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The phones were ringing furiously during last month's pledge drive at WLRN-FM (91.3). Volunteers took pledges for $30, $65, $100, and more. In return, supporters of the public radio station would soon receive their thank-you gifts -- coffee mugs, T-shirts, CDs, subscriptions to Newsweek, even dinners at some of South Florida's finest restaurants.
On April 6 the twelve-day spring fund raising campaign came to an end, accompanied with the requisite on-air acknowledgments. "Thank you, South Florida, for helping us thrive in our community!" cooed the taped voice of Peter J, one of the station's DJs, in a 30-second spot that ran frequently in the days that followed.
"Our membership has grown by leaps and bounds," says WLRN general manager Gustavo Sagastume. "We are really very fortunate that this community has responded tremendously in terms of their support for public radio."
There's just one problem: WLRN is not thriving at all. Total pledges fell $30,000 below the $270,000 goal. In fact, the station has come up thousands of dollars short for the past three years.
And the amount raised -- as well as the number of listeners -- places WLRN far behind the national norm for stations in similar markets. While about one in ten people tunes in to listener-funded radio across the nation, the number is about half that in Miami-Fort Lauderdale.
The reasons are manifold, according to consultants and other broadcasting experts: Some WLRN programs are decades-old and no longer attract listeners; there are too many shifts in style during the day, from jazz to talk to public meetings; and deadly boring broadcasts of Dade County School Board meetings take away hours each month from more attractive programming. Moreover, although Spanish speakers make up about one-third of the market's population, virtually all of WLRN's programming is in English.
To make matters worse, the station shows little indication it can increase its popularity. About 163,000 people tune in each week, just a few thousand more than in 1995.
Dale Spear, director of programming for Public Radio International, a national network based in Minneapolis, contends that WLRN has fallen behind the dynamic public radio industry.
"WLRN has been a terribly underperforming station," Spear says. "It and WDET in Detroit are probably the biggest problems in public radio, in terms of major metropolitan areas."
Just how far behind the times is WLRN? "About ten years," Spear says.
Ask Al Bartholet about the station's problems and the nationally recognized public radio consultant will tell you what he told WLRN's managers three years ago when they hired him. At that time, Bartholet found a station in the throes of an identity crisis. The solution, he thought, was simple: WLRN needed a format.
"I told them they had to decide what they wanted to be," he recalls. Yet WLRN managers disregarded most of Bartholet's suggestions. General manager Sagastume, who has been at the station about two years, says he is unaware of Bartholet's report.
Bartholet and Spear list WLRN's weirdly diverse programming schedule as its most serious flaw. By the time Talk of the Nation hits the air at two o'clock on weekday afternoons, the station has cycled through NPR's Morning Edition; followed by the Radio Reading Service, during which volunteers read newspapers on-air; The Radio Reader, a program produced at Michigan State University that features book readings; a locally produced news show in Creole; Lunchtime Miami, two hours of jazz, funk, or blues; and Tomorrow's Broadcasters Today, hosted by students from Miami Lakes Technical School.
That eclectic style of broadcasting, Bartholet says, went out in the Eighties. And while station managers say it offers a little something for everyone in South Florida, critics complain the hodgepodge makes listening difficult.
"People don't tune in to radio programs -- they tune in to radio stations, because the station has a certain product that it delivers on a regular basis," says Spear. "And the consistency of that product is really important to get people to continue to come back. If you think you're tuning in to a Latin station and you get classical music, you may never come back because you might think you're confused about what the station was."
One reason WLRN is so disappointing to managers at Public Radio International and National Public Radio -- the two biggest program producers -- is the size of the region. The station's listening area is the eleventh largest media market in the United States.
Other public stations in the nation's largest cities have been more successful because they established a format -- jazz, classical, or news and talk -- and stuck to it. WLRN's Eighties-style broadcasting is long forgotten in Boston, Los Angeles, and New York, says Bartholet.
"If someone were given free rein to go in and program WLRN for the purpose of serving the most listeners who could hear public radio programming, it could be one of the most listened-to public radio stations in the country," declares Bartholet, who now works as the membership director at public station WKSU in Kent, Ohio. "It would be up there with KUSC in Los Angeles and WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. It's phenomenal what it could be."