Is WUNC ready to turn it up?

Print More

Kate Medley

This article first appeared on The Assembly and is republished here with permission.

Just before Labor Day in 2001, WUNC got ready to put its popularity at risk: The public radio station would shift to all news and talk, which meant dropping classical and jazz music.

Some loyal supporters were already complaining, and leaders weren’t taking any chances. Security guards stayed all night outside the Chapel Hill, N.C., studios “so if the classical music lovers stormed the building, we’d be ready for them,” recalled Joe Graedon, co-host of The People’s Pharmacy, a nationally distributed show long associated with WUNC.

“Then 9/11 happened,” Graedon said. “Once it happened, nobody looked back.”

In the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, WUNC’s airwaves crackled with breaking news and analysis: from NPR, the BBC and the station’s own reporting and daily talk show, The State of Things. Listenership hit record levels.

The switch did more than transform WUNC’s format. It shifted the station’s image of itself and, through a major expansion in the 2000s, its place in North Carolina news.

Two decades later, WUNC is seeking a new president and once again looking to the future, this time as the Triangle’s No. 1 radio station, with one of public media’s strongest listener donation programs and a cash reserve of almost $20 million that has doubled in just four years.

Over the past decade, while newspapers struggled and cut hundreds of local journalism jobs in North Carolina, WUNC has held its course and prospered. Now, the station has the means and opportunity to raise its impact in North Carolina again — but how far does it want to stretch?

WUNC is playing catch-up on the web and digital platforms, and has begun trying to address racial gaps in its employment and across its operations. The station is also thinking about increasing collaboration with other NPR affiliates in the state and adding to local news reporting, though details are scarce.

With ideas and experiments percolating, WUNC is seeking a strong vision to guide its choices — and investments — and to stay successful in a rapidly shifting media environment. Radio listening is declining, and other NPR affiliates are expanding their local footprints to remain essential.

WUNC’s challenge will be recognizing that “we’re not an FM radio station; we are a news and information outlet,” said Hannah Gage, a member and former chair of the board that oversees the station for its owner, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “That’s a big reframing … but that’s what you have to do.”

I’ve known WUNC since my years as a reporter and top editor at The News & Observer, which worked with the station on occasional projects. Later, I was content chief at KPCC public radio in Los Angeles, and we collaborated with WUNC.

This story is based on interviews with more than 40 people inside and outside the station, including current and former station leaders, board members, national industry leaders and North Carolina media veterans, as well as board minutes, financial statements and other documents.

WUNC has navigated news demands and remote work during the pandemic amid other challenges, including the sudden departure in February 2021 of president Connie Walker, who died in May. Still, almost everyone talked on the record, and candidly, about a station they think matters to North Carolina — and that seems positioned to do even more.

“By now I would have wanted us to be a go-to station like Minnesota Public Radio, even WNYC in New York,” said race and Southern culture reporter Leoneda Inge, who joined WUNC not long before its format change and has become one of its signature voices.

“We’re trying to figure out who we want to be.”

In 2001, WUNC answered that question of identity decisively—it wanted more news impact. Over the next six years, the station bulked up its newsroom and fundraising operation, upgraded The State of Things, opened new studios in Durham, built a Greensboro bureau and produced a nationally distributed interview show, The Story.

The ambition attracted donors and talent, recalls Joan Seifert Rose, who was general manager at the time. It raised WUNC’s national reputation as well, and set a frame for the station’s growth over the next 15 years (along with  the tagline, “Bringing the World Home to You”).

But when it comes to the future, Jim Goodmon, the chief executive of WRAL’s parent company and a longtime WUNC supporter and ally, summed up a common view: “I’m tempted to say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: They have a very good brand and a really good niche that has a lot of support.”

The niche is a large chunk of a highly educated and affluent listenership. In the Triangle, WUNC’s 91.5 FM often reaches an 8- or 9-percent market share — the percentage of people listening to radio who tune in to a particular station — which is near the top nationally for public radio stations. 

