The Issue: National vs. Local Programming
WFCR Managers and Critics
Debate the Station's Role
By Edward Shanahan
An early morning tour of the studios and offices of radio station WFCR-FM on the third floor of Hampshire House on the UMass campus can take less than five minutes.
Few employees are observed in the long, somewhat dreary hallway, although some closed doors, such as the one behind which John Montanari, long-time music director, is closeted, suggest that the station’s round-the-clock operations continue unseen.
Richard Malawista, director of broadcasting, ushers us into the music library, where thousands of CD jewel cases are stacked on tables, desks, chairs and also neatly march along shelves on every wall. We chat briefly with Montanari and then allow him to continue with his hosting chores, the morning segment of the seven hours of classical music programming that WFCR airs each weekday.
In the hallway, we meet Martin Miller, now in his l0th year as general manager of the Five College public, non-profit radio station, who has agreed to talk to us about the changing media landscape that his station confronts these days.
During a further spin around the studios, Miller, 50, repeatedly points out glaring deficiencies - such as the heating and cooling ducts wrapped in makeshift insulating material – in the physical environment in which he and the station’s 23 full-time equivalent employees toil. While the sound and recording technology evident in several small studios is clearly both costly very up-to-date, the overall feeling of the station’s quarters is dispiriting, and which is why the station has launched a $5.5 million capital fund campaign to finance the construction of a new home on a site donated by the university off Rocky Hill Road south of the stadium.
But that new building is still some years off – perhaps three or four. Until then, Miller and WFCR are stuck with the here and now. That means keeping the station solvent, whose budget must balance annual expenditures of $3.8 million with an equal amount of revenue. Also, the station’s management faces some public criticism that the WFCR is too heavily committed to national rather than local programming and devoting too much valuable air time to music, especially that of classical composers and performers.
Cites Positive Survey Results
Sitting at a table in a tiny office on the second floor, Miller and Malawista respond to these concerns. “We’re doing a good job, we must be doing something people like,” says Miller, citing recent survey results that put the station’s weekly audience at 172,500. “That speaks volumes to me about how we are doing.”
He said despite the “huge challenges” presented by the difficult physical working conditions of the station, “we’ve managed to keep the audience” and hire more local news personnel. “I think WFCR is moving in the right direction,” he says, specifically pointing to the increase in locally produced news and feature segments that are embedded into the daily broadcasts of NPR’s popular “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” shows.
(l-r, Wes Horner, independent producer; Jill Kaufman, news director; and Bob Paquette, senior producer)
He points with pride to the station’s production of “Voices of HIV,” a five part series on the impact of HIV and AIDS in the Latino community in the region. The series, aired during Morning Edition, was produced by WFCR’s Francesca Rheannon and Luis Melendez of “Tertulia,” the station’s long-running Spanish-language programs.
Miller also provides an impressively thick listing of features and news stories that were reported by the station during the last year elating to the activities and events specifically involving members of the Five College community.
Still, he recognizes that some critics want more local content, not just music. “ We’re not closing our ears to public criticism …we’re conscious of that, we realize we need a mix of music and news, it’sa balancing act for us …”
When responding to his critics, Miller probably had one Paul Gorman in mind. An Amherst resident and identified as a one-time public radio producer, Gorman wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Hampshire Gazette not long ago suggesting the station “givelocal programs more of a chance.”
Complaining that much of the WFCR programming is syndicated “coming utterly from elsewhere; could be broadcast anywhere: are broadcast everywhere, on increasingly bland and even interchangeable NPR stations.” Gorman went on to extol the local talent in the Five College community and to suggest that the station tap more deeply into that resource.
(As an addendum to this argument, because of my interest in the book trade, I can’t help but note that in recent weeks, I have listened with interest to radio interviews with John Riley of Gabriel Books in Northampton, Joan Grenier of the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, William Oram of Smith College—talking about Shakespeare’s Sonnets—and Jonathan Harr, a Northampton writer, discussing his new book “The Lost Painting.” All of theseinterviews were broadcast by WAMC-FM, the public radio station in Albany on its Roundtable program.)
