WNYC’s Walker: ‘We need to be more New York’

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If I had WNYC, public radio managers have said over the years, the things I could do. After all, it’s in New York City. All those listeners. All the talent. All that money. Not to mention the raw material lent by 20 million people living their lives and brushing elbows.

Laura Walker presents New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani with a check.

But New York’s city government has held ultimate authority over WNYC. And that, to many, was the problem: Over the course of its 72-year history, WNYC has not realized its potential because it’s been part radio station, part city agency.

Now, the rueful WNYC observers are watching hopefully as Laura Walker, the first CEO hired to run the AM and FM stations as private entities, sets out to double WNYC’s 800,000-weekly cume, and make it a high-energy, high-profile and spiritually indigenous New York cultural and news center. She and new program director Art Cohen also plan to give WNYC a more prominent place in the national production field.

As the leading New York station and a big contributor to NPR’s member-revenue pool, WNYC is important to the public radio system. That’s why many people are excited about WNYC’s future, and about Walker’s leadership and creative abilities. Just as real as that optimism, however, are some challenges that could counter the station’s forward momentum.

WNYC has lost $1 million in direct and indirect city support–about 10 percent of its annual budget. With the sale of WNYC-TV, it lost revenue from leasing of time to foreign-language programmers, and had to lay off employees. And it must raise $20 million in six years to buy the AM and FM licenses from the city.

Said Walker recently: “What we’re doing is asking the organization to increase all of its revenues and to cut back at the same time. That’s the reality of the situation we’re in. What are the obstacles? Well, that’s a huge obstacle. Because you have to think smarter, [and] you have to ask people to do more for less.”

‘When she walked in the room …’

Some people were surprised when the WNYC Foundation hired Walker to take the country’s last municipally owned radio station to independence. Walker had left public radio for Yale University business grad school about 10 years ago, and then joined Children’s Television Workshop. She had no plans to return to radio. And although she is noted for impressive ties to the arts world, Walker is a far cry from the “big doyenne” of New York’s cultural scene that one public radio veteran imagined getting the job. She’s only 39–young enough to ride her bicycle to work, as she does occasionally–and she’s down-to-earth.

But, offers Billie Tisch, WNYC Foundation board member, “We didn’t think she was a surprise at all. When she walked in the room, we said ‘Ah ha, this is our person.'” This had to do with Walker’s “energy, the passion, the fact that she immediately understood. She knew coming in what we needed and was able to articulate that. We were on the same wavelength.”

Walker’s sense of what WNYC needs has her making calls to cultural institutions all over New York, opening doors to new partnerships in production and community-building. “We need to be more dynamic, more provocative, more exciting, more entertaining,” Walker says. “And we need to be more New York. Here we are in the greatest and biggest city in the country, in the middle of this incredible, rich arts and cultural life. And we’re just beginning to tap into that.”

Of course, Walker’s reaching-out has as much to do with courting potential underwriters and grantmakers as with programming. She seems to be good at it. About six years ago when she headed development for CTW, it snared one of public television’s biggest deals–$8 million from Nike for Ghostwriter. (Nike discontinued its support after three seasons, however.) Under Walker, the department brought in an average $25 million per year, including government support. “Laura is phenomenal at raising money, putting deals together, motivating people, and she has tremendous leadership qualities,” says Bunny Lester, CTW’s assistant VP of development and a friend of Walker’s.

There is a creative side, too. In her last three of eight years with CTW, Walker began developing CTW’s proposed for-profit cable channel. In her early career, Walker produced radio’s AT&T Presents Carnegie Hall Tonight for the concert hall. She also worked at NPR as a producer for the Peabody-winning Sunday Show.

The fact that Walker “brought both a public and entrepreneurial experience and outlook” was critical to her hiring, says Tisch.

Big money

Twenty million dollars is a daunting sum, but Walker and WNYC’s new VP for development and marketing, Betsy Gardella, say they have no doubt the WNYC Foundation will get there. “We’ll raise it,” says Walker. “But it’s going to take lots of blood, sweat and tears of everyone around here.” In fact, the station intends to raise an additional $10 million for a cash reserve. All told, over the next seven years, WNYC seeks to amass $100 million to cover special projects, operating and capital costs, say Gardella.

The Foundation seems off to a decent start, although as Tisch points out the easiest money comes first. The board has raised $8.4 million toward the purchase, with board members themselves committing more than $3.5 million. Also, CPB recently awarded WNYC a $500,000 Future Fund matching grant, to help bring in individual support. Public radio lacks a tradition of major giving by individuals, Walker says; WNYC and CPB hope to demonstrate that “major individual support can be a very compelling and large part of capital campaigns.” WNYC gets the grant if it brings in $1 million in gifts over $10,000.