It is success that translates financially. WUNC is known nationally for turning listeners into loyal contributors, especially those who give through automatic monthly or “sustaining” donations. 

But that success might also be one of WUNC’s biggest challenges: its mission calls for doing more, but its core business is thriving. Change has been an option but not a necessity.

“WUNC, for better or worse, was always a radio-first organization,” said David Brower, who was program director from 2009 to 2020. “That’s where the revenue came from, where the audience was, that was our market opportunity.”

So in the 2010s, as advertising losses and new digital opportunities were sparking reinvention in other forms of media, WUNC focused on its broadcast strengths and began banking surpluses — between $1.1 million and $2.85 million a year — as listener contributions grew.

Walker, the station’s president, wanted a generous cash reserve: In 2009, when she took charge, WUNC’s cash was down to a month’s operating capital, and the station had been running deficits. But she steered WUNC through the Great Recession without layoffs, a point of pride later.

By 2015, when UNC’s Board of Trustees set up a new nonprofit company and board to manage WUNC, the cash reserve was close to $8 million, big enough to prompt questions at board meetings about how it would be allocated. When Walker presented WUNC’s strategic plan to the board in 2018, “optimize cash reserves” was at the top of the priority list.

The reserve now stands at $19.7 million, still in cash accounts. To public media consultant Tim Eby, a former St. Louis Public Radio top executive who writes a national industry newsletter, that looks like a missed opportunity.

“There are a lot of stations that are turning that cash and really putting it into investments in local content, in a big way,” said Eby. “That’s remarkable to have that much cash in hand. Seems like you’d want to be investing that.”

Board leaders and Nora Casper, WUNC’s interim president and finance director, said they had started researching options for allocating the money, including investing a chunk of it, but said the pandemic had put the work on pause. 

Investing even part of the funds could have produced significant revenue. The benchmark S&P 500 index, for instance, averaged a 14.8% annual return from 2012–2021.

Gage, a former radio industry executive, said station leaders didn’t set out to build such a large reserve, but also had wanted to keep cash on hand in case opportunities came up for buying more radio stations. 

Since the 1990s, when it added signals on the Outer Banks and in Rocky Mount, WUNC has looked to extend its broadcast reach. In 2015, WUNC bought WFSS from Fayetteville State University for $1.35 million in cash plus other support, and in November, it applied for new FCC licenses to build stations in Rockingham and Laurinburg. 

ta wunc 03
WUNC’s studios at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, N.C. (Photo: Kate Medley)

In her 2018 strategic plan, Walker had proposed expanding in a different direction: a second broadcast service focused on music. The idea centered on buying an existing FM station to convert to a Triple A music format being used on the station’s existing WUNC Music streaming service. The move would have required millions in cash. 

Consultants were hired, but after an extended exploration, the station didn’t find the right target for purchase, and “the idea lost its momentum,” Gage said.

WUNC then began looking toward podcasting and exploring other ideas, drawing on a “new ventures fund” that had been added to the budget. Gage said the process took awhile.

“It’s the only criticism I could ever come up with about how WUNC operates,” she said. “Sometimes it takes too long to get the ball off the tee.” 

Then came 2020, and WUNC’s concerns became more immediate.

In March, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic upended WUNC’s operations as it scrambled to keep up service and coverage with reporters and other employees working remotely. And two months later, the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minnesota forced longstanding problems to the forefront. 

Beginning that summer, prompted by a letter from six Black employees challenging WUNC to commit to “breaking down structural racism,” the station took on a publicly posted agenda for addressing issues from hiring and internal culture to its reporting and community presence. 

High on the list: A lack of Black representation among WUNC staff and leadership. 

The Triangle is 22% Black and 11% Hispanic; as of March 25, 12% of WUNC’s 52 full-time employees were Black, 10% were Hispanic and 77% were white, according to a breakdown provided by UNC-Chapel Hill.

WUNC’s broadcast audience, according to recent numbers, is 8% Black and 12% Hispanic. 

