Radio KO

by Will Hermes


THIS PAST SUNDAY'S New York Times Arts & Leisure section led with a feature-length lament on the continuing decline of New York City radio. It's nothing new: Because the financial stakes of broadcasting there are so high, NYC stations have always played it numbingly safe. Copycat formats with heavy song rotations are the rule (the city now has five nearly indistinguishable "modern rock" stations, three tame R&B/rap-lite stations), and life for alternatives--the community-run Pacifica affiliate WBAI, the groundbreaking free-form WFMU--has been precarious at best.

And here? Beyond a commercial and public radio mainstream tepid enough to compete with anything the Big Apple could offer, we still boast some refreshing anomalies. Rev-105 remains one of the most adventurous commercial rock stations in the country; there's also the musically fab Solid Gold Soul (950 AM), the eclectic community-run KFAI-FM (where this paper produces a weekly news and cultural affairs program), and the U of M's student-operated KUOM-AM (Radio K). But things don't look so good for any of these stations. Solid Gold Soul seems destined for a short life; Rev-105's rating woes persist; and in the noncommercial sphere, a recent change in Corporation for Public Broadcasting eligibility requirements could fully defund both KFAI and KUOM by 1998.

The new "audience service criterion" adopted by the CPB is one of those moves that is supposed to promote "self-sufficiency" among public broadcasters as Congress moves to cut off federal support altogether. Like commercial radio, the value of public stations is now measured by the number of listeners it attracts. Broadcasters must submit their rating "books" to the CPB, and if their AQH (listeners per average quarter hour) doesn't measure up two years hence, they're off the rolls. So far there are two exceptions: one for minority-run stations, who must reach 50 percent of the standard AQH for their coverage area, and another, ironically, for stations whose community financial support is strong enough to offset a smaller number of listeners. In other words, quasi-commercial standards now apply to stations on the public dial: If they aren't both reaching for a mass audience and getting them to cough up significant dollars, they are not fit to survive--however challenging, different, or vital their programming services may be.

CPB maintains that they are fighting the good fight, tossing around words like "efficiency" and "accountability," and noting the establishment of the Public Radio Future Fund, a new granting source created to help stations raise their revenues and "streamline" their operations, which may help the three dozen or so stations which CPB says fail to meet the new requirements. But as the paramount aim of all government agencies is self-preservation, the new audience service criterion is the sort of move that CPB--which has already taken a 25 percent staff cut over the past year, and which many predict won't live to see 1999--no doubt hopes will encourage Congress to spare its head.

It's worth noting that the 16-member task force which recommended the new criteria included a local contingent: Tom Kigin of Minnesota Public Radio, and Bruce Theriault of Public Radio International, which distributes MPR programming. With its well-developed, well-heeled support network, MPR is in better shape to withstand federal defunding than most operations--the $2.3 million they received for fiscal year '96 amounts to 12 percent of their budget, versus, say, the 20 percent that CPB funding represents in KUOM's budget. And though MPR is expecting CPB budget cuts like everyone else, their future eligibility is not in question.

But MPR and PRI have other interests that stand to be advanced as small stations are debilitated. The two have embarked on a joint venture called Classical 24--a canned, automated classical music programming service for public stations that can be purchased to essentially replace on-air talent and engineers at cash-poor stations. Is this the future of public radio? As MPR spokesman John Dunyou said with a chuckle last week, "I guess you could say that we're sort of profiting from the federal cutbacks."

Meanwhile KFAI, which briefly considered revamping its board of directors and staff to qualify as a minority station, has decided to try to increase listenership numbers via programming changes. But even if KFAI succeeds in doubling its audience, notes general manager Denise Mayotte, it will still fall short of the new CPB requirements. KUOM general manager Andy Marlow is betting on the establishment of some sort of public broadcasting trust fund by the government with the monies generated when public stations begin selling off unused portions of their broadcast frequencies (the so-called "spectrum sale" issue that Bob Dole forced out of last week's sweeping telecom bill, and which will be considered by Congress in a separate bill this spring). Whatever happens, it's clear that diversity on the local airwaves is once again in jeopardy.

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