“There is no self-evident reason why locally produced programs of commentary, analysis, imagination, debate, spirituality, arts and sheer human liveliness can’t engage audiences and, especially fromtheir home-grown authenticity, generate fresh financial support,” Gorman wrote. Two other letter writers quickly responded with support for that position.
Promises that Changes Are in the Air
And Miller promises that “in the next few months people are going to hear more from WFCR in the area of news and public affairs.”
But that does not mean the end of classical music programming, both he and Malawista insist “It’s important to maintain our identity with classical music and jazz by actually doing it, “says alawista, who says it is not in the cards for WFCR to become an “all news, all talk station” like WAMC-FM in Albany which happens to have a signal that reaches into much of the WFCR coverage area.
Based on the current schedule, the station offers about 60 hours of classical music during 24-hour weekday time slots, and another 20 hours of classical music and opera on Saturdays and Sundays. In addition, some 20 hours during weekday evenings are devoted to jazz in its various forms, and on weekends another three to four hours of folk and non-classical music programs are broadcast. So there is a total of somewhat more than 100 hours a week of strictly music programming. (Music director John Montanari, right)
“People tell us they want classical music,” says Miller. “We’re trying our darndest” to continue that commitment.
Miller remains a big fan of National Public Radio programs. “We know the driving engine of growth of public radio over the years is nationally distributed programs of high quality, The data simply is that it is the great national programming that draws people to public radio.” he said.
To that end, in fiscal 2005, WFCR spent some $512.000 out of a total of $1.56 million earmarked for programming provided by NPR, American Public Media, and Public Radio International, which supply all of the following: Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Car Talk, Weekend Edition - Saturday and Sunday, Praire Home Companion, Marketplace, This American Life, and Only a Game. The lion’s share of the funds went to NPR, about $430,000, Miller wrote in an e-mail message.
According to Miller, “the creation of NPR was a stroke of genius” and he makes no apology for WFCR’s reliance on NPR for so many of its programs.
Bolstering Miller, Lorna Peterson, executive director of Five Colleges Inc. and a member of the WFCR Advisory Committee, says it is clear a majority of listeners favor current programming. “They like NPR for its in-depth, and reliable news coverage” that is unavailable elsewhere, she said. And she acknowledged there is a strong core support for classical music programming that resists much tinkering. “It’s a balancing act,” she says, echoing Miller.
Advisors Put Trust in the Professionals
Although the Advisory Committee does discuss issues of programming at its quarterly meetings, she said, “we trust the professionals … they have done a good job.”
Further, she asked, “what do we mean by local programming,” noting that the station’s signal reaches south to Connecticut and north to Vermont. “It goes well beyond the Five Colleges.”
As for adding more local programs, he said, “you need to sound as good in every part of your day;” in other words local programming can not be allowed to go on the air if it does not meet the very high standards set by NPR . “How we increase the number of local voices depends on how we find the money.”
That is, in part, what is driving the effort to raise funds for a new building, he said. “We want a performance studio to bring” the “local voices” into the station, “to engage them, to bring people in to performances.”
(Martin Miller, general manager, standing; and Bart Feller, operations supervisor)
“This is all part of our strategic plan,” he said, “we want quality,” but the resources, physical and financial, have to be there if polished local programming is to evolve into a more important part of the station’s daily schedule.
Of course, the biggest challenge facing all public radio stations is the daunting task of raising the large sums of money needed to simply stay on the air. A fact of life for public radio, Miller says, is that only 10 percent of the audience contributes money to the station. “All the years I’ve been at this, all the great minds that have studied this,” he says, “and no one yet has gotten that number to change.”
In the fiscal year 2005, which ended last June, WFCR and its Friends organization reported total revenue of $3,807,190 and expenditures of $3,597,002, leaving a razor -thin surplus.
Each year, the budget increases from 3 to 5 percent, he said. “Everyone here is a union employee, we are basically passed along any increases that are negotiated,” along with higher annual program fees.
Total revenue has increased by an average of 7 percent for each of the last 10 years, he said, so that the station can keep slightly ahead of its costs.
The High Cost of Raising Money
That required that the station spend 22 percent or $757,915 of its revenue in fundraising last year, a figure that Miller says is somewhat below average for public radio stations. Some stations spend up to 30 percent merely to raise sufficient funds to meet operating expenses, he said.
