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To gauge WLRN's listenership, it is instructive to look at other public stations. Compare, for instance, WABE in Atlanta. In a market about the same size as WLRN's, WABE garners almost twice as many listeners, an average of 307,000 each week, according to data provided by Arbitron. Arbitron is a private group that estimates radio audiences, mostly for advertising purposes.
And KJZZ in Phoenix, located in a market that is far smaller than Miami-Fort Lauderdale (seventeenth nationally), attracts about the same number of listeners as WLRN.
Public stations are concerned about more than ratings. Fundraising is a constant worry. And again, WLRN fares poorly. KJZZ, which schedules news and talk programming throughout the day and jazz at night, also held an on-air fundraising drive last month. Listeners contributed $500,000 in just seven days. In Atlanta, WABE's membership contributions over the past year totaled $1,350,000, compared to WLRN'S $800,000.
While WLRN's listener contributions have more than doubled in the past three years, they won't likely go much higher, said recently departed development director Pat Combine. The increase came mostly because the station added more pledge drives and more fundraising employees. Now the station has to change its programming.
"The programming is not attracting an audience," said Combine, who left April 24 to become general manager of a public television and radio station in Erie, Pennsylvania. "That's the problem."
The station's difficulties in attracting more money and listeners are rooted in its half-century-old educational and community service mission. When the school board opened the station in 1949 under the call letters WTHS, it was a training ground for young broadcasters. Programs served as teaching tools. In the Fifties the station broadcast fifteen-minute lessons in science, history, and Spanish to public schools. In 1962 the school board bought WITV-TV (Channel 17). The call letters of both the radio and TV station were changed to WLRN in 1972.
In the Sixties and Seventies WLRN followed the lead of other public stations across the country and provided a mix of educational and music programming. "We were trying to offer a variety of things because we were the only public station in the area at the time," recalls Roger Kobzina, WLRN-FM's former station manager. He retired in 1996.
In the mid-Eighties, when federal funding for public radio began to dry up, the picture changed. Listeners shouldered an increasing proportion of expenses, so programming directors unexpectedly had to worry about increasing their audiences. How to attract more listeners? The public stations turned to commercial radio for the answer. It was called format.
"In the Sixties stations started thriving by formats," Bartholet explains. "We're rock, we're country, we're kick-ass country, we're something country, we're urban, we're whatever.' And you build an identity. And with that, you build Time Spent Listening."
Time Spent Listening, or TSL, is the key to success in today's jam-packed radio spectrum. Here's how it works in public radio: The more TSL a station has, the more likely listeners will send money during pledge time. "The more time you spend with the station, the more you value it, and the more likely you are to contribute," says Bartholet. "It's a real simple formula.
"The old formula that it seems WLRN is still following is 'We try to serve the needs of jazz listeners, classical listeners, and we try to do this, this, this, and this. We're building a constituency of all these different people, and all of them collectively will give us a large audience.' Well, it doesn't work that way. Radio does not work that way."
Before leaving for Erie last month, Combine delivered some grim news to station managers and Friends of WLRN board members (Friends of WLRN is the station's fundraising organization, made up mostly of volunteers). "Membership has plateaued," she said. "We're not going to have more membership unless we have some change."
When Combine arrived in Miami in August 1994, WLRN's development office was already in crisis mode, she recalls. The station wasn't bringing in enough money. So she expanded the development staff from two to nine salaried employees and bought a computer system to remind listeners by mail that their membership had lapsed. She started a second fundraising drive each year and asked program director Joe Cooper to add PRI's wildly popular but expensive A Prairie Home Companion (a former local favorite) and Marketplace programs to the lineup.
The shows began in the fall of 1995; since then, membership has grown from about 6000 to 12,000. Annual revenues from member contributions have swollen to $800,000 and corporate underwriting has tripled to $450,000. Together, those two sources make up two-thirds of the station's $2.3 million budget. The rest comes from school board, federal, and state grants.
Yet since the fall of 1995, the number of people listening has grown only 2.7 percent, to 163,200 per week. "We don't look at it as a fundraising problem. We look at it as a listenership problem," Combine says. "That's the real cause. That's the root of the problem."
And it's the same problem the consultant Bartholet cited three years ago. During a telephone interview, he calls up WLRN's radio schedule on the station's Website. "Let me see -- at one o'clock in the afternoon, they have something called Tomorrow's Broadcasters Today, and those are students who are on the air doing their thing, and that's probably a part of the mission of the board of education," he says. "But it's like, what do the station managers want to do? It's like they want to be professional a couple hours a day, and then they want to go back to doing something else."