WNYC also intends, as part of its fundraising strategy, to improve its connections with corporate New York. “We are reaching out” to that community, says Walker, inviting business folks to be directors. “We are looking to strengthen the board, now that it has to take on a larger fundraising role.” Also, a board member who works for a city ad agency is developing pro bono a large-scale advertising campaign that will center on “brand identifiers” for the AM and FM stations.

Of guardian angels and the funnies

The prospect of selling WNYC broadcast properties periodically tempted the mayors of New York. Rudolph Giuliani acted on the threat last year, saying the city didn’t belong in the broadcasting business. To the extent they cared one way or the other, New Yorkers opposed the sale, and the WNYC Foundation fought hard. The mayor and Foundation ultimately compromised: the TV station would go to the highest bidder, and WNYC-AM/FM to the Foundation. WNYC has six years to pay, and until then can stay rent-free in its home of 70-plus years–the Municipal Building topped with a golden lady. WNYC-TV went for $207 million to Dow Jones & Co., and ITT Corp., which are launching a business/sports service. The FCC approved the transfer of the radio licenses this fall; now the city and WNYC have to close the deal.

Sources inside and outside WNYC say the station’s escape from city government freed it from several constraints. Most are endemic to civil service culture: a 9-to-5 mentality that according to Cohen still lingers to some degree. A stasis. Says veteran host Steve Post: “Things have changed 1 million percent because there used to be no change at all at WNYC.” And with that a certain narrowing of acceptable possibilities. Says Post: “Up until now, people have had the opinion of ‘NYC that if you have a good idea, don’t go near [the station]. They’ll just reject it, as they always have.”

All of these points are arguable, but most agree that WNYC has not had the national production presence it could have. The station now produces On the Media, a media-analysis talk show, and Selected Shorts, a literary program, both distributed by NPR. Many also feel its audience, generally 800,000 weekly cumulative, is not what it could be, even given New York’s competitive radio market.

People are apt to blame WNYC’s past managers for these failings. For one thing, the presidency tended to be a revolving door that swung with each new mayor. “We were in this very odd position in the past,” says WNYC talk host Leonard Lopate, “as seriously as we took broadcasting, every time a new mayor came in, a person would be appointed to run the station who may or may not have had any idea what broadcasting was all about.”

The conditions were ripe for actual and perceived incidents of mayoral interference or politically inspired decision-making. The late manager Mary Perot Nichols resigned after Ed Koch ordered the station to air the names of johns arrested in vice raids, as a deterrent to the oldest trade. WNYC aired the list only one day before protests killed it off. Koch later rehired Nichols for her second stint as prez. WNYC staffers have accused the station’s most recent manager, Steve Bauman, of trying to shape reporters’ coverage of Giuliani.

Bauman’s predecessor, Tom Morgan, provoked much ire when he put Guardian Angel Curtis Sliwa on the air. “Giuliani, in virtually everyone’s opinion, did tell the station to hire Curtis Sliwa,” says On the Line talk host Brian Lehrer. After Sliwa lost a daily talk program on WABC, Giuliani publicly stated WNYC might be a good home for the displaced red beret. Morgan gave Sliwa the slot, insisting he was acting of his own accord. Today, he says he wanted to bring new voices to the air, to reflect New York’s diversity. Asked if he felt pressured, Morgan recalls how Congress has leaned on public broadcasting for a perceived leftist bias. Suddenly, the “most radical person” on MacNeil/Lehrer is Mark Shields. “Was that pressure?,” Morgan asks. “I’m not sure it’s pressure.” Perhaps it’s a natural response to a society’s conservative swing.

On the positive side of WNYC’s mayoral relations, everyone’s favorite anecdote concerns Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s famous appearances on-air, reading the funny papers to children during a 1945 newspaper strike.

Despite the incidents that come so readily to the minds of people talking about WNYC, talk personalities Lehrer and Lopate both say there was no overriding political oppression. “I’ve done my show for seven years,” says Lehrer. “It’s an issue-oriented, public affairs talk show in which I and all my guests get to discuss all our opinions. And we’ve never been leaned on. I could have somebody come on and slam any mayor.”

But then again, WNYC’s place in city government was intrinsically problematic. “No matter how good you are at building your firewall,” asks Cohen, “how far can you go in covering the mayor’s office when you’re part of the mayor’s office?”

Living expression of New York

To say WNYC has underperformed is not to say people believe it lacks excellent, inspired programming and staff. New York producer Larry Josephson, for example, loves the station’s local programs for their “special, quirky character” that mustn’t be lost in the revamping. Listeners connect to personalities such as the idiosyncratic Post or evening host David Garland, he says. “I worry the station would in some way get too corporate or formulaic.”

But Walker says she’s committed to retaining “the best of what we are.” The station has been a good companion for listeners in a difficult city, offering a sense of community and helping listeners process their world, she says. In sensibility, “what we have been is very intelligent, very tasteful, very worthy. And earnest, refined, almost brainy.” She wants the station to add “some edge, some surprise, some humor.” The goal five years hence is to be a “living expression of what New York is.”