Inge, a longtime WUNC reporter, has been working on WUNC’s ongoing Inclusion Diversity Equity Accountability (I.D.E.A.) committee, and she and others are hopeful that the commitment will result in measurable change. 

But progress, she said, has been “slow,” especially on hiring. She thinks change needs not just good intentions, but also substantial investment.

“I know our station has raised a lot of money, and I like to think that I helped raise that money,” Inge said. “I think you really have to put your money where your mouth is. I don’t think they’ve done that yet.”

ta wunc 04
Inge (Photo: Kate Medley)

And as the station accumulates cash, the national and state landscape for local news is changing at an ever quicker pace. 

When WUNC launched its news push in 2000 with a handful of journalists, The News & Observer newsroom (where I was then managing editor) was near its peak of 260 positions, The Charlotte Observer had similar numbers, and North Carolina was known for robust local dailies and community papers.

Today The N&O, which now includes The Durham Herald-Sun and The Insider political news service, has 69 people in its newsroom (according to numbers from early March), and The Observer around 55. Some smaller papers have closed, as UNC-Chapel Hill’s News Deserts research has documented.

Nonprofit newsrooms like NC Health NewsEdNC and Carolina Public Press have taken root alongside TV stations, established niche players and newer websites.

In this reordered universe, WUNC now has one of North Carolina’s largest reporting teams focused on public affairs statewide.

“I definitely see us as on the rise and able to do a lot more than we used to do,” said Brent Wolfe, the station’s news director.

With nine full-time reporters, including two at the legislature and a Greensboro bureau, WUNC covers some North Carolina topics that have lost coverage in other outlets, such as education, health and the environment, along with a race and Southern culture beat.

It also plays a national role, with reporters contributing to NPR and BBC programs. Jay Price, who reported from war zones and local bases for The News & Observer, now covers military issues for WUNC’s American Homefront Project, a national collaboration with NPR and several stations. 

Much of WUNC’s reporting leans toward radio features and explanatory pieces, with occasional scoops and breaking news. Education reporter Liz Schlemmer, for instance, recently broke a story about a UNC gallery canceling a photo exhibit by a Black artist, and other media followed. And the news staff mobilized to cover the 2021 shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. by sheriff’s deputies in Elizabeth City.

Wolfe thinks the news and content team, now about 30 people, has gained journalistic heft as it’s grown and is ready to do more. He’d like to do more investigative reporting and expand digital content. 

ta wunc 05
Wolfe (Photo: Kate Medley)

The latter is WUNC’s most obvious growth area. While some audio stories and newscasts are distributed via the NPR One digital app, WUNC’s newsroom has a minimal presence on the web and social media platforms where news travels. 

WUNC’s website averaged 115,000 monthly visitors over a recent 13-month period, far below its weekly radio audience and a speck against the millions of visitors who use the region’s leading TV and newspaper websites. 

Nonprofit EdNC, meanwhile, reported a rolling three-month average of more than 99,000 monthly visitors, and Charlotte NPR station WFAE’s recent average was over 235,000; both outlets also produce multiple newsletters, but WUNC’s newsroom doesn’t currently offer any.

“Even if you don’t listen to public radio, the idea that [WUNC] would branch out much more aggressively into digital and podcasting seems to me strategically smart,” said John Robinson, a former Greensboro News & Record editor who now works with local media as member of UNC-CH’s journalism faculty. “They could reach people just like me who aren’t radio listeners but read a lot, on the web.”

But elsewhere in public radio, news stations are thinking more expansively, and some of WUNC’s biggest fans want the station to think even bigger about its next steps.

Tom Thomas, co-founder and advisor for a national consortium called the Station Resource Group, has worked with WUNC often over the years. 

“There’s so much more they can do,” said Thomas, “both in doubling down in daily reporting, adding more investigative reporting capacity [and] creating venues for long-form reporting around enduring stories they can pursue.”

He also sees room for WUNC to use its strong base to expand community partnerships and find the right path for a local station in the crowded digital audio field.

“To be well positioned, to have money in the bank that allows pursuit of these things, is an enormous opportunity,” Thomas said.

