic, but also not too unfamiliar for public radio,” he says.

Which way—L.A.?

The uncertainty about LAPM’s eventual reach has also left its regional focus an open question. CPB originally conceived the project to deliver news and information about Los Angeles. Yet content produced by LAPM may end up appealing to audiences of similar demographics across the country, says Theriault, who points out that efforts such as Vocalo and Public Radio Exchange’s Remix Radio share similar goals with LAPM.

“There are a bunch of projects that need to stop thinking of themselves as isolated projects and as something that could be part of a bigger whole,” he says.

An investment of up to $2 million in a national web-based service like LAPM, with additional reports for use by both commercial and noncommercial outlets, “would probably be a pretty smart investment,” says John Sutton. “But if it’s all supposed to be local and on the Web, that’s going to be hard to sustain.”

Biggest U.S. pubradio audience: KUSC

Two of L.A.’s biggest all-music pubradio stations—classical KUSC and jazz/blues KKJZ— have ben responsible for a big part of pubradio’s growth in the city over the past decade.

KUSC announced recently that it topped nationwide Arbitron ratings for public radio in both cume and AQH in fall 2009. The University of Southern California station previously had ranked first in one or the other of the metrics but not both at once.

The station benefits in the rankings in part from serving such a huge city, says Brenda Barnes, g.m. But Barnes also attributes the growth in audience to the format change at commercial KMZT, which dropped classical for country music in 2007. With audience came KUSC’s record fund drive in February, with more pledges than ever before. It also received support from a record number of states and countries, a testament to the popularity of its web stream.

KKJZ’s volume of listening has grown since a change in management three years ago, says station manager Stephanie Levine. In April 2007 the licensee California State University, Long Beach, ousted the station’s management and contracted to have it operated by Global Jazz Inc., a for-profit affiliate of Mt. Wilson FM Broadcasters. Mt. Wilson operates stations including KMZT, the former classical station; Levine is the daughter of Mt. Wilson’s president, Saul Levine.

KKJZ now operates without support from its parent university, Levine says, which demands a leaner budget. Its most recent fund drive brought in a record amount despite being shorter than previous drives, she says.

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