The amazing shrinking "dis list"

All but six stations avoid losing CPB grants

Originally published in Current, March 16, 1998

By Jacqueline Conciatore

What once was 80 is now six. Six public radio stations have lost expected federal dollars after failing to satisfy CPB that they're on track to meet new performance standards.

Six is a goodly drop from the initial count of 80-plus stations threatened with de-funding in 1995--immediatley nicknamed the "dis" list--when pubcasting leaders were scrambling to appease congressional Republicans who bristled about waste and lack of accountability, or itched to scrap the federal contribution entirely.

The dis list provoked such outrage among affected stations that system leaders eased up on the standards; by January 1996 when the CPB Board approved the criteria, roughly 35 stations were at risk. That figure has since dwindled to six, as the new audience service standards prodded many stations to act--some are already glowing about ratings increases.

"We started with a longer list, and stations understandably complained about it," says CPB's Rick Madden, "But at the same time, they pulled up their socks, took a look at programming, at what they were doing locally and made adjustments. The people who've benefited are listeners to public radio."

The standards require stations to have a minimum audience size (about 1/10th of 1 percent of the covered population in the average quarter-hour) or level of fundraising (18 to 20 cents per person per year).

The casualty of change for many stations has been the idiosyncratic or specialized shows typically heard only on public radio. This leads critics to ask if the new grant standards are appropriate for public radio; it's also led to listener protests at some stations.

Although many people were under the impression that stations failing to make the grade would lose entire grants last fall, at the start of fiscal 1998, the six stations lost only the incentive, or matching portion of their community service and national programming production and acquisition grants. They are technically on probation. "Our interest is that every station ... resume full eligibility," says Madden. "We don't think it is consistent with that aspiration to say, 'Zero, and you have a year to earn things back.' "

One reason the dis list is down to six is that CPB gave full grants to "fewer than 20" other stations that, according to Madden, failed to meet the standards but have demonstrated "aggressive efforts" to do so. Many of them are participating in two Future Fund projects--one led by NPR and the other by consultant Loretta Rucker--that pair them with consultants to plan and implement change.

Unlike the 20, the six probationary stations "didn't make the case," Madden says. But they've all responded to CPB's request for business plans, and could still receive the money this fiscal year, he said. If not, will they lose entire grants next year? Madden says CPB's options run from "reinstatement to full eligibility, to loss of funding and everything in between."

Typically, CPB funding comprises 15 percent of station budgets, but for some it's 30 percent or even higher. For KVCR, San Bernardino, losing the grant's incentive portion alone--$41,547 from a total expected grant of $75,195--meant losing almost 12 percent of its budget, according to G.M. Lew Warren. KBOO in Portland lost 10 percent as well.

What happens to the money CPB saves? When calculating station grants, CPB assumes all stations will qualify and divvies up the money accordingly, says Madden. Any funds that ultimately aren't awarded roll into next year's grant pool, he said.

"We don't show up"

All six probationary stations--KBOO; KCSN in Northridge, Calif.; KDHX in St. Louis; KVCR; WNYE in Brooklyn; and WYPL in Memphis--say they're making progress toward eligibility. As a group they seem to be eschewing the obvious course--making significant program changes. Instead, they discuss an array of activities; one station mentioned an ad campaign and a new antenna; another will lengthen its pledge drives.

WYPL--an unusual case, being a radio reading service for the blind--has begun simulcasting TV news during part of the day, and has taken on Emergency Alert System duties. Manager Steven Terry says ratings have gone up, but "we were real far away" from the mark.

The easier standard for most is the one measuring financial support as opposed to ratings--it requires a minimum intake in underwriting and pledges. But WYPL doesn't do membership drives. "We're a free public library service, and don't charge people for a magazine or book when they walk through the front door."

That leaves the ratings index, but CPB's reliance on Arbitron puts WYPL at a disadvantage, Terry complains. "The majority of our listeners can't read [an Arbitron] diary, or are physically impaired and can't fill out a diary," he says. "We don't show up" in surveys. He says the station's target population is large enough to justify WYPL's service--"440,000 people within Memphis City limits who are illiterate, visually impaired, or physically handicapped."

There are other stations whose sense of mission seems to conflict with the new standards. Some, such as KBOO, are simply purists (or are struggling to remain so). Their guiding star is the belief that public radio isn't meant to have mass appeal--service to neglected audiences and community access to the air are more important than ratings or financial success (related story).