Jim Russell, a public radio pioneer who created the award-winning national program Marketplace and had a hand in many others, listens to WUNC constantly at his Chapel Hill home. He finds it “a station that has grown, but seems thin on ambition.”

“It’s a national station and yes, it has some local news, but it doesn’t have anything really in depth,” said Russell, who has consulted with WUNC in past years. “It’s critically important that WUNC and other major market stations really ramp up their local coverage.”

Around public radio, some of WUNC’s peer stations and even smaller NPR affiliates have been moving to redefine their roles in local news and the larger realm of civic engagement. 

For example, while WUNC canceled its talk show The State of Things in late 2020, stations in Seattle and Nashville have recently launched new local midday programs. Colorado Public Radio created an investigative unit, WBUR in Boston closed a $35 million capital campaign for a live-events space and local journalism expansion, and six public radio stations teamed up with ProPublica for investigative stories.

In Chicago, the parent company of WBEZ even raised enough philanthropic money — $61 million — to buy the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper. The list goes on: Public radio stations added 900 local journalism jobs from 2011–2020 as total newsroom employment shrank nationally.

One station getting a lot of notice is Charlotte’s WFAE, which has grown significantly as a news source and civic connector, more than doubling its content-producing team to 39 positions, now the state’s largest in public radio. 

WFAE President and CEO Joe O’Connor said the board that hired him in 2015 was concerned about local news losses and their impact in the metro region. WFAE stepped up daily news coverage and enterprise as part of a multifront push that has boosted listening and web traffic, along with membership and revenue, and forged new partnerships between the station and community organizations, including other media.

Now, WFAE is charting its next chapter and using a $600,000 grant from the American Journalism Project to build new kinds of revenue to support its work for the long term. O’Connor said he has a North Star for choices.

“The only difference between us and commercial [media] is our mission,” said O’Connor, a former ABC News producer and current NPR national board member. “So you ground yourself, and then it’s mission first, ratings and revenue second.” 

To Lindsay Foster Thomas, opportunity for WUNC is a simple idea: “We need to stop thinking of ourselves as just a public radio station and think about all of the ways we can leverage media to have a bigger impact.”

That means thinking beyond radio. In 2019, Thomas left a role overseeing the NPR program 1A to return to WUNC, where she began in public radio, for what she called her dream job: developing talent, programs and audiences outside the station’s standard broadcast programming. 

Over the past two years plus, as a senior manager with the broad title of content director, she has been building WUNC’s podcasting and public engagement muscles and trying out ways for the station to become a new kind of community resource — for North Carolina, and maybe the South — through a variety of partnerships.  

ta wunc 06
Thomas (Photo: Kate Medley)

Already, Thomas thinks she has some proof of concept: eight new podcasts produced in 2020 and 2021, four with outside partners or content creators (including jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon), and others that gave WUNC’s journalists and coverage room to stretch creatively.

And WUNC is testing the waters for national distribution of the radio show based on host Anita Rao’s Embodied podcast about sexuality, health and relationships. WUNC produced a three-part special, “Resolved: Your Anti-Diet New Year,” that got picked up by 34 other stations nationally, including five in top-10 public radio markets. 

Another podcast, Tested, started in March 2020 with host Dave DeWitt and a focus on COVID-19, then expanded to include Inge and eventually other WUNC staff as hosts. Now it’s a twice-weekly podcast and extended radio segment heard during morning drive time.

DeWitt, one of the station’s editors, said he loves how Tested has developed. He’s getting more pitches for program segments, and the station is able to host topical conversations that have more shelf life than the normal radio story. But he thinks more can be done. 

“I would like to see us buy into the digital part,” he said. “Radio stories literally go out into the air and — poof!”

Though it has a solid base of core listeners, WUNC’s latest weekly totals are 25% below their peak of more than 420,000 in fall 2017. Radio listening is still robust nationally, with 83% of Americans saying they listen in the course of a week, but it’s been declining as the frontiers of news and audio moved steadily to digital devices and platforms.

