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Remaking Public Radio 

KPCC has stopped the music for all-news

Wednesday, Mar 22 2000

It’s 8 a.m. and you‘re stuck in work-bound gridlock. The commercial news station you’re tuned to is airing a half-hour ad assault, so you fiddle with the dial, taking a hard turn to the left in search of a public-radio respite. You land at 89.9 KCRW and Morning Edition, the national and international news program produced by Washington, D.C.--based National Public Radio.

Hoping for a more homegrown show, you inch over to 89.3 KPCC, the other major news-oriented local public-radio station. Lo and behold, it‘s airing the very same Morning Edition. That evening, heading home, you’re once again in search of a bit of local public-radio news. No luck. Both KCRW and KPCC are airing All Things Considered, the afternoon news show provided by National Public Radio. If your radio picks up the other four public-radio stations in the area, you‘ll find them offering talk shows, music or bare-bones, headline-driven news.

Why is it so hard to find decent local public-radio news in L.A.? Because, until now, stations have shied away from it, fearing the costliness of such an operation and adhering to the general belief that listeners don’t want local news on public radio. In a county of some 10 million residents spread across 87 municipalities and able to support six public-radio stations, it‘s hard to fathom that there’s no audience for such programming. But it took an outsider to make the leap.

When Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) took over KPCC on January 1, the public-radio giant announced some changes: The Pasadena Community College station would be known as Southern California Public Radio, would dump its idiosyncratic music programming in favor of an all-talknews format, and would launch L.A.‘s first and only major public-radio regional-news department, funded in large part by a cash infusion from its Great Lakes benefactor. ”I really do believe this will help boost public-radio listening in the area and generate more interest in public radio in general,“ says Craig Curtis, vice president for programming at MPR.

While the introduction of local news is a welcome change, critics worry that the station is being gobbled up by a media conglomerate whose main interest is in the bottom line. ”One of the things we did to remain competitive was to focus on localism,“ says Rod Foster, a former general manager at KPCC who teaches communications at the college. ”Whether that focus gets fuzzy around the edges or not remains to be seen.“

KPCC is pinning its future identity largely on this yet-to-be-formed local-news division. Over the next two years, MPR plans to quadruple the station’s budget, to $4.2 million. Of 25 new positions, 12 will be devoted to news. They include six reporters, two hosts, two newscasters, an assignment editor and a news director.

The hires will be made by Bill Buzenberg, MPR‘s vice president for news, who ran the news division at National Public Radio for seven years. At KPCC, Buzenberg envisions a brief newscast every 30 minutes from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., with additional pieces woven into Morning Edition and All Things Considered. He hopes to have the department up and running by late this year.

The stakes are high: Not only will the station be expected to fare well against its public-radio competitors, but it must also make a good showing against commercial-radio news powerhouses KNX and KFWB. KPCC’s challenge is to find a compelling way to cover such far-flung communities as Compton and Calabasas without resorting to headline news.

Superficial coverage is not what people want when they tune to public radio, says Peter Domonowski, president of Market Trends Research Inc., a Florida-based public-radio research firm that recently completed a study on listener preferences. ”We found that listeners do value local information on public radio,“ he says. ”Especially if the local news meets the same standards of interest and quality as the other programming on the station.“

On March 11, listeners got their first taste of the changes. Most noticeable was the absence of music. About two-thirds of the station‘s listeners were devotees of the news and talk programming, while the rest were divided among the music shows. ”We had loyalty to certain programs,“ says Larry Mantle, KPCC’s program director, ”but less loyalty to the station than we would have liked.“

That means goodbye to one-of-a-kind programming such as the highly regarded Friday Night Blues Revue and the Chicano-themed Sancho Show. In the weeks before music got the boot, the station heard from hundreds of listeners alarmed by the impending changes, says general manager Cindy Young. Even obscure shows like Gee Dad, It‘s a Wurlitzer! (theater-organ music) and Tibor Paul’s European Sunday Concert (four hours in German every week) had their loyal fans. ”Music has been such a long, traditional part of what the station is about,“ Young says. ”It‘s a loss to a lot of listeners.“

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