Other of the stations suffer a variety of conditions that help explain their predicament. Some, such as at-risk KPFK, Los Angeles, are small-budget operations dwarfed within large markets. Because both CPB performance indices key to overall population, the weaker stations in big cities are at a disadvantage.

Still others have institutional licensees with inward-focused priorities--training students or putting professors on the air, for example. Some of these stations have had a lot of management turnover, says Madison Hodges, who is leading NPR's Future Fund effort to bring 10 NPR members into grant eligibility. Some schools "don't really care about who they put in charge, if [managers] are properly trained, stay with the station, or leave."

Hearing it from the suits

After CPB adopted the standards in 1996, many stations shifted into a new gear to boost audience and/or fundraising. WUCF in Orlando canceled a midday talk-info block that broke its jazz format, and a series of ethnic Sunday shows all hosted by University of Central Florida professors. Its AQH jumped from 1400 in the fall 1996 book to 1600 in fall 1997, and its cume from 20,000 to 31,000.

Before the threat of losing its $100,000 CPB funding, G.M. Kayonne Riley couldn't make the changes--the profs were too powerful to oust, for one thing. But then NPR's Hodges and consultant Scott Hanley rode in. "Having the suits come from out of town ... and having them tell these people, 'Hey, you're going to lose over $100,000 a year,' [made the difference]," Riley says. "Right after they left, my dean called me in and said, 'Do you know what to do to fix this? Well, do it.'"

For WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, similar steps pulled summer AQH up from 1500 in 1996 to 2000 in 1997. The station dismantled an eclectic morning block of national shows such as Living on Earth, moved those programs to different hours, and now offers music from nine to 3 p.m. The "Morning Dialogues" block was "truly a ratings killer," says acting G.M. Anne Williams. The station also increased on-air station i.d.s, and made a habit of promoting upcoming shows. Today WYSO meets both CPB performance goals.

These and other changes at various stations point to a trend: oftentimes what's being ditched are the shows identified with service to the underserved: the kind of stuff only public radio does, or used to do. KPCC, Pasadena, an at-risk station, dropped its "Classic American Music" format--a fusion of Big Band music and 1930s/1940s jazz--in favor of daytime news/info and evening Triple A. WFUV in the Bronx dropped then-extant Monitor Radio and a show for Italian-Americans. In Orlando, the shows Riley was dying to cancel were all ethnic music shows: Indian, French, Italian, Jewish.

These decisions come at some cost to stations' community relations. Former WYSO manager Norm Beeker prompted protests by canceling the Pacifica news; the licensee Antioch College eventually restored Pacifica and Beeker resigned. "The university ... told me they wanted to restore Pacifica because they thought that would make the protest group go away," says Beeker. "The protest group hasn't, and remains active and vigilant. You have to accept, that's part of price you have to pay."

Being smart

As it does every year, CPB will soon convene a panel to review all its radio grant programs--station, Future Fund, and Program Fund. The panel, not yet appointed, will also review the audience service standards and make any increases beyond fiscal year 2000.

The standards are set to escalate for the next two fiscal years (the ratings minimum jumps to about 2/10ths of 1 percent for fiscal 2000). That could be onerous for stations struggling to meet the goals now, says Mark Schubb, g.m. of Pacifica's KPFK. "We're exhausting all our resources to meet these goals, to some degree at expense of long-term growth. I'm spending more time on development than programming." His listeners have rallied thus far, but the sense of urgency can't last forever, he says.

Schubb and others question the continued press for achieving standards now that the threat of system defunding has waned. "To me, the diversity of public radio is one of its strongest points. We need more stations not less."

But holding stations accountable to performance standards is one way to assure all stakeholders including Congress that public radio is "doing a reasonable job," Madden says. "Congress is still asking about efficiency, overlap, multiple stations in a market. Those are not threatening questions in my judgment, they are questions about appropriate and efficient use of scarce taxpayer resources. This is about how you are smart, about how you provide public radio service to the American people. This is about being smart."

HomeTo Current's home page

Earlier newsEarlier news: Small stations in New York City and Los Angeles moved to change their program and keep their CPB grants, 1997.

Related storyRelated story: In Portland, KBOO-FM is making some concessions to the demand for larger audiences, but won't abandon its program philosophy.

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