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WVIK’s Challenge: Augustana’s Radio Station Must Prepare for the Future Without Abandoning Its Past PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Wednesday, 09 July 2008 02:37

Reader issue #692 Frank Sundram is diplomatic to the degree that in an interview last month, he refused to acknowledge death.

Discussing WVIK, the Augustana College-based public-radio station that broadcasts at 90.3 FM in the Quad Cities and 95.7 FM in Dubuque, Sundram said: "The challenge for us is how we replace our audience. As members leave us - due to life circumstances - how do we start a relationship with the next two generations below us? ... It's going to happen through the Internet. It's going to happen through our digital channels. It's going to happen through other means."

In many ways, Sundram's evasiveness is understandable. He'd only been on the job as the station's general manager for three months when we talked. The institution has long been dominated by founder Don Wooten, who spent more than 20 years as general manager and still hosts three programs. The station is just starting work on a strategic plan. And the station's listeners and members are getting older, and WVIK must attract a younger audience without alienating the people who have supported it financially since its creation in 1980.

On the plus side, half of WVIK's listeners had a household income of at least $50,000, according to 2005 Arbitron data, and 31.2 percent had incomes of $75,000 or more.

On the down side, 45 percent of the station's listeners were 65 or older that year, and nearly 65 percent were 55 or older. Only 16 percent of the station's listeners were younger than 45. Over the past five years, the station's listenership (between 23,000 and 24,000 people per week) and membership (between 2,400 and 2,700) have been stable, but those core numbers can't be more than a few years from dropping significantly.

In Sundram-speak, WVIK listeners "trend a little bit older" than the National Public Radio (NPR) affiliates nationally. "In terms of income, we also tend to skew a little bit higher."

Sundram says all the right things about WVIK, and his words should soothe those who tune in to the station for their NPR, classical-music, and local programming. "You don't fix what isn't broken," he said. "There's not much that needs fixing here."

The current mix includes 17 hours of classical-music programming and seven hours of news programming each weekday, and an eclectic weekend lineup that includes everything from Art Talks (hosted by River Cities' Reader contributor Bruce Carter) to jazz to NPR staples Car Talk and A Prairie Home Companion.

The station broadcasts concerts by the Quad City Symphony Orchestra, the Handel Oratorio Society, and the Nova Singers. And it has a two-person news department that hosts a half-hour of local news each weekday at 5 p.m. (Full disclosure: I have occasionally been a paid guest on WVIK's Midwest Week news show.)

Sundram talked up the news programming, saying, "We serve a valuable role here. Nobody else does it. ... It is the jewel in the WVIK crown."

He also praised the station's role in the cultural preservation of classical and jazz music and the spoken arts. "These are things that are pretty much forgotten in the media," he said. "And these are things that are worth preserving. Because if we do not pass along this body of work, this body of culture, to other generations, then we have failed them."

But while Sundram said that he doesn't foresee cutting back WVIK's local news, the station's audience demographics simply don't portend long-term stability and financial health if it continues down the same path. Something needs to change, and the obvious target is classical music.

Sundram is reassuring on this point, but you might notice that he's not promising to maintain all the station's classical music. "Classical listeners need not be worried," he said. "This station is not going to go all-news, any more than it's going to go all-hip-hop. It's not going to happen."

But Sundram - either optimistic or again diplomatic - also suggests that there's another way to expand its offerings beyond cuts. He hints that perhaps WVIK can be what's it's always been, and more, through high-definition broadcasting.


Getting People Involved

Frank Sundram Wooten said that he proposed turning Augustana's 10-watt student station into an NPR affiliate in 1977, and Augustana President Thomas Tredway gave his blessing if he could make it work financially.

The station began broadcasting in August 1980.

When Wooten stepped down as general manager in 2003, the slot was filled by Lowell Dorman - one of WVIK's original employees. (He stepped down as general manager in December.) While the leadership at the station has been stable and consistent for more than a quarter century, that kind of continuity often leads to complacency.

