Making Waves

KCHO goes digital as listeners support controversial shift to newsier content

<p>SPACE-TRADER JOE In the old KCHO studios, Programming Director Joe Oleksiewicz has to interview guests in a room that’s situated in a main thoroughfare of the Meriam Library basement offices. The new offices have set aside studios for both on-air and taped interviews.</p>

SPACE-TRADER JOE In the old KCHO studios, Programming Director Joe Oleksiewicz has to interview guests in a room that’s situated in a main thoroughfare of the Meriam Library basement offices. The new offices have set aside studios for both on-air and taped interviews.

Photo By Tom Angel

Follow-through: KCHO-KFPR listeners have a high “fulfillment rate” on pledge drives. Of all Northstate Public Radio listeners who promise to send in money, 92 to 93 percent follow through and do so. Collecting the cash actually takes longer than the on-air pledge drives.

Call it an end to the basement tapes.

After several false starts, KCHO is expected to move its studios to a new home at 35 Main St. around June 1.

Last week, the staff had yet to begin packing up the station’s gear, much of which has been in the Meriam Library basement since the National Public Radio affiliate started broadcasting on 91.7 FM more than a quarter-century ago. They’re keeping their ancient office furniture, but they’re gaining state-of-the-art digital technology.

‘I don’t believe it,” said Programming Director Joe Oleksiewicz, half-joking. (The original target date for the move was summer 2002.) He’ll have been with KCHO for 23 years come October. ‘Every time I go over there [to the new location] I get a little more excited.”

The move, coupled with some controversial programming changes that replaced half the classical offerings with news and talk, make this a big turning point in KCHO’s long history.

KCHO’s new technology, costing nearly $1 million, promises a more efficient delivery system and, for many of the station’s 30,000 listeners, a noticeably better sound.

‘This is probably the most exciting time in public radio and public television that there’s been in a long time,” said Jack Brown, the station’s general manager. Going from the current setup to digital reminds Brown, who’s been with KCHO for 22 years, of going from mono to stereo decades ago.

The library basement, occupied by KCHO since1977, looks homey and lived-in. An oval-shaped spot about 3 feet long worn in the carpet is the legacy of decades of broadcasters traipsing back and forth from the studio to the editing and media storage rooms.

Hand-written notes are tacked to the walls reminding the on-air staff to “keep a smile in your voice” and refer to “Northstate Public Radio” rather than “KCHO.” Also, staffers are told, “Don’t say KCHO without saying KFPR [the Redding station].”

LPs and CDs are lined up wherever they fit: in the hallways, in an interview room, in someone’s office. Rain leaks into one walkway, so they can’t go there.

News Director Todd Thornton opens a thin, square box, revealing a reel-to-reel tape that looks like something out of the 1960s. They still use it. “It’s much more susceptible to audio problems,” he said. “It’s an antiquated technology. There aren’t many stations anywhere that are still using on a day-to-day basis reel-to-reel tape.”

The staff is used to editing with razor blades and splicing tape, the radio equivalent of lead type to a print journalist. In a few years, if industry predictions bear out, analog broadcasting will disappear and programs will be available only digitally—probably by government mandate.

Already transitioning to minitape in its old studios, KCHO will be able to edit more efficiently downtown with the new equipment already in place. The digital technology allows the editor to skip ahead at exact intervals—the difference between finding a scene on VHS and DVD. “Add up those five minutes, and you’ve saved an hour,” Thornton said. Instead of two reel-to-reel tapes providing the feed for Fresh Air, it will be fed onto minidisk via satellite or downloaded from the Internet. Associated Press news won’t be at the mercy of unpredictable satellite reception; KCHO’s account can easily be accessed through the Internet.

“The key will be production—preparing material before it goes on the air,” Thornton said. Even though digital radio improves sound quality and reception, especially in remote areas, it’s likely that for the most part “listeners aren’t going to notice a thing.” To them, he said, “it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing or what the studio looks like. All that matters is what comes out of that box. The content is more important than the tools we use to craft that content.

“The new studio and the new equipment will get us to the point where it’s all integrated,” Thornton said.

PROLIFIC PROGRAMS Terry Gross, center, and <i>Fresh Air</i> are now heard twice daily on KCHO—an example of the station’s move to a newsier format.

