Public radio stations sharpen their formats to keep federal aid
CPB will end grants to stations that don't meet audience or fundraising criteria
Originally published in Current, March 17, 1997
By Jacqueline Conciatore
About 14 months after CPB adopted a performance standard for radio grant eligibility in fiscal 1998, several stations are seeing the results of program changes they've made to achieve the new grade.
But perhaps two-thirds of the 35 or so stations that were at risk of losing their grants when CPB adopted the standards in January 1996 still fall under the mark, according to an observer's educated guess.
Many of the affected stations are smaller-budget operations like New York's WFUV and Los Angeles' KPCC, which are dwarfed within large markets. Because both performance indexes key to overall population, weaker stations in big cities are at a disadvantage.
CPB would not release a comprehensive list of stations that may lose their eligibility for community service and national program production and acquisition grants. But a partial listing includes: KASU, Jonesboro, Ark.; KCMW, Warrensburg, Mo.; KPCC, Pasadena; KVCR, San Bernardino; WBJB, Lincroft, N.J.; WICN, Worcester, Mass.; WMKY, Morehead, Ky.; WSIE, Edwardsville, Ill.; WUCF, Orlando; WUMB, Boston, and WYSO, Yellow Springs, Ohio. Most of these stations are participating in a CPB Future Fund project, administered by NPR's member services department, designed to help them boost audience and/or fundraising to achieve and/or maintain eligibility.
To be eligible for fiscal 1998 grants next fall, stations will have to meet either one of two performance standards determined by formulas measuring (1) Average Quarter Hour listenership or (2) community financial support. Stations may choose either criterion.
They must show figures from either (1) Arbitron ratings from spring 1995 and spring 1996, or from two other nonconsecutive periods of their choice, or (2) fiscal 1996 annual financial reports to CPB.
The idea of a performance standard for the radio system moved to the front burners during Republicans' 1995 heyday in Congress, when some lawmakers harshly criticized overlapping services and other inefficiencies in public broadcasting. Many stations objected strenuously to the new criteria, especially when a CPB-appointed task force initially floated a single, audience ratings standard that would have disqualified 80 to 90 stations. An outcry from those stations prompted the task force to add the community support standard, which helped reduce the so-called "diss" list of stations to about 35.
Today, some of the affected stations say they resent the standards and were strong-armed into making changes, and also object to a ratings-based standard they fear could lessen program quality. But most, if not all, have chosen to fight for grant eligibility. That has largely meant focusing their schedules and paring away eclectic offerings.
An abiding resentment
Ralph Jennings, g.m. of WFUV in the Bronx, was one of the outraged station folks who thought the proposed AQH performance standard was a bad, bad idea. During the first diss list period, he had an angry exchange of letters with CPB President Richard Carlson. But WFUV's CSG was still endangered even after the task force added the community support standard, so he began a letter and phone campaign to convince CPB it was miscalculating the reach of his signal.
Meanwhile, his station was flowering--attracting more baby boomers with a blend of music that makes its way from Muddy Waters to Bob Dylan to Yousso N'Dour and beyond. "We had already launched a major push to upgrade our programming and increase our audience, so it was more than a little disconcerting, at the very moment the train was leaving the station, to be told you needed to get off the tracks," Jennings says.
WFUV had hired music consultant Dennis Constantine to make a more magnetic sound. "He has an uncanny notion of what we should be doing," Jennings says: improving the flow of play, while including more music that is familiar to listeners.
The station staff had also begun what Jennings calls "guerrilla promotion," passing out program guides at music festivals, and sending on-air people to emcee live events three or four times a week. It's cheap and helps build word-of-mouth, he says. A complimentary feature last August in the Sunday New York Times also helped spread the word.
WFUV got the results it wanted. Since Jennings first received notice more than a year ago that WFUV could lose its CPB grants, the station doubled its AQH, from 4200 listeners to 9800, he says. That jump, plus CPB's concession that WFUV's technically handicapped signal can reach only about half of initial population estimates, put the station out of the danger zone.
"Sure, if you set yourself up to win on a particular set of scales, you're glad to see that happen," Jennings says. "I'm glad to see the dollars continue to flow from CPB. The alternative would have been quite ugly--a nice hole in my budget." WFUV gets about 15 percent of its budget from CPB, $180,000-200,000. But Jennings isn't thrilled to have dropped Monitor Radio or some ethnic programming, such as a show for Italian-Americans. "We've had to abandon audience," he says.
