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WUSF's public radio format to be heavy on news, public affairs, NPR


She knows it all may look like some shrewd master plan; a bold set of initiatives arranged with precision to change the face of public radio in the Tampa Bay area.

But it turns out the coming transformation of Tampa public radio station WUSF-FM 89.7 this week owes as much to good luck and opportunity than any grand scheme.

The station plans a historic set of changes on Wednesday that includes starting a new classical music radio station (see story, Page 6E), converting WUSF-FM to a news/public affairs/jazz format and implementing a statewide health reporting initiative that could help redefine reporting at public radio stations across the country. And through it all, JoAnn Urofsky, general manager of WUSF public media, is just trying to make it look like they intended it this way from the start.

"It's stressful, there's no question, because we're on lots of deadlines," Urofsky says with a tired smile. "Everybody's feeling the pressure to get it right. And it's a lot to get right all at once."

On Wednesday, public radio junkies will see WUSF become their new best friend, dropping its daytime classical music broadcasts for a full slate of news and information programs that include the two-hour Diane Rehm Show at 10 a.m., Terry Gross' interview show Fresh Air at noon, Talk of the Nation at 2 p.m. and The World at 3 p.m.

Jazz fans get a little more, too, as Bob Seymour's longstanding all-night jazz show moves up an hour to 9 p.m. And classical music fans get their own station — if they can receive the signal — as WUSF turns former Christian music station WSMR-FM 89.1 into its new home for 24-hour classical broadcasts.

There will be two-minute local news breaks at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m., featuring the work of the station's reporters. (Officials say an all-local newscast would take too many resources and won't be considered for a long while)

And WUSF's news broadcasts will be fortified by stories generated through its Healthy State Collaborative. The statewide initiative is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the station has nearly filled its staff of eight people, including five multimedia reporters, to create health-focused stories in Tampa, Orlando, Fort Myers and Miami.

Urofsky is even patching up WUSF-TV's historic friction with Tampa's primary PBS affiliate WEDU-Ch. 3, providing stories for its Smart Health series through the collaborative, and discussing a shared master control system that could handle broadcasts for PBS stations throughout the Southeast.

And much of this change started with a lunch invitation from Sarasota.

• • •

Urofsky heard from the regional chancellor at the University of South Florida's Sarasota/Manatee campus, who had a unique offer to chip in on creating a studio in one of their buildings during a renovation. That led to the revival of an idea WUSF officials had been kicking around for years: moving classical music to a separate station and devoting their broadcast day to news and information.

Why? Because in the land of public broadcasting, news and information trumps the classical scene every time.

"The loyalty for classical music is strong, but the listening has fallen off," noted Sheila Rue, program director for WUSF and WSMR, who said the station tested its anecdotal ideas with focus groups and ratings studies. "And the people who were coming to us for news and information programming — they want a lot more of it."

During a typical broadcast day, WUSF might lose 75 percent of its audience share in the transition from National Public Radio's Morning Edition to classical music at 9 a.m., Rue said. Their Top 10 list of most popular hours is filled with such NPR staples as Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Car Talk and the game show Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me.

Rue and her WUSF colleagues came to the same conclusion public radio stations in Orlando, Fort Myers and Jacksonville reached before her: One station can't serve two formats, and the bigger audience wants public affairs programs.

But unlike some other cities, WUSF wouldn't just relegate its classical music to online platforms and little-used HD radio broadcasts.

After agreeing to purchase WSMR for $1.275 million borrowed from the USF Foundation, WUSF created a schedule to super-serve news audiences. So Fresh Air, which previously aired day-old episodes on community radio station WMNF-FM 88.5, now airs first-run programs on WUSF at noon, with a rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Chicago Public Media's award-winning, youth-oriented storytelling series This American Life moves to noon Saturdays, up from Saturday evenings when its audience presumably was otherwise engaged. And popular NPR shows such as Diane Rehm's Washington D.C.-based program and Talk of the Nation appear on Tampa Bay area terrestrial radio for the first time.