Photo By Tom Angel

One of the capabilities brought by digital that makes Northstate Public Radio’s on-air personalities giddy is the possibility of broadcasting two channels’ worth of programming at one time. The station would need an additional receiver, something that won’t be in the budget cards for another three or four years. But with double channels, it could conceivably have news and talk on one channel and all music on the other.

For Oleksiewicz, whose brown-and-gray beard and twinkling eyes match his on-air persona, this is the most intriguing aspect of the brave new world of radio.

“We just need another local stream,” he said. That way, the station wouldn’t have to leave out good programs just because there’s no room, and it could—especially with more student intern interest—add more local news and other local content.

On the outside, the former bank building at 35 Main St. looks like a monument to crappy 1970s architecture. But inside, the offices are freshly painted and bright. The 4,000 square feet set aside for KCHO measures double its basement digs.

Thick and thin wires run up one wall and line the ceiling. Conduits loop lazily to each room, replacing the 5,000-foot reels of wire that guided the earlier technology. The downstairs is filled with computer servers. Transmitters and satellite feeds can be easily monitored and recorded.

In the main studio, a picture window looks out beyond Main Street to Children’s Park. It’s a far cry from the cave-like basement where KCHO spent its formative years.

Mike Birdsill, KCHO’s chief engineer and operations manager, shows off the equipment with the pleasure of a kid with a new set of Legos. He’s been on the technical end of the radio business for three decades, and his expertise has saved the station money on consultants as it has upgraded for the move.

In the old studio, guests are interviewed at a table situated between a hallway and two on-air booths. This means that anyone venturing into the vicinity during a taping has to be very quiet or risk dirty looks from frustrated hosts. In the new place, there’s a studio set aside for audio editing, another for voiceover work and yet another for in-studio interviews or even recording live music. The largest studio, the one with the window, is the “workhorse studio,” as Brown calls it, serving as main production area.

There’s one throwback, however: a brand-new turntable. “We debated whether to even put them in our booth,” Birdsill said, but the new generation of turntables can play everything from 78s to LPs. “We had so much media in that [record] format,” he said, the investment was worth it.

Room 108, formerly the bank vault, will now serve as the “audio vault,” storing the thousands of records and CDs that comprise KCHO’s music library.

It’s not all paid for. After a university-assisted pledge campaign dubbed “Moving Up!” raised about $700,000 from community donations and a Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) match, the University Research Foundation agreed to front the $200,000 still needed.

The foundation technically owns the 35 Main building and all of KCHO’s equipment and is also the grant-holder for public funds.

Until now, the station has been operated under the umbrella of Chico State’s Department of Communication and Education. But with its license now held by the Research Foundation, the station will probably be situated organizationally under University Public Events, Brown said.

The five full-time station employees are university employees, paid under the same salary schedule and enjoying the same benefits. But besides these salaries, and overhead such as space and utilities, KCHO pays its own way by virtue of local donations and federal grants.

The other big shift for KCHO in recent months has been to follow a national movement in the area of programming.

After the start of the war in Iraq, NPR began offering member stations Talk of the Nation for free. Listeners reacted with pleasure, and that pushed stations around the country to follow an increasing trend in public radio: Cut back the classical and pump up the news and talk shows.

SAVING GRACE Classical-music director Kay Grace said she’s heard both positive and negative reactions to the halving of KCHO’s classical offerings.

Photo By Tom Angel

“We had been thinking about that for a while,” Brown said.

The decision was made harder, said Oleksiewicz, the programming director, because many in public radio see it as part of their mission to encourage appreciation of classical music.

“The news audience is bigger and younger than the classical audience. We’ve been bucking that trend for a long time,” he said.

Brown knew the decision would raise the hackles of die-hard classical-music fans, whose pleasure was relegated as of April 2003 to between the hours of 1 and 5 p.m. (classical was previously aired 9 to 5).

“We had some folks angry. They said they would no longer support the station financially,” he said. “Regular listeners felt slighted. They felt like the station took their show that they liked and that they had a relationship with.”

Jim Gregg has been one of the more vocal critics of KCHO’s programming changes, even writing of his concerns to the university president and provost.

Gregg, a retired Chico State political-science and journalism professor, said it wasn’t just that KCHO brass changed the format, but also that they did it seemingly without consulting with the listening public.

