"Local Programs, Local Musicians, Local Talent": KERA's Singing a New Tune

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I just got off the phone with Deborah Johnson, the senior veep of marketing at KERA, who was more than happy to answer any and all questions concerning its just-announced, fall-debuting music-only radio station, 91.7 on your FM dial. And, yes, that's the very same frequency currently occupied by The Truth, a Christian talk station owned by Covenant Educational Media, Inc. But Johnson says the owners were looking to sell -- which is how, 18 months ago, KERA management began looking into acquiring the frequency.

"We did a lot of due diligence with the board to see how other public Triple-A radio stations were operated," she says. "We looked at the funding models in other urban markets and put together a business plan, and we decided it was an opportunity we couldn't pass by because it would probably never present itself again."

In the end, KERA purchased the frequency for $18 million, Johnson says.

"That comes from prudent operation of the station," she tells Unfair Park. "We're pretty frugal when it comes to managing our operating budget, so we had the money necessary to get it started on an operating basis. We're also working with three lenders who specialize in nonprofit lending, and we were able to negotiate financing terms even in this economy because our financial situation is strong."

As for what the station will sound like in the fall, look no further than Paul Slavens's biweekly "Track by Track" podcast. "That points to the direction of the station in the future," Johnson says, adding that the show is a "microcosm" of 91.7's future. But she also says such stations as Minnesota Public Radio's The Current, Philadelphia's WXPN and Seattle's KEXP ("Where Music Matters") served as role models during the exploratory process.

"We looked at other major markets -- our peer group," she says. "And the wonderful thing about each station is, because they service their communities, their programming reflects that. The audience in Philadelphia likes a certain kind of programming; Seattle's a little more grungy, to generalize their programming. So each station reflects the personality of their communities, so we're able to bring World Cafe from NPR, which is the equivalent of Morning Edition in the music format, but we look forward to developing local music programs and interviews. I think it will be a mix [between national and local programming]. We're definitely looking at the landmark public radio music programs, the things that really are the best exemplars and highest quality of public radio music. And then we'll be interspersing local programs, local musicians, local talent."

When asked if perhaps 91.7 would herald the return of a locally programmed morning music show -- like the one captained by Chris Douridas and Liza Richardson long, long, long ago -- Johnson's non-committal, only because, well, they had to buy the station first. Now comes the fun part -- filling in the schedule.

As for the name, that too remains a mystery. "We will be working on that as we go through the FCC process," says Johnson, who says the paperwork's been filed with the Federal Communications Commission. "So now their process kicks in, and we don't anticipate any problems."

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