Garrison Keillor to the Rescue!

Can a hayseed weekly variety show really save WLRN-FM?

Apart from the clamor for the return of Garrison Keillor, WLRN turned to PRI for a second reason: the cancellation of shows provided by the station's primary source of syndicated programming, National Public Radio (NPR). In the past few years, roughly half of the station's programming has come from the Washington, D.C.-based NPR, including such features as Morning Edition, The Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Performance Today.

According to NPR spokeswoman Kathy Scott, the network, like its affiliates, has been forced to streamline as Congress has cut federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Next fiscal year will see a reduction from $315 million to $275 million; the allocation will drop further in fiscal year 1997, to $270 million. Legislative proposals pending in Congress would reduce funding levels in 1998 to as low as $240 million.

These cuts have translated into less funding to affiliates from the corporation, which in turn has meant the affiliates can make fewer purchases from program producers and distributors such as NPR. To compensate for these losses, NPR has already ceased distribution of several programs, including Horizons, Crossroads, and BluesStage, all of which have been broadcast locally by WLRN. The death of these shows, Cooper points out, has left holes for new programs. In addition, WLRN chiefs have bumped a few other less-popular programs from its schedule, including BBC World of Books, BBC Science Magazine, and the locally produced Rock and Roll Revisited.

Cooper understands that these changes may be unsettling for some audience members, particularly those he calls "core listeners" A those people who tune in to the station more than ten hours per week. But he's willing to risk upsetting a few old supporters if it attracts more new ones. "I can't really program the station for core listeners because there would be no audience growth," he asserts. "I'm trying to widen the audience appeal, attract new listeners who can be contributors."

The first test of this strategy will come during the station's next fundraising drive, scheduled to begin October 27. Cooper is banking on those listeners who pleaded for the return of A Prairie Home Companion. "We'll see in October whether we get those people who say they wanted to hear it," he says.

Despite the belt-tightening, Cooper promises he's going to resist any efforts to homogenize the station's offerings or "degrade" the programming. "We could put twelve hours of sex talk on, and mud wrestling on Channel 17, if we were only interested in attracting an audience," he scoffs.

Earlier this year a consultant was invited to the station to advise the Friends of WLRN board (the fundraising arm of the station) on ways to increase membership. "His recommendations were that this station suffered from a multiple-personality disorder, that it shifted gears too many times during the day, and it needed to target an audience and not have as much diversity," Cooper recalls.

The program manager acknowledges that the consultant's review "had some legitimacy," and he says he may do more shuffling in the future that would group together some of the "special needs" shows, including the Creole-language show Chita Tande/Radio Leykol and Tomorrow's Broadcasters Today, the broadcast-training program produced by the Miami Lakes Technical Education Center. "I'm of the mind that public radio should have diversity," he insists. "It should serve segments of the community that aren't usually served and should have a variety of programming. But then again, I don't think it should be so ridiculously eclectic that no one can listen to it for more than a half-hour.

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