Culture feature Radio for someplace else

KSTX has built an audience by appealing to transplants, but maybe it's time for some local flava

Texas Public Radio doesn't have an old-white-guy problem. The men who run the station aren't all white. They're not all old, either. But conversations with several of them leave a golden-years aura in their wake: complacent satisfaction tinged with the blunted desire older men expressed in films before the invention of Viagra.

Nathan Cone is the new program director at KSTX. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

Radio may be in upheaval - the listening audience has grown even as new technologies such as satellite and digital radio and podcasting threaten to fracture it into a billion fragments - but the leadership at KSTX, TPR's local news-format frequency, views the future with equanimity. "I think on KSTX we're doing very well in that we have a popular station," says Program Director Nathan Cone, who was promoted to the position from Operations Manager after Penny Dennis left the station for health reasons last year. Cone has been at TPR since he graduated from Trinity University in 1995. "We get mostly positive comments on what we air on KSTX, and the audience has gone up for the station over the years, so that's a good thing."

KSTX's audience has increased as the national audience for public radio has reached an all-time high and as San Antonio's population has grown by almost 15 percent since 1990. The latest available Arbitron ratings for the station, from fall 2004, estimate that during any given quarter-hour between 6 a.m. and midnight, 6,300 listeners are tuned to 89.1 FM, KSTX's frequency. The station's weekly listenership is close to 90,000, almost 6 percent of the San Antonio area's potential radio audience. That's not far behind the audience for KTSA, but it's only half the draw of WOAI. Perhaps more sobering, local religious broadcaster KZLV drew an estimated 114,300 listeners weekly, for an audience share of 7.5 percent.

But KSTX is not particularly concerned about listener numbers. "I don't know how realistic it is to grow a larger audience," says station founder and CEO Joe Gwathmey. Although, he says, he would like TPR's combined audience for its three stations - KSTX, classical-music station KPAC, and the Hill Country's KTXI - to reach 20 percent of the area's population.

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"One of the good things about being non-commercial," says Gwathmey, is not having to worry about reaching target demographic audiences.

That sentiment is more in line with the old NPR, whose mission was to serve audiences left behind by large commercial broadcasters, than with the contemporary organization. Some critics of public radio say that NPR member stations are beginning to sound too homogenous in order to grow their audiences, just like commercial stations, and that NPR programming has developed a rigid identity and worldview. In February, The Washington Post called public-radio management guru David Giovannoni "the father of public radio's descent into market-research-driven programming." Since the mid-'90s, reported the Post, Giovannoni's argument that "our network programming serves our local listeners better than our local programming does" has been sweetened by increased membership revenues at stations that jettisoned local music programming in favor of national news shows - Morning Edition and All Things Considered, in particular - produced by NPR.

But if some NPR member stations have moved from local to national programming, TPR and KSTX began life as the San Antonio station for people from somewhere else. "Out-of-towners ... that was the core audience for KSTX in the beginning," says Gwathmey. Even now, he says, "it's fair to say" that most programming requests come from transplants. Perhaps as a result, KSTX has always carried a heavy load of nationally and internationally syndicated programming, including NPR flagships Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Talk of the Nation, American Public Media's Midwestern juggernaut Prairie Home Companion, and newer fare such as Public Radio International's This American Life.

In its almost two decades on air, KSTX has yet to produce an original local news or talk program. The two programs with the most local flavor, Texas Matters and Latino USA, are an independent production and a product of Austin station KUT, respectively. The Newsmaker Hour, produced by longtime KSTX Public Affairs Producer Ernie Villarreal, consists primarily of public forums and rebroadcasts of speeches by notable persons. Villarreal says he would love to lead a news production team that focused on local politics or produce a TPR lecture series. But he seems resigned to the idea that it may not happen during his lifetime.

On-air personality Terrence Mayer, whose reassuring baritone anchors Morning Edition for local audiences, also joined the station early on, bringing his significant experience in Armed Forces radio. Mayer arrives at his job before sunrise so that he can write the local news briefs listeners hear every half hour during the national programming. "The job requires a good deal of writing," he says, but he doesn't consider it news production. "We're only providing a headline service." Mayer says that there were some "experiments conducted" in "the area of spot news," but when his opinion of the outcome was solicited he says he was candidly critical. "What we were trying to do was going to take much more money than we had at the time."

"Many people who listen to KSTX would rather listen to every minute of national programming," says Gwathmey, although he cites a recent NPR study that found listeners would like to get their local news from public radio, too. But they want it integrated into the national coverage and, even more significantly, they expect the local programs to be as polished and thorough as public radio's coverage. "That's a tough assignment," says Gwathmey.

And an expensive one. Based on a study he commissioned a few years ago, Gwathmey estimates that it would cost around $240,000 to jumpstart a local public-affairs and news production team. "Some stations spend $500,000," he adds.

