Static

Despite being in one of the largest media markets in the nation, Miami's public radio station barely registers with local listeners

Worse, he says, the station preempts All Things Considered, its most popular show, for the Dade County School Board meeting once a month. "It's a no-brainer," says Bartholet. "You don't interrupt All Things Considered for the school board meeting."

Programming director Cooper acknowledges the validity of some of the criticism, but he also points to improvements. For example, the school board meeting preempts All Things Considered just once a month now instead of twice, as it used to.

"It doesn't take a genius to see that there are some aspects of our programming that should be in different places," he says. "We need to give listeners what they want to hear and look at them as customers -- rather than what they should be listening to.

WLRN's Radio Reading Service, which follows Morning Edition at 9:00 a.m. each day, exemplifies the problem of inertia at WLRN. Like many other public stations in the Seventies, WLRN introduced a program, funded with federal grant dollars, for the blind or print-handicapped. Local plans called for volunteers to read newspapers and magazines over a closed-circuit frequency. Users would tune in on special radios. But after some of the closed-circuit equipment arrived too late for the first broadcast, station managers decided to air the service for an hour per day on the main frequency rather than jeopardize funding for the entire project.

Even after the equipment showed up, the broadcasts continued for an hour per day; the closed-circuit broadcast went on the other 23 hours.

"It kind of became a cult thing for people who weren't blind or print-handicapped. They were able to get a good portion of the newspaper while driving to work," Cooper says. "And it also served as a kind of public relations function for the reading service."

These days the show isn't very popular. By the time it concludes at 10:00 a.m., the number of listeners has plummeted by 50 percent from the preceding hour, according to Arbitron. Most days WLRN's audience continues to evaporate as The Radio Reader book show gets under way, followed by 30 minutes of news in Creole. The Creole broadcast, which has been on the air since 1982, segues into school board information. The listener numbers improve greatly in the afternoon when national programming resumes.

Still, Cooper appears reluctant to cancel the reading and student-produced programs. "It's way easier to start a program that has community service value than to take it off," he says. "These programs have a place in our mission, but we're facing a changing environment."

Inertia and fear of criticism have stopped the station from making needed changes, Bartholet says. "Once you start down this path and you let it go for years, it takes a lot to change it because you know you're going to get a lot of flak. And you're probably going to get newspapers like yourself and the Miami Herald possibly writing really nasty things about the radio station. Because, 'Oh my God, they took that program off, it's for the blind, and that's just terrible, it's a community service.' And when the radio station is thinking about making those changes, they think: 'They're going to crucify us in the papers.'"

Sagastume, who took the job of general manager at WLRN television and radio in January 1996, acknowledges that he has spent most of his time on the TV station. But he says he recently commissioned a consultant, Peter Dominowski of Market Trends Research in Tampa, to consider ways of increasing listeners and members. That report is due in the next couple of months; Sagastume estimates it will take a year to implement any changes.

A Harvard University graduate with a bachelor's degree in cognitive psychology, Sagastume worked as an associate producer for the PBS series Frontline. In that job he traveled to war-ravaged Central America during the Eighties. He also worked at WFYI, a public television station in Indianapolis, where he developed regional public affairs and cultural programs, including the Emmy Award-winning series Across Indiana. Immediately before coming to WLRN, the Guatemalan native worked at WEDU, a public television station in Tampa. There he was the executive producer of the most lucrative TV fundraising special in public television history, Yanni: Live at the Acropolis. That production was followed by another pledge-drive money magnet, John Tesh: Live at Red Rocks.

"He was brought in to take us into the 21st Century, someone who really was into international production and entrepreneurial ways," explains Alan Greer, chairman emeritus of Friends of WLRN.

Since his arrival Sagastume has tried to create national recognition for WLRN-TV by co-producing specials for distribution to public stations across the country. Recently WLRN personnel worked on Tkuma: The First Fifty Years, a series on the history of Israel filmed by the Israel Broadcasting Authority that was distributed last month. Currently in the works are a ballroom dance special filmed in Vienna and a documentary about Robbie Robertson, former lead guitarist in the Band.

But two years after Sagastume's arrival, WLRN still sounds much like it did a decade ago. Sagastume has squeezed some new, 90-second local news reports into All Things Considered, but he has no plans to add a news staff for in-house research and writing. Instead, writers from the Daily Business Review prepare and deliver newscasts fed over a high-quality phone line from the paper's offices in downtown Miami. Sagastume recently began discussions with executives at the Sun-Sentinel about a similar collaboration.

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