WFUV seeks membership boost with new mix of music

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(Photo: Lynda Shenkman Curtis)

WFUV Program Director Rita Houston (Photo: Lynda Shenkman Curtis)

New York’s WFUV has expanded its music mix and dropped NPR newscasts, with a goal of enticing more listeners to become members.

Starting this month, the Triple A station broadened its playlists and added more local music to its lineup. Listeners might now hear musicians such as Prince, the Clash and Arcade Fire in close proximity, while classic artists such as Aretha Franklin, Queen, and Hall and Oates are still represented. WFUV is also featuring more new music as it aims to buttress its reputation for introducing listeners to up-and-coming artists.

Program Director Rita Houston and her colleagues were happy with recent growth in WFUV’s audience, from an average–quarter-hour share of 0.2 in spring 2012 to 0.4 a year later. But they were concerned about a flattening of its membership rolls. “When you start to look at the number of new members coming through the door every year, it’s a wake-up call,” says Houston.

Changes in station management were another factor behind the changes, says Mike Henry, c.e.o. of Paragon Media Strategies, who advised WFUV about the new approach. Longtime General Manager Ralph Jennings resigned in 2011, and then–Program Director Chuck Singleton was promoted to succeed him. Singleton then bumped Houston up from music director to p.d.

“The content strategy hadn’t changed much over the years,” says Henry, who has also worked with noncommercial music stations such as The Current, Radio Milwaukee and KXT in Dallas. With WFUV’s new mix of music, “what they’ve done doesn’t follow any path,” he says. “It’s a radio station for New York.”

WFUV has also dropped NPR newscasts, which it was airing weekdays, and late-night broadcasts of the syndicated music show Echoes. The only syndicated program remaining in its schedule is World Cafe from Philadelphia’s WXPN.

Traffic reports, which previously aired just twice each hour, are also gone. With more drivers using traffic apps on smartphones, “it was hard to compete and offer a traffic service that people were making use of,” Houston says.

Expansion of WFUV’s playlists coincides with a growing popularity of the kinds of music programmed by Triple A stations, Houston says. She points to the song “Royals,” by teenage New Zealand performer Lorde; Houston picked the song for an NPR Music “Heavy Rotation” feature in June; it later crossed over to achieve broad popular appeal, topping the Billboard Hot 100 this month.

“We’re at a real high point for new music,” Henry says. “WFUV is seizing the moment.”

This article was first published on Current, Oct. 21, 2013.

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