One way to do that is through new partnerships. WNYC will soon be broadcasting Carnegie Hall performances, according to Walker, and it does now from the Lincoln Center Festival. Next year WNET will air a four-part TV version of Lehrer’s On the Line. With the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), WNYC is seeking CPB support for an arts series that would highlight alternative performing arts, BAM’s forte. Right now the station and the academy are figuring out how to shape a structured radio program out of BAM’s eclectic fare–music, theatre, dance, film. The series would be a new programming venue for BAM, rather than simply taped stage performances, says the academy’s Tambra Dillon.

As for the station’s overall sound, WNYC will be announcing program changes early in December. Managers wouldn’t reveal details, but did say the changes will affect the FM station more than the AM.

The AM: For an outlet with signal problems and a requirement to power-down at night, the AM news/talk station does remarkably well, Cohen says. The changes will affect weekends–WNYC is adding Chicago indie Ira Glass’s This American Life, positioning it between Weekend Edition Saturday and Car Talk.

There are also plans to boost WNYC’s local news coverage, making it more investigative and issue-oriented.

The FM: It will become “more reliably classical,” which would mean narrowing the broad range of music many WNYC programmers play now. For some, this raises the scary prospect of WNYC going the way of WNCN–a ratings-driven New York classical station that narrowed its playlist to 500 or so offerings, playing pretty music and eschewing less popular fare such as vocal music and avant garde. Owners eventually made WNCN a rock outlet. “I think the feeling is [Cohen] is going to try to make the focus of the music a bit more on the classical popular side,” says Lopate. But not to go so far as to program WNYC as a background music outlet.

The station will also experiment with drop-in elements–short, free-standing pieces that come between musical offerings much the way commercials do on other stations. Many of the pieces will be sound-rich, says Cohen; others will be commentaries. “We’ll bring in the sounds of the city,” says Cohen. Like men playing chess in the park? Exactly, says Cohen. Or the fish market: “We might go out and ask people, how do you wrap fish? And have just … seven different people saying, … ‘You do it with newspaper.’ ‘You only put it in cellophane.’ ‘Who wraps fish?'” Some of the pieces will feature New York celebrities–perhaps Spalding Gray describing a favorite haunt, says Walker.

For these pieces, and the more extensive news coverage, Cohen plans to tap New York’s plethora of independent producers. This is a marked change for the station, which long had a reputation for being unfriendly to indies. Now, Cohen is encouraging folks to send him material, and his desk has piles of messages, literally hundreds, most about pitches.

Walker and Cohen are also devising ways to involve listeners. Members have proven to be “fabulous” testimonalists at pledge time, says Walker. And Cohen wonders if he can exploit the fact that, in New York, “everybody’s a critic.” Perhaps a review feature titled “Everyone’s a … ?” No, he says, the title’s trite. But the idea he likes.

The FM and the AM will continue to simulcast Morning Edition and All Things Considered, which according to management are audience and underwriting successes. The station will tweak ATC‘s positioning, because the new 4 p.m. start time doesn’t work as well in the Big Apple. It’s a late town, says Walker. Some people get to work at 9:30 or 10 a.m., and are frustrated that ATC ends at 6 and 6:30 p.m.

There is a temptation to put news-talk on the FM, to take advantage of the younger demographic and to reach beyond AM’s limits in the ‘burbs. But the WNYC Foundation Board is committed to the FM’s classical music format. For one thing, classical lovers could be critical to the stations’ fundraising success–they were an important part of the push to save WNYC radio from for-profit sale. And then there are all those plans to cover and produce and promote arts and culture in New York City. Finally, one simply doesn’t put classical music on AM with its low fidelity, say Cohen and Walker.

Finally, Walker hopes to begin developing two to three new national shows this spring. The obvious choices are WNYC’s successful daytime talk programs hosted by Lehrer and Lopate. Since there is currently no need for midday talk shows now that NPR is distributing Diane Rehm and Derek McGinty, the station will likely develop offshoots of the two programs. “The talk shows we have are some of the best talk shows that exist in public radio,” says Cohen. “We’ve got some great hosts, and the guests are incredible. Leonard Lopate–on one show he had Zero Mostel, Catherine Deneuve and Captain Kangaroo!”

“There is so much happening out of here that WNYC really has in my mind an obligation, almost, to bring to the rest of the world. Not from a chauvinistic New York point of view, but just because it’s here. We can be the catalyst.” The prospect brings to mind so many possibilities. “We can forge alliances with Random House, or the New Yorker or BAM or Lincoln Center or Carnegie and lots of unknown places that are incredible in quality,” he says. “The future is, we’re incredible at serving New York, and we’re also inventive at [bringing] the resources that are New York to the rest of the country.”

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