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.“
The new format at KPCC has meant a significant adjustment for Mantle. He will no longer serve as the station’s news director. His show, which ran for 15 years during afternoon drive time, has been trimmed from three to two hours and bumped to the morning to make room for NPR‘s All Things Considered. Mantle says the changes were necessary to boost ratings to help pay for the local-news team, which he fully supports.
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.
Minnesota’s attorney general sued MPR, alleging that the company misled its members about the extent of its list sharing. MPR maintains that it has ”acted ethically and responsibly“ and has asked that the lawsuit be dismissed. MPR has revised its name-sharing practices to comply with tougher restrictions recently adopted by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. KPCC does not share its donor lists, but it will likely consider doing so under the new regime, says station manager Young.
By all indications, Minnesota Public Radio is in Los Angeles for the long haul. The company is currently in negotiations to buy Marketplace, the business-news program now produced by KUSC and carried on two other L.A. public-radio stations. MPR‘s Curtis sees nothing wrong with this duplication. ”We do provide programming for stations that compete with us,“ he says. ”And we always will.“