PRI stations to experiment with locally customized news

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The competition for midday timeslots on public radio stations is heating up, as Public Radio International and producers of its news programs unveiled plans to experiment with new approaches for combining national and local content to give stations more control over what their local listeners hear during the middle of each weekday.

During a two-day meeting hosted by KJZZ in Phoenix April 17–18, representatives from eight public radio stations agreed on plans to create a flexible midday format, one that blends segments from PRI’s The Takeaway and The World with local and regional news coverage.

Participating stations include WNYC in New York and WGBH in Boston — PRI’s respective partners in producing the daily news shows — and Detroit’s WDET, Miami’s WLRN, Oregon’s OPB, Austin’s KUT, Seattle’s KUOW and KJZZ. The partnership, described as a consortium, also allows stations to share reporting with each other and PRI’s national shows. Each of the consortium stations broadcasts to cities ranked within Arbitron’s 40 largest markets.

“It seems like this meeting was predestined,” said Jim Paluzzi, g.m. of KJZZ. “It was inevitable. And if we didn’t do it, someone else would.” Paluzzi plans to begin broadcasting a localized version of The Takeaway by late June.

The Phoenix meeting followed up on a brainstorming session that WNYC convened last November, while responding to a rare opportunity to test ideas for an open midday format that has been talked about for decades. It also strengthens PRI’s bid to bolster station carriage of The Takeaway, the WNYC-produced series that began angling for midday timeslots last year.

NPR and Boston’s WBUR recently cemented a new partnership to expand Here & Now, the WBUR newsmagazine, as the midday successor to the recently canceled Talk of the Nation. Here & Now will be dropping out of PRI distribution in June, just as TOTN goes off the air.

Under NPR and WBUR’s new agreement, Here & Now will be reformatted with an extra hour, and news staffs of both WBUR and NPR will produce content for the program. Here & Now also hopes to recruit additional stations to contribute stories.

Options on the table

Consortium participants described their new venture as an attempt to put local stations in control of their midday sound. Everything — from story selection to schedule to launch rollouts — will be localized.

“That’s the beauty of this: We don’t have to get anybody to agree on much of anything,” Paluzzi said. “It’s the basis of a great coalition.”

The Takeaway, which was originally conceived as a competitor to Morning Edition, relaunched as a one-hour midday program last September. Producers have often collaborated with local stations to create special coverage.

Public radio veterans participating in the Phoenix fly-in recalled that the idea for an open, station-specific news format was first floated at a 1978 gathering of 32 stations and NPR. KUOW Program Director Jeff Hansen, who has called for public radio to develop a stream-like approach to presenting news content from various sources, read from a 1978 memo summarizing recommendations from the earlier meet-up.

Although licensing agreements for The Takeaway currently require stations to air the entire program, WNYC and PRI have agreed to “limited experiments” allowing consortium stations to unbundle segments and present them separately, according to WNYC spokesperson Mallika Dattatreya, who added, “So far, everyone wants the whole show.”

“This is about listening to our partners and hearing what’s important in their communities, what they think they should be covering,” said New York Public Radio President Laura Walker.

Dean Cappello, v.p. of programming at WNYC, added, “We’re not saying to them, ‘Great, you’re carrying it. Now we don’t want to hear from you again.'”

With pubradio stations looking to bolster their output of local news coverage, midday timeslots can accommodate only so many programs. KUOW is experimenting with a one-hour local newsmagazine, Hansen said, and he’s uncertain about how much national programming  he will schedule.

“There are a lot of options on the table right now,” Hansen said. “Here & Now is one of them. We don’t know yet what they’re going to do in terms of how flexible that show will be for localization . . . . But clearly I think The Takeaway is ahead of the game here in this concept.”

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This article was first published in Current, April 29, 2013.

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