Ironically, that's the same amount of money Gwathmey has estimated the station would need to spend on new digital equipment to accommodate the digital transmission signals that are likely to become available sometime in the near future and on updating the station's aging analog equipment.

Any new digital signals acquired by KSTX are likely to be filled at first by existing public-affairs or musical programming already distributed by or in development at NPR. That means less local, more nationally initiated, programming at first. But in an e-mail follow-up to an interview with the Current, Cone said that while they are only in the "dreaming and speculating" phase, KSTX "might look at more music programming, Spanish-language news/public affairs programming, or something else."

While the short-term success of stations that have followed Giovannoni's advice might seem to counsel against the risk and cost of locally produced content, at least by analogy local public-affairs programming isn't necessarily an albatross. Every year, the Radio Research Consortium, an independent, non-profit organization that tracks and provides data on non-commercial radio stations, gives the Ralph Award to the station that has achieved the most significant five-year audience growth in the crucial 10 a.m.-3 p.m. time slot. The majority of recent past winners share something in common: original, local, public-affairs programming in that midday window, as well as elsewhere on the schedule. The 2004 winner, San Francisco's KQED, airs Forum, a weekday talk and call-in show with a format similar to NPR's The Diane Rehm Show, from 9-11 a.m weekdays. Miami's WLRN, the 2003 recipient, has broadcast a regional politics and culture show at 1 p.m. Monday-Thursday since 1999 (on Fridays, South Florida Arts Beat takes its place). Dallas' KERA, where The Glenn Mitchell Show (10 a.m.-noon) also follows the popular Rehm format, was a Ralph runner-up in 2001.

Of course, anecdotal information doesn't magically produce start-up funds. KERA, which like KSTX had relatively flat membership-dues growth between 2001 and 2003 (the most recent years for which 990 tax forms were available) reaped $17 million from the sale of a public-television channel, funds that should keep it in the black for some time. TPR on the other hand, uses its modest $2.3 million budget (59 percent of which came from membership dues in 2003) to support KTXI, which had an Arbitron market share of .1 percent for fall 2004, and KPAC.

In line with a recent national trend, KPAC, the classical-music sister station, has experienced declining listenership and membership revenue. Cone writes that he believes Randy Anderson, KPAC's new music director, has made positive changes in the classical format (introducing more predictability, for one, echoing Giovannoni's argument). "But increasing listener support for the station is a must," he adds. "There are some exciting and surprising things happening `in classical music`, and I hope we'll be able to convey that to people."

Increasing listener support, whether for classical music or news programming, requires some knowledge of one's audience, but perhaps one of the most surprising things about TPR is that it doesn't track this information. "We haven't done any local research in recent times," says TPR's Ed Leal. He directed me to NPR's audience profile. "Just about every local station" that has tracked its audience "has mirrored" NPR's numbers, he says.

But if those national numbers hold true for TPR and KSTX, it's fair to wonder why TPR, which spends more than $400,000 annually on fundraising efforts, can't raise more money for local programming. NPR reports that 51 percent of its news and public-affairs audience earns more than $75,000 per year and the mean household income is $88,000. In San Antonio, where the median income is $36,214, that would mean that half of TPR's audience is drawn from less than 23 percent of the population, according to numbers from International Demographics, Inc. July-August 2004 Media Audit - a wealthy yet relatively small segment of San Antonio's citizens. While the city's wealth demographics are slowly shifting once again, by the NPR numbers, KSTX' listerners would be a geographically narrow group, too. Northside City Council districts 9 and 10 have median household incomes $20,000 greater, on average, than the city as a whole. The station's programmers aren't oblivious to the implications of this information. When pressed, Villarreal says he thinks that a lot of KSTX's audience is located on the North Side. Which, of course, is where most of the city's growth has occurred in recent years: more newcomers eager to hear familiar programming on TPR.

There's another reason TPR might not want to rely entirely on NPR for its numbers: ethnicity. According to the Media Audit, KSTX and KPAC drew a negligible portion of the available black and Hispanic audience. And Hispanics, according to Arbitron, are not only one of the fastest-growing groups of radio listeners in the U.S. (they spend more time in their cars, especially on the weekend, for one thing), they are also more likely to be early adopters of new technology such as satellite radio, especially once it becomes readily available in new automobiles. So Cone's "dreaming and speculating" about a Spanish-language news show is probably a step in the right direction.

Gwathmey says that as radio technology evolves, terrestrial radio may avoid obsolescence by embracing local programming that could become one vital option in a global menu of self-tailored radio. As for plans for new programming, he says, "It would be premature for me to comment on that." But perhaps it's not too premature to hope that KSTX will start dreaming of programs for the locals as well as the transplants.

By Elaine Wolff

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