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Stop the music

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."

 

Even the station's advisory panel of about 20 outside station members--mostly affluent and influential folks loyal to Meyer and Harmon--didn't find out about the new format until January 4, four days before it was scheduled to take effect.

The station's radio-management team--which includes Luchsinger, Harmon, and news director Jeff McCrehan--has actually been planning the format change for months, if not years. On October 26 of last year, station management met with Jerry Timmins of the BBC to discuss the addition of "The World," which now airs weekdays from 2 to 3 p.m. An interoffice memo touts the show as "one of the most ambitious public-radio news programs launched in more than a decade" that will connect "the global community through unparalleled perspectives focusing on people, current trends, and worldwide events."

When Luchsinger and Harmon finally told the advisory panel of the change, the two proclaimed it a done deal. According to one member who attended the January 4 meeting, which took place at KERA's new $8.6-million facilities off Harry Hines, Harmon stood up and said KERA had secured the rights to broadcast "The World" during midday, forcing an alteration in the rest of the afternoon programming.

"She couched it as gently as she could," says 8.0 Restaurant and Bar owner Shannon Wynne, a longtime member of the advisory committee. Before that, "I had never heard a whimper about this," he says.

Wynne says Luchsinger then explained the new schedule, after which he opened the floor for questions and reactions. Wynne says the board--which includes such people as Dick Hafner, head of Dominos Pizza in Dallas; Dallas Morning News reporter Lori Stahl; and local retailers Ken Knight and S. Roger Horchow--reacted favorably to the news.

"I just sat there and stewed," Wynne says. "Several of the members who were for the changes said that at 9 a.m. their radio stations change to WRR because they can't stand the music on KERA. They thought the people who liked the music were a young audience, so I grabbed my hair and said, 'Look at this! It's white! It's adult alternative, not kiddie music.'"

Richie Meyer, who came under fire in an Observer cover story last August for his lush expense account and frequent trips at a station that was belt-tightening, also attended the meeting. He never said a word.

The move to replace music with news is clearly a reaction to various ratings charts that indicate KERA lost its "loyal" audience when it aired music. Among the charts and graphs shown to board members to justify the change are Arbitron ratings analyses that show KERA's audience dropped significantly after "Morning Edition" went off the air and "Morning Music" came on at 9 a.m., picked up when "All Things Considered" began at 4 p.m., and took a dramatic drop at 8 p.m. (again, when the music started).

Other charts prepared by KERA officials, one titled "Loyalty of KERA's core audience" and another "Loyalty of KERA's fringe audience," also show drop-offs after "Morning Edition"--though the so-called "fringe" audience (no doubt those hippies and beatniks who spend their pledge dollars on VW vans and patchouli oil) sticks around much longer for the music programming.

"The strength of our programming has always been our National Public Radio news programming," says Luchsinger, who estimates 170,000 to 180,000 people tune in to KERA strictly for the news shows. "It's responsible for at least 65 percent of our listenership revenue during pledge drives and probably more if we count shows like 'Car Talk' and 'Whad'ya Know?'...We also know that our listeners--the people with us during the morning and afternoon--are making choices to go to other places during the day. They're going to music stations, and they're going to other news-talk stations in the market."

In October 1994, however, then-station manager Mark Boardman said the Triple-A format helped increase pledge dollars considerably--from $166,834 in February 1989 to $300,000 in the spring of 1994. Listeners were also up from 5,000 in 1989 for any 15-minute interval to more than 11,000. "We've seen some strong growth," Boardman said at the time.

Ironically, the idea for the format switch came from Boardman, who was fired in August 1995. Boardman, who is now doing consulting work for the public radio station WKSU-FM in Kent, Ohio, says a dual-format (that is, music and news) station in a major market like Dallas simply does not work. Rather, it splits listenership between a loyal National Public Radio audience that wants talk, and a more fickle music crowd that's always punching the radio buttons in search of favorite songs.

 

"The audience for the music, while there was some crossover [to the NPR programming], wasn't as large as the NPR audience and wasn't as strong," Boardman says, "and what any programmer in public radio will tell you is the audience outside the drive times is going to be somewhat less loyal. And if you don't have the loyalty of...the audience, that's a concern because a lot of the support comes directly from the listeners."

Boardman cites such all-news-and-information public radio stations as WETA-FM in Washington, KQED-FM in San Francisco, and WBUR-FM in Boston--all of which have audiences twice the size of KERA's in their respective markets--as proof that such a format is more successful than one split between news and music.

The format change was one of the reasons former music director Abby Goldstein left KERA in October to take a job as promotions director at WXPN-FM, a public radio station in Philadelphia. Pointing to Boardman's arrival in 1992, Goldstein says the change at KERA had been discussed for the last few years, which Luchsinger doesn't deny.

Goldstein says Luchsinger always knew the change would come, and he actually gave Goldstein subtle hints she might want to leave: "Over the last year, Jeff would say, 'You need to know this,' and, 'We think this is going to happen sooner than later,' to give me a chance to do something about it.

"I didn't want to be a music director at a news station," Goldstein says. "We were running 15 hours of music programming a day, and it's not going to be like that anymore. And not to brag, but I think I'm better than that format."

One immediate impact of the switch in format is that a significant number of local musicians have lost a venue that gave them considerable exposure. Artists like Josh Alan, Caf Noir, Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks, Cowboys and Indians, and Colin Boyd depended upon the station to get heard and get people to their shows. Now, they'll eat static.

"They worry about how much money they make, and the programming is secondary, where it should be the other way around," says Cafe Noir's Norbert Gerl. "The switch in format is a concern, but you can't stop things like that. Still, how many more talk shows do we need? How much more talk radio can you stomach?"

Jeff Luchsinger insists this new format is what the audience wants--Freudian analysis of female penis envy, the weather in Oslo, and the preservation of salmon, judging from a sampling of Monday's talk-show topics. For years, KERA-FM has billed itself as "One of a Kind" radio. Now it has become more of the same--a radio station that can't keep its mouth shut.


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