And it's apparent that Sundram wasn't hired to maintain the status quo. Sundram is an outsider, with experience in both television (including at WQAD in the early 1980s) and public radio, and he has served as the general manager of four radio stations prior to WVIK - in Gallup, New Mexico; in Fayetteville, Arkansas; at Long Island Public Radio in New York; and in Panama City, Florida.

Michael Green, an associate vice president at Augustana who chaired the search committee for a new general manager and also serves as chair of the station's Community Advisory Board, said the first goal of the new GM is to craft a strategic plan. "We're just beginning," Sundram said, adding that he expects developing the plan to be a three- to six-month process.

"It was time for the station to look carefully at what they're doing and either confirm what they're doing or decide if they want to make changes or do different things with programming," Green said. "But that's a process that has to take place. ... It's time for them to look at everything."

Part of the strategic plan, Green added, will address the two other priorities for the station: building an endowment, and improving its visibility within the community. Outreach to Galesburg and Dubuque could expand the station's subscriber base, enhancing its bottom line. Better outreach and a more aggressive underwriting approach could also generate money. Those are short-term fixes, though, and the health of WVIK in the long run will depend on how well it replaces its oldest listeners.

While Sundram will lead the strategic-plan effort, a critical component will be community input, Green said. The station's Community Advisory Board "hasn't been as effective as we've wanted," he said. "We really haven't done a good job at getting people involved in that [community meetings]. ... We need more information. We're not just going to be making changes for the sake of making changes. We want to make sure we've got the right kind of input, and we know that those changes are going to be what the Quad Cities community is asking for."

To that end, WVIK has already scheduled public meetings at 7 p.m. on October 30 at the Rock Island, Bettendorf, Davenport, and Moline public libraries.

Green was as coy as Sundram about possible changes at the station, emphasizing the information-gathering that's going to happen as part of the strategic plan. "They are in a mode of collecting information and data so that they can make informed decisions and an informed strategic plan," Green said.


The Wooten Factor

Sundram and Green are being careful what they say, and one large reason is money. If you alienate the listeners that have paid your bills for almost three decades, you're asking for trouble.

So by treading lightly on the issue of Don Wooten, they understand that they need to show finesse as they move WVIK toward the future. It's not Wooten himself so much as the thousands of listeners who have bought into his vision, and supported it through their memberships.

Larry McDonald, who serves on the board of the WVIK Foundation (which has no direct role in the operation of the station), thinks Sundram needs to make changes, but delicately. "It would take some real diplomacy," he said. "Would it be possible to reinvent it? Yes. Frank has the authority ... [to change programming]. How he chooses to do it, how elegantly he can affect that change, is really important."

"I don't think they want to just take Don and ... you know ... ," Green said.

For his part, Wooten is also being tactful. Sundram "really knows the business, and has had tremendous experience in just about all phases of it," Wooten said of the new general manager. "It's kind of amazing. He's built radio and TV stations, and is up on all the new technology. He brings a broader view of the whole industry to the station."

He further said that his primary concerns now are his three shows. "When you step away from something, you should step away," he said. "I leave it alone. ... I don't meddle in management at all."

He added that he's not concerned that classical-music programming might be trimmed at WVIK. But that could stem from a lack of imagination; in Wooten's mind, the station is classical music. Its aim, he said, is "to promote, preserve, [and] broadcast classical music and to do a local news service that's of the same caliber as NPR's news service. ... I can't imagine it [classical-music programming] would be [cut]. ... That's pretty much why the station was built. We carry news because we thought it was a civic responsibility."

But McDonald said the current programming won't bring the audience necessary to sustain the station in the long run. "It has to develop a younger audience, or a new audience at least," he said. "And in order to do that, I'm thinking that there has to be some [new] programming that's involved.

"These are challenges that are going to land on Frank's lap fairly soon, and I don't know that he's going to get a full six-month honeymoon."


Digital Opportunities

Frank Sundram Although he's maddeningly vague about his plans for WVIK, Sundram is clearly not ignorant of the market forces that make have created a cloudy forecast for his station - and, bluntly, all traditional media (including this newspaper).