Hosts like Rehm and Gross offer talk with a less partisan, more liberal attitude than conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh on rival WFLA-AM 970. But despite concerns that WUSF's new programs might offer serious competition to WMNF, which was the biggest local news alternative to conservative talk in daytime until now, the community radio station won't change its schedule right away — continuing it's day-old Fresh Air broadcasts while emphasizing local shows such as its 6 p.m. newscasts, said station manager Jim Bennett.

"Listeners become creatures of habit," said Bennett, noting it may take as long as six months to evaluate how WUSF's changes affect them. "And 10 a.m. may be a good time for them to hear Fresh Air."

Rue expects it will take a year to assess how their changes affect listenership at WUSF and WSMR.

The switch worked at WGCU-FM in Fort Myers, where general manager Rick Johnson saw listener memberships double in the year after the station went all news and information, moving its classical music to online and HD radio platforms in 2008.

"I would tell them (at WUSF) to be as understanding as possible when (classical music fans) call to express disappointment," Johnson said. "It's not possible for stations to keep playing programming fewer and fewer people listen to and support."

• • •

While WUSF's traditional staff focuses on the format transitions, there's a group of upstarts in a small office nearby hoping to bring young audiences to public radio while energizing its reporting ranks.

Funded by $1.23 million from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Healthy State Collaborative team has hired four reporters in three different cities focused on building 300 health-centered "treatments," or stories across different media platforms, over two years. A fifth reporter, based at Miami's WLRN-FM, is planned once CPB processes the paperwork.

Already, a rough draft of a website sits at featuring some stories: audio and a photo slideshow on sports injuries, a piece on public programs to encourage breast-feeding, and a story on simplified CPR techniques.

It's simple stuff in its early days, part of a $10 million CPB project aimed at establishing seven local journalism centers across the country. When Florida's collaborative is fully engaged, they hope to provide TV stories for 10 episodes of WEDU's Smart Health series airing across the state, audio for member stations across the state and a robust website connected to public events.

"Online, that's where people are," said Jennifer Molina, a former senior video producer at who moved to Tampa in July to serve as executive editor for the collaborative. "My friends in New York, they don't have cars so they're not listening to NPR on the radio; they're getting their news from their BlackBerry, or an NPR app on their phones."

Focused on an audience age 20 to 45, the group has developed a youthful, ethnically diverse, all female stable of reporters with backgrounds in newspapers and international reporting. WUSF is coordinating the project, hiring the reporters at a cost of about $39,000 annually each (including benefits), using funds from the CPB for two years while member stations figure out how to keep them on, adding reporters at a time when many stations are cutting back.

"You look at our website, and it's like this wall of girl power," said Dalia Colón, who left a job at the St. Petersburg Times' youth-oriented tabloid Tampa Bay Times/tbt* to be a multimedia reporter in the collaborative. "It's a way to draw in a nontraditional audience . . . be a bridge between them and the legacy audience, which is a nice way of saying seniors."

And there are other collaborations under way at WUSF, which has joined with the SNN Local News 6 cable channel in Sarasota and WGCU to share a Sarasota-based reporter; they'll also share material with Pinellas County-based cable news channel Bay News 9, Urofsky said.

"This is an amazing coincidence; to launch an initiative, and do a format change and launch another radio station . . . I don't think we saw this coming," said Rue, who expects a rush of listener attention, as people sample the change, that may subside. "But I don't think it's a gamble. I think it's a good decision for the community."

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or [email protected] See the Feed blog at


Set your dials

WUSF-FM 89.7 adopts a daytime news and information format on Wednesday; on the same day, WSMR-FM 89.1 adopts a 24-hour classical music format.

Diane Rehm Show

Fresh Air

Talk of the Nation

The World

This American Life

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WUSF's public radio format to be heavy on news, public affairs, NPR 09/11/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 11, 2010 11:16am]
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