06/29/2011

My thoughts on WDUQ

I have been dreading July 1st. It is the day WDUQ will cease to exist.

The Pittsburgh radio station, my former employer, will retain its call letters for now. But the station is changing owners as well as format. And once the sale becomes official, the call letters will change, too. It’s upsetting for me personally, because some of my former colleagues have been told there’s no place for them at the new station; others, seeing the writing on the wall, have already left to pursue other opportunities. People who have worked there call themselves the ‘DUQ family, and it really does feel like one. Kevin Gavin and Alexandria Chaklos gave me some of their unused furniture when I first moved to Pittsburgh. Chuck Leavens helped me when I was locked out of my car. I still get birthday cards from the station, even though it’s been almost two years since I left. It’s heartbreaking to watch that family split up.

But it might not just be a loss for those of us who have worked there. As a former news reporter and anchor at the station, it might surprise you that I’m against the loss of jazz programming at WDUQ. After all, the amount of local news content will apparently increase, according to Essential Public Media, the new owner. I appreciate that the station will have a local interview/call-in show, and a weekly program dedicated to local public affairs issues. I look forward to seeing what PublicSource will do in its partnership with WDUQ. But it remains to be seen whether the changes EPM will bring will result in better community service.

EPM has suggested that going all-news at WDUQ will improve community service. In one press release, EPM cited that “Pittsburgh is one of only two U.S. cities in the top 35 radio markets without a full-service NPR news and information station.” While Pittsburgh’s absence from this club certainly warrants some examination, it’s not clear what exactly listeners are missing. Are people who live in these other top radio markets better served by “full-service” stations? How do we know? Are they more engaged in civic life? Are they more aware of their history? Are their institutions held more accountable? These aren’t such easy things to measure.

It’s also not so easy to compare WDUQ to those other big markets with “full-service” NPR news stations. Their offerings vary widely. Some full-service stations even play music. KJZZ in Phoenix (the 15th-largest radio market; Pittsburgh is 25th), for example, airs jazz at night and on weekends. Its weekly schedule includes 49 hours of jazz. The new WDUQ will have six.

By the way, EPM’s claim that it is actually increasing jazz programming is not accurate. EPM has said that 90.5 FM currently airs about 100 hours of jazz per week, but will “expand” to 174 hours when you combine airtime on 90.5 FM, its HD channels, and online. The trouble is, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. WDUQ already airs jazz programming on its HD-2 channel (49 hours per week) and online (168 hours per week).

That aside, let’s be frank: HD radio hours are not the same as terrestrial radio hours. Despite the high hopes of people in the industry, HD radio has not caught on. Maybe it will, someday. But at this point, a lot of people still don’t even know what it is.

Some proponents of the new WDUQ have also argued that it makes sense to get rid of jazz because it has a smaller audience. Whether noncommercial broadcasting should try to appeal to mass audiences is a debate that’s older than the U.S. public broadcasting system itself. Personally, I side with the original Carnegie Commission, whose recommendations formed the basis of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. The Commission believed that public broadcasting should promote diversity—that it should serve many niche audiences, the ones that commercial broadcasters tend to ignore. Bill Siemering, one of NPR’s founders, wrote in the organization’s original mission statement that public radio should “speak with many voices” and “celebrate the human experience as infinitely varied.” It’s in that spirit that many public radio stations adopted “checkerboard” formats—like news/jazz, or news/classical, with all kinds of other shows on weekends—to serve multiple smaller audiences with varied interests.

The checkerboard format is on its way out; WDUQ’s is just the latest example. The trend toward streamlined formats is thanks in part to one of the organizations involved in EPM: Public Media Company. PMC is a subsidiary of Public Radio Capital, which has been involved in countless public and community radio station sales around the country over the last decade, some of which have been controversial (see, especially, what’s been written about KTRU and KUSF).

The common thread in a lot of recent format changes at noncommercial radio stations is that they are becoming more mass, less niche. More mass also often means less local. EPM’s new local news offerings are laudable, but when you factor in the loss of jazz, it appears that the number of locally-produced program hours on WDUQ overall will drop. To me, that’s a concern. After all, jazz has performed a community service, too—not just because of its role in Pittsburgh’s history, but because local jazz hosts have connected people with the music.

Aren’t NPR programs a community service, as well? Sure, and I love NPR. But NPR programs are available lots of places these days: at npr.org and other public radio station websites, in podcasts, and on satellite radio. That means you have less of a reason to listen to your local station. And the less you listen, the less money you’ll contribute to your local station, if you contribute anything at all. As that happens, the already-precarious public radio business model becomes even more fragile. As you may have heard us at WDUQ say during one of those annoying pledge drives, listener donations are the largest revenue source for public radio stations. And a sizable chunk of that money pays for NPR and other non-local programming. That means if listener donations dwindle, the whole system could falter—beginning with local stations, then continuing all the way up.

Look, I know there’s a lot of room for improvement at WDUQ. Despite my misgivings, I do wish EPM success. But please, let’s not define success in terms of how well the new WDUQ mimics the formats of other big-city NPR news stations, or how large its audience is. I wish the new station success in providing a community service. As I mentioned before, that’s not so easy to measure—but I hope EPM tries, and does so publicly.

Comments (1)

  1. 07/04/2011
    Mike G said...

    Thank you for your thoughful comments–you definitely speak for many of us here in Pittsburgh, even from far away. Good luck at Columbia!