NPR podcasts are helping the network reach audiences that are younger and more diverse than its radio listeners. In recent years, more than half of the network’s sponsorship revenue has come from podcasts. A few stations are signing deals with national platforms such as Stitcher. And competitors are emerging, like one called City Cast now seeking producers for a local news podcast in the Triangle.

Those are the opportunities Thomas sees for WUNC. While the first round of limited podcasts reached modest numbers, they grew steadily, she said, and also earned sponsor revenue. The next stage is strategy, including a budget to support marketing plans and enough resources to turn the experiments into longer-term success.

“We have a lot of different products and a lot of different ways we can make revenue now,” she said. “But we really are still very traditional when it comes to thinking about what our organization is.”

WUNC Program Director Terry Gildea, Thomas’ counterpart over the broadcast side, is also thinking of a new role for the station: as a leader in formal alliances with other NPR affiliates statewide, a model that’s been blossoming elsewhere.

First, though, WUNC might need to get past some of its history with other stations.

WUNC says its network reaches 300,000 listeners a week in 50 counties from the Piedmont to the Outer Banks. WFAE reaches nearly 200,000 weekly listeners in the Charlotte region, Blue Ridge Public Radio has 114,000 in the mountains, and WFDD reports a weekly audience of more 121,000 in 32 counties in North Carolina and Virginia.

Along with WHQR in Wilmington (audience numbers weren’t available), the combined audiences represent a significant chunk of North Carolina. All of the stations have local reporters, and several have hired new leaders and added journalists in recent years.

Gildea said he pitched collaboration when he interviewed for the job: “We call ourselves North Carolina Public Radio: How can we live up to that name in a more comprehensive way?”

By the time he started, The State of Things had been canceled, taking out the station’s biggest chunk of local programming, and Gildea started thinking about how a new show or other joint effort could give audiences something North Carolina doesn’t yet have, “to pull the state together in a unique way.”

ta wunc 07
Gildea (Photo: Kate Medley)

As he talks with news leaders at other North Carolina stations, which already share some stories, Gildea sees potential in formalizing partnerships that could draw on WUNC’s resources and statewide talent.

Texas has the Texas Newsroom, with several stations and NPR, including shared newscasts and the daily show Texas Standard. NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting built a Gulf States hub with several stations; the Virginia Public Radio alliance launched in 2011.

There’s no single template, but Gildea sees promise in the model. 

“What could best serve the audience are a set of really strong and deeply trusted collaborations,” Gildea said, where stations “searched deep into the corners of the state to find the things that are being under-reported, or not reported, or groups of people that are being ignored, or issues that are being ignored.”

At Winston-Salem’s WFDD, General Manager Tom Dollenmayer is enthusiastic about collaboration and hopes new leaders can overcome past friction, especially for WUNC. Over the years, the station has been sometimes ally, sometimes threat; viewed as a go-it-alone player with its eye on signal acquisition.

In Florida, where he was station manager at WUSF in Tampa, Dollenmayer said the state’s 13 public TV and radio stations met monthly and worked together to sponsor special coverage, including national and state election debates, and to coordinate statewide underwriting and other initiatives.

He arrived at WFDD in 2012 expecting a similar opportunity — the state had a decades-old nonprofit called the N.C. Public Radio Association — but found that the group had gone dormant because “nobody wanted to play nicely together.” 

Memories differ on the details, but WUNC’s decision to pull out of a statewide program for joint underwriting factored in. Now Dollenmayer watches over the group’s account, which still holds more than $160,000.

Dollenmayer also struck out when he took ideas to WUNC, which reaches part of WFDD’s listening area. “I just got a lot of, ‘We’re not interested.’”

“Their mission was that ‘I want to own every station in the state, and I want to be North Carolina Public Radio,’ ” Dollenmayer said. “That’s been a monstrous disadvantage for the state.”

For WUNC, the main question now isn’t what to do. It’s who will lead.