“I thought they went too far,” he said.

The same Terry Gross program twice a day, plus double Morning Edition and two hours of Talk of the Nation, is “an almost massive approach,” he said.

“I know people who have actually cut their support,” said Gregg, who has considered rerouting some of his charity donations to the Northstate Symphony.

“Why don’t they have an advisory committee?” Gregg wondered. “I wanted to hear what it was that justified [cutting classical hours]. My main concern is that the university allowed this to happen without much oversight.”

National critics also charge that the new direction is a veiled “selling out” à la commercial radio.

“Public radio used to have an attitude that, ‘We know what’s best and we don’t have to be real good because we’re public radio,'” Brown said. But in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, audience research entered the arena. “You have to make your station fit your audience. Commercial radio found that out a long time ago.”

A big name in public radio consulting is David Giovannoni, a controversial figure who believes that to break even stations need to appeal to a large, core audience—and that means less music and more talk. Profiled in The New York Times in 2001, Giovannoni and his advice have led many NPR stations nationwide to drop jazz, classical and bluegrass in favor of news and talk. “Lose what’s on the periphery,” the Times quoted Giovannoni as saying. “Focus on a single audience and serve that audience extremely, insanely well all the time.”

“We never brought him in, but we went to some seminars that he put on,” Brown said. “It’s not rocket science. He’s just saying to know your audience.”

Even as they cut classical airtime in half, KCHO officials decided to keep jazz, opera and other music programs as-is, making it what’s called a “mixed-service” station. Many NPR affiliates have dropped music altogether, but Brown said KCHO wouldn’t consider that unless a classical or jazz station set up shop in Chico. “I think we’ve got the right mix now.”

THE REEL THING Todd Thornton, KCHO’s news director, is pleased with the station’s shift toward more news and talk. “I can’t get enough,” said Thornton, a journalism degree-holder whose favorite program is “<i>Morning Edition</i>, of course.”

Photo By Tom Angel

Kay Grace, KCHO’s classical-music director, said she misses being able to program the shows in the morning, too. But, for the native of Great Britain, the expansion of the BBC coverage almost makes up for it.

Grace, with her high-toned, measured speech that’s as airy as her name, has perhaps one of the most recognized voices in Chico. “[Being recognized] never gets old. [Listeners] greet me like an old friend,” she said. “But they always expect me to be tall and blond.” Grace, who is neither tall nor blond, said that since the format change she’s heard from people both for and against the change.

“We have had people cancel their contributions because they miss the classical. But we also have people pledging because they like the news and talk,” she said.

“With change, some people are going to go with the flow,” said Grace, who’s been at KCHO for more than a dozen years. “But a lot of people miss it. They find [classical] more relaxing to do things to.” News and talk, she said, “is not background stuff.”

America, she said, is spoiled by a vast array of radio choices. Grace was first introduced to public radio while in the States for the 1984 Olympics. She didn’t understand why a radio station would be asking listeners to send in money. Immediately hooked on the NPR format, she sent the station a traveler’s check.

A survey of rural radio listeners, funded by the CPB and including some in KCHO’s listening area, seemed to confirm the decision, Brown said. “It revealed what we’d thought—that indeed the right move to make was to reduce the amount of classical music and provide more news and information.”

The most-recent pledge drives also seemed to bolster the decision. “Our numbers went up. The financial support went up,” Brown said. “The goals were higher, and they were reached in a shorter amount of time.” During the fall drive, 40 percent of the pledges came from new subscribers.

Public radio’s perennial problem, Brown acknowledged, is that a segment of the population has always responded to the initials “NPR” with a blank stare. “People aren’t aware that it’s there,” he said. “People don’t scan up and down the dial.”

And, he said, most don’t make a point to remember when their favorite programs are on. Some listen to the radio only in the car, forgetting about a program in progess the second they unlock the door to their home.

Research indicates that most NPR listeners are well educated and desire the type of shows not available on commercial radio.

What listeners love about NPR, Brown and Thornton surmise, is the sheer volume of coverage, its depth and—though some would argue to the contrary—the reporters’ lack of a political agenda.

“Its agenda is to try to serve as many people with as many different ideas and opinions as possible,” said Brown, contrasting that with commercially syndicated talk shows that are conservative in content.