"The era of broadcasting that WVIK was born into is over," Sundram said. "The era of narrow-casting is almost over. And we are in this quasi-netherworld between narrow-casting and niche-casting." If the terms are a bit baffling, "broadcasting" is epitomized by the general-interest programming of the original three television networks. "Narrow-casting" is ESPN. "Niche-casting" is the Tennis Channel.

Traditional radio outlets, he said, are contradictions, having to balance the media trend of ever-more-thinly-sliced special interests with the raw power of a broadcast outlet. "How narrow can you get?" he asked. "Yet we have a broadcast voice here - a 100,000-watt radio station that covers good parts of two very large and very populous states."

This is the media philosopher in Sundram: "I see us in three years doing some virtual radio stations on the Internet, where you can go up, click on a grid, and download something and listen to it either live or into your iPod. ... We have to become both a broadcaster and a niche-caster at the same time."

That's podcasting, an area in which WVIK has lagged behind other media outlets. WVIK has its audio stream available on its Web site, but it was only in the past few months added to iTunes.

What seems to really excite Sundram, though, is the possibility of high-definition (HD) radio broadcasting, which gives outlets the opportunity to add up to two channels.

This is the basket into which Sundram puts his younger-audience eggs. He suggested that WVIK could add a jazz and blues channel without diminishing its classical-music offerings.

"We do not want to duplicate what is out there," he said. But "there's a tremendous revival of jazz and blues among younger people."

While high-definition broadcasting would seem a great opportunity, WVIK has to compete with the likes of Cedar Falls-based KUNI, which offers NPR (and NPR-style) talk during the day and contemporary rock and roots music in the evenings.

Sundram has indicated that he doesn't want to go after KUNI's audience, even though KUNI's signal has not been reliable in the Quad Cities over the past year, and it makes little outreach effort in this area.

And if Sundram shies away from KUNI's Adult Album Alternative strength, he's limiting his options for high-definition broadcasting. What does that leave beyond jazz and blues?

An even bigger problem with digital is that it doesn't have much market penetration. According to a Bridge Ratings report, high-definition radio had achieved a market penetration of 15 thousandths of 1 percent by May 2007.

But growth could be robust. A 2007 projection by the same company anticipated that HD radio would have roughly 4.67 million listeners by 2015 - roughly the same number as subscribed to Sirius satellite radio in mid-2006.

Given that Sundram said HD broadcasting is likely a five-year project, that would put WVIK in a good position to capitalize if that growth materializes.

But the hard reality is that the relatively small number of early adopters isn't going to make up for the people WVIK loses to "life circumstances" in the coming years.

And paying for HD radio is a challenge. Sundram estimated a $250,000 capital expense to add digital broadcasting, plus the cost of programming and staffing. Expanded podcast offerings might involve a $25,000 to $50,000 capital cost to increase capacity. The station's operational budget is just over $730,000.

Asked how those initiatives would be paid for, Sundram asked: "Would you like to make a pledge now?"

Podcasting and high-definition broadcasting are important steps to attract younger listeners, and they allow the station to expand its offerings without necessarily pushing away the station's current classical-music audience.

Yet fundamentally, because it's more widely accessible - nearly everybody can already receive it - the old FM signal is the logical way for WVIK to bring a large number of new listeners into the fold.

McDonald said major changes must be made to the main WVIK signal "if the expanded audience wants to be reached." He cited A Prairie Home Companion and Car Talk, two nationally syndicated shows that are expensive, "but the popularity of them is great."

But Wooten hinted that would erode the station's identity - what makes it unique. "The overall problem for public-radio stations for a long time has been: How do you justify your existence? Is it as a carrier of NPR programs, or do you have an individual contour or character?" he asked. "The important thing is to bring to people the NPR programming they need and want, but also to be sure that you are a local presence" - with local programs and local people making decisions about the music.

Consider that Sundram's challenge: honoring WVIK's legacy while finding a way to survive and thrive in the long run.

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