Stop the music

KERA-FM goes for gab in effort to grab ratings

On January 5, KERA-FM music director and disc jockey Gabrielle West was not returning phone calls, nor would she for the next several days. Her voice-mail message at the public radio station explained why: "We're going through some serious changes that will involve everybody--including you, as well," she offered callers by way of an apology. "I'm not going to be able to take music calls during the week of January 8...Just trust me. Serious changes going on."

On her message, West does not explain what those changes are; in fact, as of last Friday, no one outside KERA even knew there were changes taking place at the station. No mention had been made on the air, no press releases had been issued. Only KERA's top officials and its volunteer advisory board knew what was coming, and they were set on keeping it a secret from the very people the changes would affect most--the listeners.

On January 8, they'd find out what the secret was: Beginning at 9 a.m. Monday, KERA ditched its morning and afternoon music programming on 90.1 FM and became that most common of major-market public-radio beasts, a "news and information station"--one filled with talk radio and syndicated news programming provided by the likes of the British Broadcasting Corporation and The Christian Science Monitor. KERA has dropped music from its weekday schedule and has pulled the plug on the Triple-A (Adult Album Alternative, or modern-day folk-rock) music format that station manager Jeff Luchsinger and former music director Abby Goldstein touted so highly just one year ago.

That means no more Gabrielle West and Robin Macy or Gail Wein during the mornings and afternoons, no more sensitive singer-songwriters and local musicians to chase away the listeners KERA wants to fill the coffers during pledge drives.

Now, listeners are treated to hours and hours of news and talk shows, the kind KERA officials insist their audience wants and needs. Instead of the music that normally filled the airtime between "Morning Edition" at drive time and "All Things Considered" in late afternoon, KERA now features "The Diane Rehm Show," a Washington, D.C.-based call-in segment; "The People's Agenda," a local call-in program hosted by Marla Crockett, and the similar "Glenn Mitchell Show"; "Monitor Radio," an hour of news presented by The Christian Science Monitor; and BBC's "The World." "Fresh Air," a mixture of news and arts features, remains in the lineup, moved from afternoons to the 11 a.m. slot.

Weekend programming remains virtually unchanged--though "Mountain Stage Music" and "World Cafe," two popular syndicated music programs, have been dropped. Of course, there is always that brand-new sports show, "Only a Game," at 6 a.m. Saturdays.

The weekday music programming has been ghettoized to nighttime slots, from 7 p.m. to 4:50 a.m., shared by West, Wein, and Greg Henderson. Eclectic late-night host Kim Corbet, among the rare holdovers from the station's late '80s and early '90s heyday as a local music force, is off the air. Luchsinger says it was Corbet's decision to work the control boards during the afternoons; Corbet agrees for the most part, saying only that he had grown tired of working the late shift.

The weekend and late-night music programming has lost its eclectic edge, Luchsinger says, falling more in line with what was heard during the day.

Luchsinger, who could only be interviewed while accompanied by station publicists, says the reason for the changes is an easy one: "We're trying to serve our listeners better." Public-radio news programming "is our franchise," he says. "It's the unique service we provide in this market, and by adding news and information in the day, we're trying to extend that unique service."

Both Richie Meyer, CEO of KERA's parent company North Texas Public Broadcasting Inc., and his wife, Susan Harmon, vice president of NTB, kept mum about the format upheaval until it went into effect Monday, surprising anyone tuning in at 9 a.m. who expected to hear Mary Chapin Carpenter and got Diane Rehm instead.

On January 5, three days before the new KERA-FM made its debut, Luchsinger explained the silence this way: "I think changes like this are difficult. We certainly recognize the loyalty of our music audience. They've been good to us in their listening and pledging in the last six to seven years. I just don't think there's any reason to upset them in advance any more than you absolutely have to."

In other words, KERA officials were too scared to tell anyone what was going to happen. "They're expecting huge flack," says one station disc jockey. Or, as former music director and longtime on-air jock Abby Goldstein says more bluntly, "There's gonna be a shitstorm."

Indeed, by 5 p.m. Monday, KERA-FM publicist Kris Martin said the station had received about 400 calls, many of which had been "unfavorable" toward the change. "But a heck of a lot of calls were people just looking for general information, like the new schedule," Martin insists. "On the whole, the public broadcasting listener is a go-with-the-flow type of person...Ialways encouraged people to listen to the station for a few days and then call us back and let us know what they thought."

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