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Even so, Mantle says he has ”mixed feelings“ about being moved to the morning. ”I feel a bit of a sense of loss,“ he says. Eventually Southern California Public Radio, the subsidiary created by MPR, will have its own, L.A.-based board of directors, Mantle says. ”Nothing is set in stone,“ he says. ”Our board will see what works and make changes accordingly.“
For now, most of KPCC’s news programming comes from National Public Radio and can be found elsewhere on the dial. In fact, the station has started running its NPR offerings from 3 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., coinciding with the exact same broadcasts on KCRW. Minnesota Public Radio‘s Curtis says those are the hours that listeners want to hear the news. The station has also shifted its local-affairs show, Talk of the City, to 1 p.m., directly opposite Which Way, L.A.?, KCRW’s local-affairs show. ”I don‘t believe it’s a conscious effort to compete with KCRW,“ says KPCC‘s Young, who points out that her station’s transmitter serves Pasadena and parts of Orange County not covered by KCRW.
Indeed, studies of public-radio listenership around the country have shown that when more than one station runs the same NPR programming simultaneously, listenership increases at both stations. ”We‘ve observed this in other markets,“ says Craig Oliver of the Maryland-based Radio Research Consortium, which tracks trends in public radio. Oliver would not provide details of the studies, saying the information is proprietary.
Ruth Seymour, general manager at KCRW, dismisses such studies as industry cheerleading. ”Their job is to have clients,“ she says. ”They’ve been smokin‘ something.“ She sees the changes at KPCC as a direct attempt to confuse, and ultimately steal, her station’s listeners, noting that the two stations are very close on the dial. ”When you duplicate service, you have the same program on more than one station at the same time with only a certain number of listeners,“ she says. ”Somewhere along the line, somebody is going to falter.“
For the most part, the changes have been viewed by KPCC employees as essential to the health of a station that for years had been hampered by a tiny budget and arcane institutional rules governing its operation. KPCC, which has about 300,000 listeners a week, has generally come in third in public-radio listenership behind KCRW and KUSC, which compete for first place with around 450,000 listeners apiece per week.
Last spring, when Minnesota first came a-courting, Mantle, whose Air Talk is one of KPCC‘s most popular offerings, considered leaving unless the college board gave the station over to Minnesota management. Under the deal with MPR, the college has done just that, allowing the station unprecedented autonomy in programming and staffing. Mantle, who also serves as the station’s program director, says he and station general manager Cindy Young had a say in all of the decisions regarding programming changes.
But the presence of Minnesota Public Radio in L.A. has raised concerns about the division of the corporation‘s for-profit and nonprofit operations, about its practice of swapping its donor list with political and advocacy groups, and about its proclivity for running national public-radio shows at the same time they are airing on other stations. And, as the city reconsiders its relationship to the Tribune-owned L.A. Times, the KPCC deal likewise raises questions of how well an outside entity can run a local-news operation. ”Every station has its own song to sing,“ says KCRW’s Seymour. ”The song they‘re singing now is Minnesota’s song.“
Whatever the intentions of Minnesota Public Radio in Los Angeles, its record in the upper Midwest has been less than sterling. With more than 30 stations in six states, MPR is the nation‘s largest state public-radio system. Its signature program, Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, is carried on more than 400 stations with an estimated 2.5 million listeners nationwide. That show begat a for-profit merchandising operation called the Greenspring Co. In 1995, MPR president Bill Kling called on nonprofit staffers to help fill for-profit shopping orders during the Christmas rush, prompting an inquiry by the Minnesota attorney general.
In 1998, MPR sold the catalog portion of its Greenspring operation to Dayton-Hudson for an estimated $120 million. Minnesota Public Radio got a $90 million endowment, and Kling pocketed an estimated $2.6 million from the deal. No illegalities were found, but the attorney general and others charged that MPR built up the for-profit operation partly by taking advantage of the government subsidy provided by tax exemption and tax deductions to its nonprofit operation. Kling and other executives then reaped the benefits of the arrangement, critics charged, without shouldering the normal business risk, which was left to the unwitting taxpayers. MPR‘s Curtis says that the opposite is true, that in fact the for-profit operations were designed to help support the nonprofits. He says the non- and for-profit parts of the company exist ”in separate spheres.“
In December, MPR ran into trouble again, this time for swapping its donor lists with advocacy organizations without informing members. Since 1995, MPR had been exchanging 3 million member names and addresses as often as six times a year with 100 different groups, including the Democratic National Committee, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, and Planned Parenthood.
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