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."
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."
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.
He cites budget constraints as an obstacle to starting a local news department. Aging equipment needs replacement first, he says. Transmitters break down several times a year, forcing the station to disappear from the dial for precious minutes and sometimes hours.
"Why should we reinvent the wheel when it comes to research and writing when we already have those newspapers here?" Sagastume says. "I just don't have the resources to do that, not when I'm still having problems with my radio station going off the air for five minutes, like it did this morning."
Sagastume hints that some programs may be changed. "We need to define the flavor of this station," he declares. "We are trying more and more to figure out what are those things that we can uniquely do for the community and then do those very well."
The crux of the issue, he acknowledges, is formatting. "We're not going to go Seventies nostalgia. We're not going to go hate-talk," he says facetiously. "Which way will we go? I wish I could tell you that. I really honestly can't. It's not a secret. It's actually a project in progress right now, because we have to gather a lot of information. But I have ideas."
One of Sagastume's ideas is to turn WLRN into a production house for nationally distributed radio programs, as it has become for television. "I think there's no reason that WLRN radio can't bring some of the fantastic cultural offerings that we have here in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area to the world, through NPR or PRI. We have one of the richest environments when it comes to music, whether it's Latin or jazz or blues or rock and roll. And we have one of the most diverse populations in the world. That brings with it a very dynamic cultural environment. We think that it's fertile ground for some great programming."
Steve Malagodi, an engineer and host at the station since 1979, believes the only way to expand WLRN's listenership is to target South Florida's Hispanic population. He notes that only one show on the station, The Rhythm Box, features Latin music on a regular basis. It's broadcast just one hour per week, on Friday nights.
As a model, Malagodi cites tiny WDNA-FM (88.9), which broadcasts at only 5000 watts, compared to WLRN's 100,000. "WDNA is kicking our ass," he says. "They've got some really great Latin-music programmers."
Malagodi and other WLRN DJs think the station should take advantage of the burgeoning popularity of Afro-Cuban music. "We get a fair number of Hispanic people calling us about American jazz, principally saying, 'That was great, and blah blah, and I really enjoy this,'" he says. "The same thing should be true, I would hope, of the people from the Anglo culture if they heard really great Afro-Caribbean jazz. This is how people come together. Language splits people apart -- music brings people together."
But Malagodi and other WLRN staffers fear Sagastume will not lead the station into a new age, but into New Age. "Sagastume makes a big deal about the fact that Yanni was the largest-grossing public television show ever," Malagodi scoffs. "That's where he's coming from. I don't have any problem with blockbuster shows, as long as you understand that they finance other things."
Malagodi recommends that his general manager take into account South Florida's unique culture. "A national model is not going to work here," Malagodi says. "This is a very different city. There's no place like this in the United States. And we're going to have to invent something new here.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.