Dial straits 

When it comes to the format changes that occurred last week at Detroit public radio station WDET-FM, the bottom line is the bottom line.

“We couldn’t afford another year like last year,” says Michael Coleman, who became the station’s general manager in August. “Our survival was in jeopardy.”

Coleman says the station racked up a $300,000 deficit for the fiscal year that ended in September, and then fell $100,000 short of the goal set for its fall pledge drive.

To stem the flow of red ink, Coleman instituted a major overhaul, eliminating locally produced weekday music programming and replacing it with national news-talk shows.

The change reflects a broader trend in public radio, experts say. “WDET is one of the last stations in a major market to make that kind of change,” says Jack Mitchell, a professor of mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The choice has been overwhelmingly to go to all news talk.”

Part of the motivation behind that shift has to do with technological changes in the music industry.

“Stations are finding that playing CDs is not a very good competitive situation no matter how good the local host is,” says John Sutton, founder of a company that provides research, marketing and management consulting services to public radio stations. “What’s happening is that people are going online and getting their music there. They’re using the shuffle mode on their iPod or MP3 player, and they’re learning about new artists from the Internet. They’re going to announcer-free channels on satellite radio.

“Unfortunately, the age of the well-versed announcer introducing people to new music and sharing insights is coming to an end.”

Tied into this is the counterintuitive notion that stations can achieve more financial support from listeners by narrowing the range of programs offered. Experts say that, though it would seem to make sense that the more listeners a station brings in, the more successful it will be financially, in the world of public radio it’s the amount of time a person listens that’s most important. And so, in the case of WDET, shifting from NPR’s early news program “Morning Edition” to music during the day, and then back to news with NPR’s “All Things Considered” in the afternoon, ran the risk of fragmenting the station’s audience. The people interested in news weren’t likely to want music, and vice versa.

“The notion of consistency is really important,” Mitchell says. “Pledging is totally dependent on how much a person listens. If you listen for an hour or two a week, it’s most likely that you won’t contribute. If you listen for 30 hours a week, it’s very likely that you will contribute.”

Marc Hand, a consultant to public radio stations, offers a similar analysis, saying the key to financial success at public radio stations is building as large a core audience as possible. “If you offer more of a mix, your audience is more fragmented. You might reach a broader audience, but they will listen less, and when they listen less, they will contribute less.”

Focusing format, he says, translates into more revenue.

WDET, as Coleman is quick to point out, has not forsaken music. There’s still plenty of music to be found in the evenings, overnight and on the weekends. “I have trouble, really, with the notion that WDET has killed the music,” Coleman says. “We will never do that on my watch.”

“It’s an absolutely rational change,” says Tom Thomas, co-CEO of Station Resource Group, which provides consulting services to 48 public radio stations. “It’s a move toward programming that seems to be enjoying the widest interest by the public at this juncture. If all goes as trends suggest, it should result in more people tuning in, with those who are tuning in staying longer, and being more generous in their financial support.”

But the move to news talk on weekdays is not seen as risk-free. For one thing, it places WDET more directly into competition with Ann Arbor public radio station WUOM, which also focuses on news and talk programming during weekdays. People on the west side of metro Detroit can pick up the signal of either station. It remains to be seen how many WUOM listeners WDET can attract now that the two stations have similar formats.

There’s another potential pitfall in this format change. The uproar from loyal music listeners has been intense. There is talk of protests, boycotts, even a class-action lawsuit. If WDET loses these people, will they be able to attract enough new listeners to put the station on a sound financial footing?

Caryn Mathes, Coleman’s immediate predecessor at WDET, says the station had been expecting a drop-off in support after several popular programs — both local music and national talk — were dropped in an attempt to “smooth out the bumps” in the station’s programming last year. Those changes came after more than two years of research and market study, says Mathes, who earlier this year became general manager of a public radio station in Washington, D.C. The way she sees it, the “tweaking” of a two-prong format that relied on the support of both news and music fans hadn’t been given the chance to fully play out.

“We assumed it would take 24 to 46 months for the new schedule to really take hold,” she says.

Instead, it was scrapped after a little more than a year. Nationally produced news programs are considerably more expensive than locally produced music shows, and when Mathes was in Detroit, she didn’t see how donors would be inspired to contribute enough to make up the difference if the switch to more news was made.

“I think it’s a very risky move,” she says. “But, who knows, it could work.”

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or cguyette@metrotimes.com

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