Of the $3.8 million in revenue last year, 50 percent came from individuals, and another 30 percent came from “underwriting” or business contributions and special events with the balance derived from grants (7.3 percent) from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, “in- kind services and facilities” donated by UMass, which amounted to almost 12 percent of reported revenue, and modest contributions ($55,800) from the other four colleges.
Ten years ago, Miller said, the public (listeners) contributed $650,000 to the station; this year that figure is projected to be $1.5 million. Meanwhile, according to Malawista, underwriting or business contributions have gone from $12,000 back in the 1980s to $900,000 last year.
Of the $1.5 million in public support, 40 percent of it, or $600,000, is raised during on-air fund drives, with the other 60 percent flowing into the station by mail or on-line as fulfillment of donor pledges.
About the ubiquitous and irritating on-air fund drives, I asked Miller: “How often, how much, how long?” To which he quickly replied: “Too many, too much, too long.”
He says that the number of days WFCR is on the air raising money is on “the high end compared to other FCR-like stations.” On-air fundraising ranges from 35 to 40 days a year, but the station has tried to reduce the actual number of hours that fundraising is done. For example, during the March 2 - 11 on-air drive, the goal was to the limit fund-raising to a total of 106 hours whereas it used to be continuous from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Fund Raising Takes Its toll on Listeners
“In all honesty,” he said, “we need to cut back on the number of days … we’re here to provide a public service not to beat people over the head.”
But the cost of NPR programs is based on “listener hours,” which means the larger your audience for NPR programs the more the station is billed.
Miller says the only way to avoid lengthy on-air begging “is to cultivate people to be major donors, so we need to raise less on air.” But, he says, WFCR is “way behind” in this area. “We are very good at training people to give us $100 but not so good” at getting people to give $1,000 or $5,000.
The challenge as a station and a system is “to cultivate people to give money off the air … but it seems if you are not on the air, the money won’t come in.”
It is the figures about those who don’t support the station that are so frustrating to Miller and other public radio managers. Even though the station is listened to by a weekly audience of from 155,000 to 172,000, WFCR has an active donor list of 14,500, which in terms of “actual people is probably 22,000,” who have agreed to support the station, Miller said.
The university and the other colleges have been generous about picking up the slack, especially when it came to providing some $125,000 for a new transmitter, and UMass and the other colleges are expected to make a significant contribution to the capital campaign.
Miller says that, in exchange for on-going university support, Chancellor John V. Lombardi would like to see the radio station “be more aligned with the teaching mission” of the university’s journalism and communications departments. This would entail more internships at the station, which Miller sees “as a benefit to the station; an expanded news department helps us increase our coverage.”
As it is, Miller believes the station should get more credit for expanding its current commitment to local news coverage, citing a news staff that is the equivalent of six full-time people. That, he says, is larger than the average public radio station.
What About a Series of Public Meetings?
Meanwhile, letter writer Gorman urged the WFCR management to announce the scheduling of a series of three public meetings “to discuss the station and hear the viewpoints of its listeners.”
Asked about his reaction, Miller replied: “When you get a public forum certain people show up; there’s a better way we can hear those issues … these conversations are happening, we’re not being adverse to criticism.” In other words, don’t expect any such public meetings to “discuss the station.”
As it is, the station receives feedback on its operations from two sectors. One is the WFCR Advisory Committee, made up of three people from the community, a member from each of the five colleges, Lorna Peterson of Five Colleges Inc. and Sharon Fross, UMass-Amherst Vice Provost for Outreach and Continuing Education under whose supervision the station functions.
The second group with some oversight responsibility is Friends of WFCR Inc., the fund-raising arm of the station. It is the non-profit entity of the station to which donors can make larger gifts; the Friends also review the station’s budget, and is generally more supportive than critical.
Miller himself reports to Vice Provost Fross, a senior administrator on the Amherst campus.
There is no board of directors for the station as the license is held by the UMass board of trustees in Boston, not merely the UMass-Amherst campus. The operations of the station are ultimately the sole responsibility of the overall UMass trustees.
Meanwhile, the license, which was first issued in the 1960s is up for renewal this April, according to a representative for the Federal Communication Commission, but that is merely a formality.
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