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Olney gestures during interview at PRPD

Stepping up competition among pubradio's talk shows, PRI will distribute KCRW's To the Point with Warren Olney (above) starting this week.

Networks offer national talkers to help fix sagging middays

Originally published in Current, Oct. 2, 2000
By Mike Janssen

Where does public radio have the greatest opportunity to build its audience? That's what the Public Radio Program Directors (PRPD) Association asked a few researchers at its conference in San Diego Sept. 20-23. The answer was clear: middays, Monday through Friday.

That's right. Forget the Web or those direct-to-car satellite channels for now. The place to build audience is closer at hand, said researcher David Giovannoni, who begged the assembled p.d.'s to "fix what's broken."

Depressed midday listening has bugged programmers for years, but no one knows quite how to crack The Case of the Weak Midday. However, a handful of new shows coming forth, coupled with shuffled schedules of network offerings, could give programmers a new set of tools to play with, if no outright cure-alls.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of listeners and p.d.'s say NPR's Talk of the Nation, a midday staple for 148 stations, is losing appeal, prompting NPR programming chief Bill Davis to defend the show at a meeting of news/talk stations at the PRPD. A few stations have sought alternatives to TOTN, which in turn has fueled a push for new, innovative midday programming. In some cases, stations themselves are taking the initiative and creating their own shows.

"There are people out there who are saying, 'We can't wait for the networks to resolve this for us,'" said Jeff Luchsinger, v.p. and radio station manager at KERA in Dallas. "We've got to find a way to do it on our own."

"Forget the myth"

Giovannoni and two Radio Research Consortium (RRC) execs took the stage at PRPD's closing session to drive their point home, but it wasn't the first time programmers had heard the message. Two years ago, Giovannoni and colleagues gave the same advice at Audigraphics seminars.

"The excuses we heard for why people could not make the obvious, right changes were astounding," he told Current. In some cases, he said, station execs are even waiting for midday staffers to die. "Basically, I just wanted to get up there [at the PRPD] and say, in as positive and encouraging a way as possible, 'We're mad as hell, and we shouldn't have to take this anymore."

He told p.d.'s to "forget the myth" about listening habits. People do listen to radio during middays. But they aren't, for whatever reason, picking public radio.

"The listeners are there," incoming Radio Research Consortium President Thom Moon told Current. "The use of radio in middays is virtually the same as it is in morning drive, but we're just not getting a commensurate share."

As of spring 1999, public radio enjoyed a 4 percent national share overall. On Sundays, public radio's share usually exceeds 4 percent. Saturdays' middays are slightly depressed. But weekday tune-out creates a crater in public radio's share. "Our weekdays are, in fact, weak days," Giovannoni said.

As extra encouragement, Giovannoni pointed out that public radio could offset the costs of fixing middays with major anticipated gains in underwriting and listener support. Bringing midday listening to an overall system share of 4 percent would require a 6 percent hike in audience--which, by current formulas, would produce an additional $15 million in financial gains. "We know it's going to cost money to become a better public service," he said. "We'll be able to pay for that on the back end."

Looking for local solutions

After Morning Edition & before ATC
All hours Eastern time
9 Democracy Now!
10 The Diane Rehm Show

The Connection (Chris Lydon)


12 Fresh Air
1 Public Interest The Todd Mundt Show Native America Calling
2 Talk of the Nation To the Point
3 The World Linea Abierta
4 All Things Considered

With Michigan Radio's Todd Mundt and KCRW's Warren Olney (and later entries from WBEZ and possibly WNYC) entering the fray, program directors will have a wider range of choices for middays.

Distributors NPR PRI Other

Though it might be reassuring that money will follow, boosting midday audiences won't happen all at once, and sporadic listening patterns turn one solution into a tantalizing mirage. Depending on the market, public radio's listeners tune to a variety of other formats, including classical, classic rock, adult contemporary and commercial talk. NPR's Jackie Nixon, director of strategic planning and audience research, told the news/talk p.d.'s that many of their listeners tune away to music stations, though in Chicago and New York they prefer other talk stations.

As stations consider solutions, national networks are adding to their midday lineups. NPR will start offering The Todd Mundt Show at 1 p.m. in addition to its existing 8 p.m. feed this week, putting it up against its own Public Interest. Pete Michaels, manager of news acquisitions and programs, says NPR might soon announce additional feeds of other talk shows.

Yet some p.d.'s believe an ongoing stream of formatted midday news programming might be preferable to the current line-up of discrete, one- and two-hour shows such as The Diane Rehm Show and TOTN. The idea has been kicked around at recent meetings of news/talk stations, and similar ideas have been proposed for Saturdays, which also suffer dips in midday listening.

But "what's the ideal midday format? Nobody knows," said Jeff Hansen, p.d. at KUOW in Seattle. "Right now, [we have] a series of discrete programs that are designed to have high affinity between them, which is maybe the next best thing to a format, but it's still not there. Just what the ideal would be is really a good question."

The speculation about improving national programming comes as listeners and program directors express concerns about the performance of new TOTN host Juan Williams, who joined the program in February. At issue is Williams' delivery and ability to steer the show, while some also worry that TOTN's topics have become fluffier. Hansen and Luchsinger both say they've received several calls a week from unhappy listeners since Williams took over. Declining ratings haven't followed the doubts, but the reactions have been enough to spark concern.

Before the complaints, Hansen said, "I was sort of the opinion that we just have to be patient . . . and hope for the best. But then I noticed, 'I'm getting a lot of these really articulate, well-thought-out critiques of the show from listeners,' and I thought, 'Maybe this is coming off worse than I thought.'"

