WQED 'stands ready to help' maintain public programming
March 10, 2010 8:00 PM
By Adrian McCoy and Marylynne Pitz Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Public radio stations don't scramble for advertising revenues like their commercial counterparts, but they still compete for donors, ratings, public and grant support.
With Duquesne University putting WDUQ-FM (90.5) up for sale late last year, its two counterparts on the local public dial -- WQED-FM (89.3) and WYEP-FM (91.3) -- have both expressed interest in preserving the market's third public radio signal.
The university, which has owned the 90.5 frequency since 1949, said it is selling the station to channel the assets into educational improvements.
But for WDUQ, which carries jazz, NPR and local news programming, the future remains unclear. Many NPR listeners are concerned that a new owner could change the format and drop daily programming like NPR's "Morning Edition and "All Things Considered," along with WDUQ's blocks of jazz and specialty programming.
Officials at WQED, the classical music station, say they are poised to pick up NPR programming if a new owner buys WDUQ and changes the format.
Moreover, if WDUQ becomes independent, WQED Multimedia, parent company of WQED, is offering to share services, including studio space, legal, administrative and fundraising costs.
Either way, says WQED Multimedia executive vice president and chief operating officer Deborah Acklin, the variety of public radio programming Pittsburgh has now would be preserved.
Adult alternative WYEP also has extended an offer to help, although it's not as specific as what WQED has proposed.
The loss of WDUQ would be "a disaster," said WYEP general manager Lee Ferraro. "The most important thing to us is that 90.5 remain a public entity. We didn't really offer specifics except to say let's do what we need to do as a public radio entity. "It's an interesting opportunity for transformation. If WYEP can help, we'd love to help.''
Both stations could offer studio space to the fledgling independent WDUQ, for example. WQED has five studios at its Oakland headquarters, and a sixth Downtown in the Cultural District.
WYEP has its own building on the South Side, with studio and live performance space. It has 13,000 square feet: some of it has been left unfinished to accommodate the station's future growth.
WQED-FM management has been watching the WDUQ situation and looking at the possible scenarios. Ms. Acklin believes the loss of NPR would be a major blow to the Pittsburgh market. "NPR is the news and information brand in public radio, bar none. It would be like the loss of any cultural institution that benefits the region."
If the WDUQ license is sold outright and the new owner drops the NPR-and-jazz format, WQED would be willing to add NPR programming and possibly jazz to its schedule.
"In that case we're interested in knowing where the NPR content lands, and we are putting out the welcome mat for that content," Ms. Acklin says.
WQED could add popular programming like "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" to its daily schedule, stream them online or use HD channels to make the additional programming available.
HD radio technology enables a station to run different programs without the need for a separate frequency on the dial. Listeners need an HD receiver to pick up the additional channels. For example, WDUQ currently has all jazz and all NPR HD channels for listeners who prefer to stick with one or the other of the blended NPR and jazz format that's heard on the air. A third HD channel carries BBC World News programming.
WQED would be willing to staff a newsroom to gather local news, Ms. Acklin said.
One-third of WQED's listeners switch channels, Arbitron ratings show. These listeners tune to WDUQ for "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" but switch to WQED from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
If WQED began carrying NPR programming, it would still retain such programs as "Pittsburgh Symphony Radio," "Performance in Pittsburgh," "From the Top" "Exploring Music" and "Sunday Baroque," Ms. Acklin said.
A classical/NPR and local news hybrid could be successful. WQED executive director of radio Susan Johnson cites WUSF-FM, a public station in Tampa, Fla., which carries NPR and classical, with jazz overnight.
"It's a leader in the industry," Ms. Johnson says. "Those two formats, in fact three formats, flourish on one station." Ms. Johnson worked as program director at WUSF, and also at WKSU in Kent, Ohio, which also is a classical and NPR blend.
At this stage, it's premature to speculate on what the specifics of the programming would be, Ms. Johnson says. "To get into those details is really the cart before the horse, when so much is at play for that station."
In the best-case scenario, if WDUQ survives as an independent station, WQED wouldn't do anything, Ms. Acklin says. "The ownership buys the station and they go off into the sunset and do a great job. Pittsburgh continues to have what we want it to have -- three flavors of public radio, all three of them strong."
But if the station needs support, WQED would be willing to provide that framework, she adds. The shared services model could reduce its operating costs significantly.
"The intent is preservation and enhancement of the great public radio programming Pittsburgh already has," Ms. Johnson says. "I'm 100 percent confident that however this plays out, Pittsburgh will continue to have in-depth news, classical music, contemporary singers and songwriters and jazz. We wish our colleagues across town all the best. If they need help, we stand ready to help."