Standing on its own, WNYC takes cues from New York City’s vitality

Print More

“We don’t do anything in a small way,” says Laura Walker, and in her eight years as president of New York’s WNYC the station has learned to live large.

Held back for decades by its status as an agency of New York City government, WNYC struggled to draw an audience and membership worthy of a public radio flagship in the country’s biggest market.

Its fortunes changed in 1996 when then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani decided to ease budget problems by cashing in WNYC’s licenses, with the TV station going to a media company and the AM and FM licenses to a new nonprofit.

Fans of WNYC Radio held their breath as it set out to raise $20 million to buy its freedom. In the ensuing campaign, the station invented itself anew with Walker, its first president hired by its board, at the helm.

“From every measure, I think, independence has been a very good thing for WNYC,” Walker says at her desk in the station’s headquarters, still in New York’s downtown municipal building. “I think it’s been a success for the city. I think it’s been a success for what we can do, most importantly for the listeners and the kind of programming we can invest in.”

WNYC lives larger

Station staffers and listeners say WNYC is a station transformed. Its total cume has risen nearly 50 percent since independence. The station’s AM and FM signals together boast the country’s largest audience for a public radio operation. WNYC-FM has the largest audience in Manhattan of any FM station in the region, according to WNYC’s breakout of Arbitron data. Membership and underwriting revenue have also grown tremendously (see box at right).

A play to raise the station’s profile outside of New York has paid off. National productions Studio 360, The Next Big Thing and On the Media export New York flavor to hundreds of other public radio stations each week, like sacks of bagels toted home by tourists. (Another effort, Satellite Sisters, folded after two seasons.)

Having secured independence — the final payment, due this year, is in the bank — WNYC has launched a fund drive to underwrite grander ambitions. A $30 million capital campaign will support new programming, a move to bigger studios and, possibly, the purchase of a third broadcast signal — an extraordinary goal at a time when most public radio managers would crave even a second channel.

Civil servants and ancient studios

The station gained vigor during its campaign for independence. “I do think that the spirit that developed on staff and board around the independence effort carried forward into the first couple of years and gave us energy and enthusiasm,” says Peter Darrow, an investment firm founder who negotiated the license sale with the city while on WNYC’s board of trustees.

One of public radio’s oldest stations — its AM signal will celebrate its 80th anniversary this year with special programming — WNYC’s long subservience to city department kept it from living up to its potential.

When Leonard Lopate began hosting an AM-only talk show at WNYC in 1985, it was “the grungiest station you ever saw,” he says. “I broadcast at a large table which was actually a piece of wood covered with carpet that was set on some wooden horses and the microphones were screwed into it,” he continues. “It was very embarrassing. I understand when Woody Allen was looking for a set for Radio Days, he heard that our station had a very old look. He came and he said, ‘No, I wanted old-fashioned. I didn’t want totally deteriorated.’”

Back then, New York’s mayor appointed WNYC’s president, and some employees were civil servants. That spawned a clock-punching climate and, at times, neglect of the craft of radio, say Lopate and others. He remembers a program director once asked, “Why are you working so hard?” Another station manager freely admitted that she’d never heard Lopate’s program.

Even a leader with a plan for the station would have had trouble seeing it through. “The station was run by mayoral appointees,” says Studio 360 Executive Producer Julie Burstein, who has seen top managers come and go during her stints at WNYC since 1980. “And you can only get so much done in two years or three years,” she says.

Shaking off the dust

Colleagues credit Walker for imbuing WNYC with the spirit that has marked its post-independence years — energy that also shines in her personality. She speaks knowledgeably and at length about the station’s local and national shows, suggesting she’s a far cry from Lopate’s indifferent supervisor.

Her focus on revitalizing WNYC appealed strongly to the search committee that selected her, Darrow remembers. “One might have been tempted to have somebody famous who would kind of be a symbolic leader and good fundraiser, but we knew that we had a combination of challenges. . . . So we chose somebody who we thought would address the full range of challenges,” he says.

Walker built on experience with both fundraising and creativity. Before WNYC she oversaw development and corporate marketing for Children’s Television Workshop but also helped create Noggin, the cable channel, and developed Ghostwriter, a kids’ literacy program disguised as a mystery series. She had also produced NPR shows and em>AT&T Presents Carnegie Hall Tonight.

A native New Yorker, Walker grew up in Westchester County, attending Manhattan’s Riverside Church with her family. Her father, George Walker, fought to save the church’s jazz station, WRVR-FM, where NPR biggies Jay Kernis, Robert Siegel and Neal Conan got into radio. Dad lost his battle, but Walker couldn’t pass up the chance to lead WNYC’s.

“The staff was so beleaguered by so much of this fighting that it was all about survival,” she says of the difficult first months. For Walker and like-minded colleagues, survival was not enough: “It was both about getting up to standard, if you will, and then going up to what we believed a public radio station in New York could live up to.”

The deal with the city determined that WNYC would pay the $20 million for its radio licenses in six annual installments of just over $3.3 million each. The urgent objective pushed WNYC to break almost every rule in the capital campaign playbook, Walker says. It bypassed the traditional quiet phase of such campaigns, for example, and took its needs right to the members.

“It was obviously a tough, tough goal for what was essentially an organization that had been an arm of the government and was not extremely sophisticated in terms of fundraising, and had never had to be,” Walker says.

“Frankly, we were a little bit naïve,” Darrow says. “I’m not sure we would have had the guts to do what we undertook to do if we had thought it through carefully.”

A strong on-air fund drive and a $1 million grant from the Ford Foundation helped WNYC raise the first installment with relative ease, Darrow remembers. He assumed — wrongly, as it turned out — that the rest would come quickly. “We had to change habits — persuade people it wasn’t free.”

