Garrison Keillor to the Rescue!

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

For new listeners, WLRN-FM (91.3) can be a bewildering place. One minute the public radio station may be broadcasting a symphony from Royal Festival Hall in London, then in the next minute, a New Orleans Mardi Gras brass band. Or a percussion ensemble from Zaire. Or synthesized music from outer space. And music can just as suddenly give way to public affairs. Talking heads on the presidential campaign. Talking heads in Creole. Talking heads on mutual funds. Talking heads on catalytic converters.

But what might be a strange land for neophytes is, for others, home sweet home. Long-time fans of the station find comfort and recognition in these eclectic surroundings, a fitting reflection of this community's diversity. In recent weeks, though, they have been staring at their radios and scratching their heads. The reason: radical programming changes. As if someone had sneaked into their clubhouse and redecorated, veteran WLRN listeners are now stumbling around, tripping over furniture, disoriented in their once familiar -- if always unusual -- surroundings.

Among the head-spinning alterations, the Sunday afternoon broadcast of the nationally syndicated call-in show Car Talk has become a Saturday morning feature, bumping back by one hour the starting time of The Morning Show, a popular local jazz program. The weekend installments of All Things Considered are history. In the program's place on Saturday is the syndicated environmental affairs program Living on Earth (shifted from Monday), and a half-hour of storytelling by celebrated actors called Rabbit Ears Radio. The Sunday All Things Considered slot is now occupied by locally produced Topical Currents and nationally distributed Latino U.S.A., both of which were rescheduled from other times earlier in the week.

The changes have been precipitated in part by shrinking federal allocations, explains Joseph Cooper, the station's program manager. WLRN, which owes its survival to a hodgepodge of funding sources, is primarily suffering a reduction of federal financial aid. The station is licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to Dade County Public Schools, which owns the station's assets (as well as those of its sister television station Channel 17) and pays the salaries of several staff members. The station also receives financial support from corporate underwriters, in addition to hefty grants from the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting and from the State of Florida. The bulk of the station's support, though, comes from listener donations. WLRN officials, in turn, use these dollars for other staff salaries, maintenance of the station, and to pay for the local and national shows it airs.

This fiscal year (which began in July), the station suffered a cut in both grants it receives from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting: The first was cut from about $167,300 to $134,300, says Laurel Long, coordinator for WLRN's finance and administration. The second grant dropped from about $59,000 to about $50,000. Mercifully, Dade County Public Schools maintained its funding levels to the station and the state legislature didn't touch its two annual grants, although those remain at 1988 levels.

It didn't help that WLRN's most recent fundraising drive in April fell short of its goal. The station had hoped to collect at least $300,000 but managed only about $272,000. "We should be doing substantially more than $300,000," says Patricia Combine, WLRN's director of development. "Other markets of our size are doing $600,000 to $1 million. So $300,000 was a very reasonable goal."

Given the inadequate donations, the station is now scrambling to attract more listeners. More listeners theoretically translates into more contributions. (The size of one of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting grants is partially based on the amount of money the station raises locally. "The more you bring in, the higher the grant," Cooper notes.) To this end, Cooper has added some new programs to the schedule, killed old ones, and shifted others around.

This fall WLRN became an affiliate of Public Radio International (PRI), one of the largest sources of public-radio programming in the U.S. and the distributor of many of the station's new shows. Cooper says he was motivated to sign up with PRI because, among other reasons, the company offered the well-loved variety show A Prairie Home Companion, hosted by Garrison Keillor. WLRN carried the show in the 1980s, until Keillor dropped it in 1986; the host revived the program in 1993. "People have been lamenting that we no longer carried it," Cooper reports. As an enticement to join its stable, PRI offered WLRN a discount in the customary PRI membership rate for the first year. The station is paying $25,000 for a package of PRI-distributed programs -- including -- Prairie Home Companion, Rabbit Ears Radio, and a business-news show called Marketplace -- about half the usual fee for a listening market of this size, Cooper says.

Besides adding new programs, WLRN honchos are shuffling around some older ones in an attempt to encourage people to stay tuned. "We have to increase how much time is spent listening by the average listener," Cooper explains. By way of example, he points to the relocation of the highly successful Car Talk from Sunday afternoon to Saturday morning at 10:00. The show now follows the locally produced jazz program The Morning Show, which Cooper describes as the second-most popular show in the station's repertoire (Morning Edition with Bob Edwards is number one). The program manager hopes the first show will "dump" more listeners into the second.

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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