While he might have ultimately decided to drop the ethnic shows on his own, he probably would have stuck with the news program, even though it plunged WFUV's ratings down two-thirds, because his was the only Monitor outlet in his market, he says.
"I do have an abiding resentment of federal dollars dictating what I do," he says.
A healthy change
In the Los Angeles market, Pasadena's KPCC made a wholesale format change after getting word that its $175,000 CPB grant--16 percent of its budget--was in jeopardy. The "Classic American Music" station adopted news and information in the daytime, dropping its fusion of Big Band music and 1930s/1940s jazz. It added national news programs and a local morning talker. For the afternoon, KPCC adopted Triple A, hiring a new music director/deejay, Shana LaVigni ("Shana" on the air) from commercial radio. The old-timer shows such as "Chuck Cecil's Swingin' Years" were banished to weekends, while E-Town and others were dropped.
With the help of consultants participating in the NPR Future Fund project, KPCC has also begun trying to distinguish its "Intelligent Talk" from competitor KCRW, Santa Monica. Hosts are identifying KPCC by call letters rather than frequency to ensure that Arbitron diary-keepers correctly identify KPCC.
The station is still at risk of losing grant eligibility--it must raise its AQH by 3,000 to meet a minimum of 11,000. But ratings are improving, and Foster hopes KPCC's progress will induce CPB to grant a waiver.
Like Jennings, Foster says he's proud of the new service, but uneasy about dumping a unique format and an entire audience not typically served by public radio. The performance standard "did force us into a more uniform format which looks more like commercial radio than noncommercial radio," he says. "It's not good public policy, but it's done."
Foster believes KPCC's cumulative audience, typically ranked 9th of all public radio stations, was evidence the station's Big Band format was a valuable service.
The station has maintained The Sancho Show, a Latino music program whose popular host drills into young listeners a stay-in-school message. Though it targets a different audience than the news/info programming, there were some services KPCC simply wouldn't sacrifice, Foster says.
The new morning show has already carried some significant community discussions, Foster says. So despite his misgivings, "All signs are this was a pretty healthy change for us," he says.
"It's what animated the change that bothered me," Foster adds, "and the way CPB had morphed from being a political insulator for public broadcasting to becoming a political conductor." He and Jennings both say CPB overreacted to the darts coming from Capitol Hill. "Congress never took any action regarding station overlap and never gave any directive other than that kind of, 'If I was you, I would do this,' " Foster says.
CPB and other proponents of the new standards have said the performance measures are primarily intended to improve public radio service. Some supporters argue that it is inappropriate to focus on saving station operations and jobs for their own sake. CPB has also said the standards were not onerous.
All in the same boat?
Madison Hodges, director of NPR member services, says he is "hopeful" most of the 10 NPR stations participating in the Future Fund project will meet the new criteria. The first phase of the project is nearing completion. Consultants Tom Livingston, manager of WETA-FM, Washington, independent consultant Linda Carr, and Scott Hanley, g.m. of WDUQ, Pittsburgh, visited various stations last month and are formulating their recommendations. By the second week in April, NPR will begin submitting requests for second-phase awards from CPB's Future Fund.
Though time is running out for stations that still fall short of the AQH standard, Hodges says he hopes CPB will grant extensions. CPB officials were unavailable for comment last week.
What about those stations that aren't participating in the Future Fund project and probably won't achieve the standards? One of them, KVCR, San Bernardino, is trying to convince CPB it has calculated an over-large population area. But if General Manager Thomas Little doesn't successfully make the case, the station will lose an $85,000 grant and have to drop PRI programming, he says.
"Maybe we'll be a stronger station without CPB support," he says. "We won't have to twist and bend our format to meet some magical indices developed by some task force." Plus, the station won't have a sense of reliance on government support, which, as everyone knows, has been thinning.
To Current's home page
Earlier news: To assure Congress that federal aid is being used wisely, CPB added criteria for audience size and listener support.
Earlier news: Saving its federal aid is only the latest struggle for the Bronx station WFUV, which has had conflicts with other stations over interference and with the New York Botanical Garden over its new transmission tower. Earlier, the Catholic university that operates WFUV had to fight a First Amendment case in court to be eligible for federal equipment assistance.
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