KERA's fading signal

Richie Meyer prepares to leave behind a struggling public radio station

Public-radio regulars endured the usual whining last month during KERA-FM 90.1's June pledge drive. But this time, the pleas for donations were slightly shriller. KERA announcers and staff members told listeners they were worried because donations have fallen off since the station revamped its format, switching to all talk and news in the afternoon.

That concern was well-placed.
KERA's listeners have reacted less than enthusiastically to the station's switch from daytime broadcasts of adult album alternative music to news and talk shows. Since the format change, listeners' financial pledges have slipped, and ratings results from Arbitron show that audience numbers have dropped by as much as 50 percent during some time slots.

Station manager Jeff Luchsinger says he believes the flagging numbers are temporary, and that the new format will take hold if given enough time. "The jury is still out," Luchsinger says. "It's too early to tell. We feel like we are still in transition. We really need to give it a year."

But the two principal architects of the shaky new format will not be around to see if Luchsinger is right.

Richie Meyer, North Texas Public Broadcasting Inc.'s chief executive officer, announced in April that he is leaving to teach in Taipei, Taiwan, on a Fulbright scholarship. Going with him will be his wife, Susan Harmon, the NTPB vice president who oversees KERA radio. The highly compensated couple will leave at summer's end.

Meyer's announcement came just five months after he and Harmon dramatically changed the station's format, a switch that was cloaked in secrecy worthy of a CIA plot and sprung on listeners with no warning.

The format changes were kept under wraps until the Monday morning when they began. KERA stopped playing modern-day folk rock during the daytime. The time slot for the "Morning Edition" news show was extended, nationally syndicated talk-show host Diane Rehm was added, and local talk-show host Glenn Mitchell was given an afternoon slot.

The radio station is finding the public less than thrilled with the format changes instituted by its departing chief executive and his wife.

According to Luchsinger, the station fell short of its fund-raising goals in each of the two pledge drives held since the format change.

In January, just two and a half weeks after the new format began, the station took the biggest hit. Only $223,351 was pledged, nearly $50,000 less than had been raised in the pledge drive a year earlier. In June, the station received $154,106 in pledges, almost $1,000 more than the previous year, but $3,000 short of the station's goal.

The news from Arbitron is worse. KERA now broadcasts the Public Radio International-produced news program, "The World," from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., instead of folk and rock music. The news show, Luchsinger says, is attracting only half the audience that music once did.

A few bright spots have emerged. The morning talk show produced in Washington and featuring Rehm seems to have caught on. During the most recent pledge drive, callers during Rehm's show ponied up $3,000 more than listeners had the previous year.

And Mitchell, whose local talk show now begins at noon, got some good news as well. His show generated more contributions in its new slot than it did a year ago, when it aired at 7 p.m.

But the new format's future remains an open question, and so does Meyer's relationship with the station he headed for 14 years.

Meyer, who begins teaching September 1 at the National Chengchi University in Taipei, has said that both he and his wife expect to work as advisors to KERA while overseas, and when they return from the fellowship.

But Richard Rogers, a longtime NTPB board member heading up the committee to find Meyer's replacement, expresses doubts about any future arrangements with the couple. Rogers says he expects the KERA chief executive and his wife--who together were paid roughly $280,000 in annual salaries--to receive healthy severance packages. But he does not expect KERA to enter into any short- or long-term consulting relationships with Meyer and Harmon.

"Richie's not taking a sabbatical. The person that replaces him will be taking his place," Rogers says.

NTPB Board Chairman Irwin Grossman is negotiating directly with Meyer. KERA spokeswoman Johnnie England says Grossman and the board's executive committee, which includes Rogers, will make the final call on whether Meyer and Harmon are awarded some sort of consulting agreement. "It has not been decided yet," England says.

Grossman, who is on vacation, could not be reached for comment. Meyer did not return telephone calls from the Dallas Observer.

Prior to the announcement of his departure, Meyer had been the subject of several critical stories. In an August 1995 cover story, "Pulling the plug," the Observer explored questions about Meyer's relatively high salary--roughly $200,000--and his extensive travel around the world at KERA's expense during a time when the public broadcast company was gutting its local programming efforts.

When Meyer announced in April that he was leaving, chairman Grossman, who had earlier called for an audit of Meyer's business and travel expenses, told reporters that the departure was not triggered by the negative press. Rather, he insisted, Meyer's opportunity in Taiwan had prompted his decision.

If Meyer wants a consulting deal while he stays in Taipei, he has already laid some of the groundwork. Last March--one month before he announced he was leaving--Meyer initiated a relationship between KERA radio and the Broadcasting Corporation of China's Music Network in Taipei. The two stations signed a "sister" agreement. The pact calls for the parties to establish "cooperative relations, exchange programs of mutual concern, exchange news and information, and to arrange the exchange of visits of personnel whenever possible." Meyer's son works as a translator for the Taipei radio station.

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