Ultimately, more than half of the money raised came from individuals, with board members giving $3 million. A quarter came from foundations and 15 percent from fundraising galas.

Meanwhile, the cultural shift within the station was causing friction and raising questions about where it was headed.

“As I heard it at the time, there were two basic camps in management,” says Brian Lehrer, host of a popular talk show on the station since 1989. “We had to shrink our way out or grow our way out. … Fortunately, the growers prevailed.” That camp included Walker.

“They became much more creative and much more aggressive with how they tried to raise money,” continues Lehrer, who speaks carefully and has a habit of tugging the auburn hairs of his mustache.

“Financially, it kind of shocked the station into realizing its potential, which they apparently felt they never had to deal with in city days. In retrospect, I guess there was something about it being a quasi-city agency that allowed it to be comfortable but not forward-looking.”

The creative atmosphere evolved dramatically. Says Dean Olsher, EP of The Next Big Thing: “I get the feeling they’ve thrown off almost 80 years now of—”

“Dust,” finishes Chris Bannon, his co-EP.

“It’s only recently now that the station has gotten the opportunity to be the big-league station that it deserves to be,” Olsher adds. “So I think there’s this kind of giddiness and exhilaration — ‘Let’s try it. If not us, then who?’ … And there’s really only a handful of stations in the system that are in the position to do this kind of thing. So I think it’s almost expected of WNYC to play this kind of role.”

Beyond the Hudson

Despite the fundraising pressures, Walker began looking into producing national programs only six months after starting at WNYC. The station then offered only Selected Shorts and On the Media. OTM, which Lehrer hosted in addition to his weekday show, aired on just a handful of stations.

“We felt that there was a great opportunity to being here in the capital of media and many ways to tap the resources here and create new shows,” Walker says. She also hoped to offset the Washington-centered focus of NPR’s shows. National ambitions also let WNYC tap a wider range of funders.

Walker brought in Dean Cappello, former senior producer of the defunct Monitor Radio, as news director and soon promoted him to lead programming. Cappello inherited a two-reporter news department and little in the way of programming.

“I used to say when I got here, you couldn’t get a cup of water without building a process to get it,” he says. “There was almost no infrastructure for how to accomplish getting programming on the air.”

Starting in 1999, WNYC revamped On the Media, launched Satellite Sisters, gave Olsher free rein in creating The Next Big Thing, and founded Studio 360 in partnership with PRI. For Studio 360, the station and PRI managed to lure writer and New York publishing-scene heavyweight Kurt Andersen as host. It also drew NPR talents Brooke Gladstone for On the Media and Olsher, who covered arts and culture for the network.

The intensely busy period helped WNYC structure its programming wing for flexibility and creativity, but it was also taxing. “Would I do it exactly that way again? No, probably not,” Walker says.

“I think anybody who does this will tell you there is no business model for public radio programs right now,” Cappello says. “I think we’re all trying to figure out what that is. The rush to be successful fast so you can get some other kind of support is really brutal.”

While three of the shows have taken off, Satellite Sisters fell prey to the pressures Cappello cites. Some listeners and programmers liked the weekly hour of five real-life sisters chatting about life. Others hated it. It aired on 70 stations at its peak but had dropped to 51 when WNYC canceled it two years ago, citing a lack of underwriting income.

Lehrer says he saw Satellite Sisters as “an economic, rather than a programming concept” aimed at a demographic group — unlike the other shows, which he says are “substantive, mission-driven programs that use the medium well and serve a purpose.”

Cappello speaks positively of Satellite Sisters. “A lot of our schedules are very male,” he says. “To do something like that — in a way we thought was fun and expansive — seemed like a natural thing to pursue.”

Each of the other national shows airs on more than 100 stations. Olsher says The Next Big Thing, which takes New York as its jumping-off point and draws heavily on the city’s arts community, is catching on in unlikely locations: Michigan, Oklahoma, upstate New York.

New goal: $30 million

Those outside the station say they can hear the new vitality in local and national programming. “They’ve made tremendous improvements,” says John Dinges, a former NPR news editor who teaches radio journalism at Columbia University, where he leads field trips to WNYC. “They’re a different radio station. The sound is different. They’re smarter.”

But Dinges asks for more. “I think they don’t make as big an effort to cover breaking stories as they could,” he says. “They’re kind of keeping the reporters close to home rather than putting them on the street.”

Eight reporters now staff the award-winning news department, but Walker says it must keep expanding to fully reflect the city’s diversity.

That and other goals weigh on her mind as the station begins the $30 million capital campaign. It has already raised $7 million, mostly from board members, and hopes to reach $12 million by June 30.

The campaign could support, in addition to programming, acquisition of a new FM signal and a new headquarters. WNYC now sprawls across 35,000 square feet of cramped, byzantine offices and studios scattered among eight floors of a city-owned tower that could serve as a Batman movie set. WNYC has enjoyed the space rent-free since independence, but employees envision offices where they could bump into each other and share ideas more easily.

The station also wants a third FM frequency to devote to music and the arts. In 2001, the station was close to leasing WNYE-FM, owned by the city’s school board. Talks later turned to buying the station outright, but the notion has languished amid a departmental reshuffling under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. (Public TV station WNET has sought WNYE’s companion television station.)

WNYC execs still eye WNYE-FM hungrily, but their prospects are uncertain. WNYE and city education officials did not return calls seeking comment.

A second FM signal could specialize in classical music and cultural programming, allowing WNYC’s current FM station to focus even more heavily on news, freeing the AM signal to become a workshop of new ways to reach New York’s many large ethnic communities, Walker says. It would also give New York six different public radio formats.

“Then we really, truly could claim to be what the No. 1 market in the country should be, which is a place for everyone to look at as a model of what public radio can be for a community,” she says. “And that’s very exciting.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *