WVIK to separate news and classical formats

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WVIK in Rock Island, Ill., will transition its primary signal to an all-news/talk format this summer, migrating classical music to a translator.

Starting in August, the station will program its 90.3 FM signal with news and talk shows while moving classical music to 105.7 FM, a 250-watt translator that currently broadcasts news and talk. The translator reaches about 80% of the audience for 90.3 FM, according to WVIK GM Jay Pearce.

WVIK may be able to improve the translator’s coverage, though fixes will depend on results of several studies that will be finished in the next few weeks, Pearce said. They could include moving the antenna higher on its tower or moving the tower.

“We actually have a case to move our frequency, because right now we have to go a little bit lower wattage because we’re protecting a couple of signals,” said station manager Jared Johnson. “By changing frequencies, we have the possibility of actually increasing the wattage as well.”

WVIK will also offer the classical service on an HD channel on 90.3. Residents outside of the Quad Cities area — Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa and Rock Island, Moline and East Moline, Ill. — will need an HD radio to receive the HD2 signal. For those who don’t have one yet, Pearce is offering to help.

“I will help anyone who’s outside of our metropolitan area that needs to receive us on an analog radio,” he said. “I’ll buy them an HD radio. They’re available, and I’ll drive out to their home and I’ll set it up for them.”

WVIK currently airs a hybrid format of classical and news that’s heavier on the music, sandwiching it between Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Marketplace. On weekends the station airs news, talk and classical, as well as jazz on Saturday nights. Ahead of the change this summer, the station will launch a communication blitz and conduct branding studies to reintroduce itself to the community.

The push to juggle formats came from WVIK’s licensee, Augustana College, Pearce said. Between August 2019 and August 2020, WVIK and the University of Illinois surveyed over 400 listeners. They found that 11% preferred classical music, while 48% preferred news and talk. The audience for midday classical music has been declining for the past five years, Peace said.

The college also expressed the need to make the switch before Pearce’s retirement at the end of the year, he added.

“We’ve been fighting these years to do something to grow the audience, which has plateaued, and thus listener contributions have plateaued and with federal money or state money not really going up,” Pearce said. “We are just not getting ahead.” Pearce added that the station has been catching up, at least, with surplus budgets for the last two years.

WVIK has operated with a deficit since its inception 42 years ago, with Augustana covering losses. When Illinois cut funding for colleges in 2015, the school stopped covering WVIK’s shortfalls and redirected money toward grants for students. The station has since covered deficits with its reserves.

The station increased income by 16% from fiscal year 2019 to FY2020, to $1.7 million, according to financial statements. But it hasn’t recouped enough to buck the overall downward trend. Stimulus money and an unexpected $200,000 donation from a listener helped put WVIK in a solid financial position, but its future looked tenuous unless it moved to increase audience, according to a recent audit by Public Media Co.

PMC “came up with a business plan and a budget projected five years out that basically shows that we’re okay right now,” Pearce said. “But barring continued unexpected large gifts or something else within five years, we’re going to burn through all of our reserves, which are in the neighborhood of $300,000 or so.”

Station leaders are still discussing which shows will replace classical music on 90.3 FM. The content could include new local programs as the station adds staff, Pearce said. It has two openings for director of development and director of community engagement roles, with plans this spring to hire a content director who will oversee both music and news.

“We’re looking at getting local hosts to host music programs … so we could actually get local voices on the air and not have to always rely on a national service,” Johnson said. “I think this is going to be something that will become integral to the arts community. This is not about us sidelining classical music away from our news.”

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