It has been more than a year since Walker’s departure, which caught employees by surprise. In early February 2021, at a short-notice employee meeting on Zoom, Joel Curran, then UNC’s vice chancellor for communications and a WUNC board member, announced that Walker was on administrative leave. No reason was given; a week later, the board appointed Casper as interim president.

Most of the WUNC staff had been working away from one another, and from Walker, during the pandemic, but some had noticed she had seemed less engaged in the months before she went on leave. The leave was never explained, and board leaders and Curran would not comment then or for this article.

On May 19, Walker died. A few people had seen or heard of a Facebook post saying she had undergone surgery for breast cancer. But politics reporter Jeff Tiberii, who was on paternity leave at the time, recalled the news as ”one of those moments that you pick your jaw up off the floor.”

On Twitter, he posted his reflections and appreciation of Walker, concluding that “she left this radio station much improved and in better shape than she found it. And for that we should all be quite grateful.”

During Walker’s time, WUNC grew from net assets of $5.6 million in 2008 to $29.4 million in 2021, and the station’s budget expanded by 50%. 

Money isn’t the purpose of a public radio station, but it helps in trying to fulfill a mission. And the most important job of WUNC’s next president will be leading the station in deciding what the mission means: not just navigating change, but charting the course.

Lindsay Foster Thomas, the content director, wants someone with “that 70,000-foot view and an eye toward the future,” especially “a future that will be relevant to the audiences we’ve yet to attract.”

The next leader will be chosen by the board of WUNC Public Radio LLC, which in 2015 began overseeing the station’s management and business operations. Haywood Cochrane, a retired executive and former UNC-CH Board of Trustees chair, said his goal in establishing the LLC was to protect WUNC’s editorial independence and financial assets. 

The board adopted a “public media code of integrity” with broad principles for ensuring editorial freedom and trustworthiness. And it was given a significant role, both in protecting the station and making sure it fulfilled its mission as a media outlet with a unique identity in North Carolina.

WUNC is owned by a public university. It’s funded mostly through voluntary contributions. And it’s part of a public broadcasting system founded 55 years ago on the idea of service to all, not just those who pay. 

ta wunc 08
In the 1950s, Carolina students Charles Kuralt (left) and classmate Carl Kasell (right) helped launch the FM version of WUNC, a student-run station that would later become an NPR affiliate. Kuralt and Kasell would go on to national fame.

WUNC Board Chair Michael Schoenfeld has a good sense of those dynamics: He was a senior executive at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and chaired the board of Nashville Public Radio before he came to the Triangle. He’s also on the board of PBS North Carolina, the state’s public television station, and serves as Duke University’s vice president of public affairs and government relations.

Schoenfeld is leading the board’s search for the new president and general manager, a role he calls “one of the most attractive jobs in public media.”

In an interview late last year, Schoenfeld said that WUNC’s audience strength and support are a “testament to the fact that it is fulfilling its mission of serving the people of North Carolina. 

“There is a lot of innovation, I’m sure, that can be done there,” he said. “And I do believe that by doing our job well, that will keep WUNC in the top ranks of public radio stations.”

Melanie Sill, former executive editor of The News & Observer, worked for five years as executive editor and vice president for content at KPCC/Southern California Public Radio. She also was founding executive director of the N.C. Local News Workshop at Elon University. She is not applying to be WUNC’s next president. This article first appeared on The Assembly and is republished here with permission.

One thought on “Is WUNC ready to turn it up?

  1. I had a reaction while reading this that might not be what anyone intended. What I saw was a station that ignored a lot of the chattering classes and their insistence that WUNC embrace any one of a hundred shiny-shiny new things that’re just oh so absolutely required to “fulfill their public mission,” yet by ignoring them they banked $20mil!

    Granted, amassing a huge amount of cash by doing nothing is not a long-term strategy for success. Not in any business but definitely not in radio/media. But it speaks volumes about how a media outlet can waste an enormous amount of money trying to do something without a firm plan in place and a ruthless commitment to metrics that determine when something is working and, more importantly, when it is not.

Leave a Reply

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