“I don’t think that NPR is left-leaning. I truly don’t,” Thornton assessed, pointing out the staunchly Republican bent of the 12 counties KCHO serves. “It’s very balanced and it’s certainly accurate and it’s in-depth.”

News programs are costlier (accounting for $90,000 of KCHO’s budget this year), but they’ve also been found to draw a younger audience and one that is more likely to give.

Grace joked that some donors give just to shut up the folks who are leading the semiannual pledge drives and get their shows back on the air.

Next year, KCHO expects a $160,000 grant from the CPB. That funding has been threatened over the years, most notably during the Reagan era, as conservative Republicans called for an end to public support of the arts. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich tried to “zero out” the CPB in the mid-1990s.

DABBING IN DAB Mike Birdsill, KCHO’s engineering director, shows off the new “workhorse” studio at 35 Main St. Besides more efficient editing and transmission, digital audio broadcasting (DAB) also has the capability to offer “smart radio” services involving text data, such as closed-captioning for the hearing impaired and weather and emergency alerts.

Photo By Tom Angel

Brown said he worries about shifts in the political winds “all the time.” If federal funding were to dry up, “that would be the domino that would set everything else into effect.”

KCHO’s cash budget is about $450,000 a year, split roughly in thirds among the university, CPB and public support.

Each program is priced based in part on how many listeners it draws in a particular market. KCHO pays $7,000 a year for Fresh Air, $14,000 for Car Talk and another $14,000 for Garrison Keillor’s show, A Prairie Home Companion. The cheapest shows to air are Selected Shorts and Living on Earth—each a mere $800 a year.

Another threat to public radio, Brown said, is the increasing presence of satellite radio.

Subscribers can get a hundred channels piped into their homes for less than 10 bucks a month, and car manufacturers are starting to install satellite receivers in new vehicles. Regional stations are vying to be picked up by the services, and their listeners can travel cross-country while staying within hearing distance of their favorite stations.

“It makes it much more competitive for us,” Brown said. “The only way public radio can really compete is to develop its localness. We have to be able to develop good, solid local identity programming.”

That’s a dream of Thornton, a newsman at heart, who would love to get out of the studio and report more, send interns out on stories or even hire a news staff.

“We have so little local news programming because I’m it,” said Thornton, who came to KCHO eight years ago, eschewing a career in the visual medium of television to become the man inside the box.

“I do the best I can with the resources I have,” he said. Thornton also teaches broadcast journalism classes at the university and involves students in the station. “I wish we could have a lot more local news.”

Grace interviews local artists and gallery owners and out-of-town luminaries and would love to do more of the same. “My favorite part is getting to interview people for Saturday Showcase,” she said, referencing a show she hosts. She’s also excited to be adding a short gardening segment to her repertoire.

Brown said part of what holds KCHO back is its audience ceiling. “Being in a rural area, it’s very limited,” he said. No matter how the station builds its audience, it will always be capped by geography at 500,000 listeners. A big-city public radio station can draw a cool eight million and even be picked up by one of the aforementioned satellite radio companies.

Expanding local news coverage, for example, “is expensive, because for the most part you have to hire people to do that,” Brown said.

Another problem is that many NPR listeners tune in to hear NPR, not local broadcasters.

“There are some people who are really purists,” Brown said. “They don’t want any interrupting, whether it’s news or music.”

Brown moved his offices to 35 Main two months ago. The parking, though a little confusing, is a lot better, and the location lends visibility to the station.

“There were a lot of things that caused the delay,” he said of the long-planned move. A main stumbling block was the purchase of the building by Chico State, followed by debates over who else would move in and how the deal would be financed.

The KCHO staff, despite cutting their teeth on reel-to-reel, seem confident the transition will be smooth.

“There’s going to be a lot of adapting,” Thornton said. “It’ll be fine.”

“I’m going to miss this place,” he added, looking around his cramped office where LPs line one wall, a 40-year-old receiver box pipes in the station, and the overhead light randomly flickers off. “I like working on campus.”

Brown is confident there will be no further delays. On June 1, he said, the broadcast will shift seamlessly from the old studios to the new. The employees may be cheering in the background, but the listeners probably won’t notice a thing.

“We’ll just turn the switch," he said.