Longtime talk host Larry Josephson defended Williams during a PRPD session Sept. 22. Williams is "warm, funny and smart," Josephson told station reps. "I wish you will give him the chance to bring that out."

Davis told Current that NPR believes Williams has "improved tremendously," but that Executive Producer Greg Allen has been working with Williams and the staff to "improve the overall quality of the program while making the program more accessible and less pedagogic." Talent coach David Kandow has also been advising Williams, whose main experience is in print.

Davis and Nixon also pointed out that total listening to TOTN on its top 20 stations has declined just 1 percent, compared with a 3 percent drop when the show lacked a host.

Some program directors are also quick to downplay the criticism, noting that any change in a show usually draws fire, and that former TOTN host Ray Suarez is a tough act to follow. "I think everybody appreciates Juan's potential, and I didn't hear anybody calling for his removal," Hansen said. "You don't necessarily jump into a thing like that and become proficient overnight, so I think there's understanding about that."

Most stations don't carry midday national fare such as TOTN, suggesting that network programs aren't the problem. Perhaps backing up the argument, stations that carry a midday mix of local and national shows won this year's Ralph Awards, awarded by the RRC to recognize gains in overall and midday listening.

Top prizewinner KSJN in Minneapolis, an MPR station that airs local classical and its own Classical 24 mid-day, increased its midday share from 2.3 in spring 1997 to 3.8 in spring 2000. Program Director Jack Allen credits the gains to local improvements, such as playing shorter pieces, adding energy to the presentation, and using a new positioning statement, "Your home for the classics."

"It's about a thousand little things you do all day long," Allen said. "It's not rocket science. It's just taking care of business and treating people right."

And WHRV in Norfolk, Va., a Ralph runner-up, poured "tremendous resources" into its local talk show HearSay, building two new studios for it, said Vice President Raymond Jones. Jones also replaced Rehm with WBUR's The Connection, and said he's "very satisfied with the response we received on that program."

Local program production has benefited all of public radio in the past, with local shows like Car Talk, Fresh Air and A Prairie Home Companion becoming national blockbusters. "This is one of the great sources of where programming comes from," said PRPD President Marcia Alvar. "It comes from stations." Alvar wants to commit more of PRPD's time and resources to improving midday listening, possibly by pinpointing success stories and bringing programmers together to discuss the issue.

The new contenders

Several upstarts hope to be the next local-to-national success story, adding to the array of choices for midday talk shows. KCRW's To the Point, which launches Oct. 2 at 2 p.m. Eastern time, is the first on the scene. The weekdaily, hour-long talk show springs from Which Way, L.A.?, a highly respected local talk show produced at KCRW in Los Angeles since 1992.

Former TV and print journalist Warren Olney jumped in to host Which Way, L.A.? in the wake of the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots. The one-day gig turned into a month, which turned into a summer, and Olney settled into the show for good, broadening its scope to national and world news.

Olney's skill at juggling guests and leading discussions started winning the admiration of other journalists and pubradio networks. "We kept hearing from guests and listeners that this is one show that should be heard by more people," said Kyle McKinnon, managing editor of To the Point and Which Way, L.A.? "[They said] it clearly should have a national stage."

That came to a head when KCRW approached PRI about producing a national music show. Those talks led to Sounds Eclectic, a two-hour weekly show of contemporary pop and world music based on KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic. Sounds Eclectic launches Oct. 7 [2000].

"In the course of discussing that, Which Way, L.A.? came up as a program that many of us had admired as a local show," PRI President Steve Salyer said. PRI is now a co-producer for To the Point as well as its distributor, highlighting the network's increasingly aggressive production wing, led by new v.p. Peter Herford, a former news veep for CBS.

Olney will anchor and executive-produce both the new program and Which Way, L.A.?, which moves to weekday evenings on KCRW with a tighter focus on regional news. To the Point has hired additional producers, and KCRW has moved Which Way, L.A.?'s staff from its cramped offices to a renovated apartment on its licensee's campus. ("Two bedroom, one bath, with a marginal view," McKinnon deadpanned.)

Following the Which Way, L.A.? model, each episode of To the Point will include three segments: "Newsmaker," a short opening interview on a breaking news story, selected the morning of broadcast; a longer roundtable discussion with a range of guests on a major news topic; and "Reporter's Notebook," a shorter talk with a single guest, which advances another story, possibly less tied to breaking news.

Olney expected To the Point to have a panoramic scope. "We don't get mesmerized by that East Coast syndrome," he said. "Not that we want to ignore it. . . . But I think you'll see a balance in this program that you probably won't see in others."

Two other major-market stations are also kicking around ideas for new talk shows. Chicago's WBEZ will launch a national one-hour weekdaily program, based on its local Odyssey, sometime next year. Odyssey host Gretchen Helfrich will host and executive-produce the new midday show, which is seeking a senior producer. WBEZ President Torey Malatia called it "a talk show about ideas," and said it will not be tied to breaking news.

And WNYC-AM is starting an afternoon talk show to replace TOTN, which it recently removed because it wasn't performing well on the news/talk station. Dean Cappello, v.p. of programming and operations, said the new show, which may well have regional or national appeal, will debut within 12-18 months.

In a footnote to these developments, PRI will no longer distribute WBUR's The Connection. "The decision to end the relationship with PRI was a difficult one, but we felt it was a good time to move The Connection distribution to the next level," said WBUR General Manager Jane Christo in a statement. NPR is talking with WBUR about distributing the show.

. To Current's home page
. Related article: Public radio's audience makes its talk shows distinctly different, 1996.
. Outside link: Web site of Warren Olney's Which Way, L.A.?

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