WVIA bets big to build local newsroom with ‘boots on the ground’

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"Morning Edition" host Sarah Scinto works behind the board in the WVIA studio.

An NPR newscast story about President Biden’s visit to Pennsylvania caught Ellen McDonnell by surprise. 

McDonnell had spent three decades at the network, overseeing its newsmagazines and rising to executive editor before she retired in 2014. Like President Biden, she’s a native of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre region of northeastern Pennsylvania. This particular NPR newscast about the president’s visit captured her attention for a different reason. The report originated from WVIA, a 50-year-old classical music station that is in the process of taking a big leap into local news coverage. 

McConnell, a longtime supporter of WVIA, recognized what it meant for the station, a dual licensee that had built its radio service around locally hosted music programs. She rushed to send an email to the new CEO behind the change.

“I am so thrilled to hear this,” she remembered writing to Carla McCabe, who became CEO during the summer of 2020.

Under McCabe’s leadership, WVIA may invest up to $2.9 million from its endowment in building a newsroom that can deliver deeper takes on local news. The staff has spent nearly three years quietly engineering the shift, pulling back from its long commitment to music programming to find new audiences. 

The strategy responds to declines in listenership and a growing need for local news coverage.  

McCabe pitched the shift to local news when she interviewed for WVIA’s CEO job. The Ireland native brought her previous experience at Kansas City PBS, where she saw the dual-license station launch Flatland, a digital local news source

“My thinking was always, ‘We need to be … embedded in the community, understanding the community and really thinking about local production and local output,’” she said.

Amid the well-documented decline in daily newspapers, McCabe felt WVIA had an opportunity to safeguard local coverage. The hybrid-format WVIA-FM station filled much of its schedule with locally hosted classical, jazz and alternative music shows, and carried a few syndicated news programs, including NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered

As McCabe saw it, a focus on community news would attract new audiences. 

“You can get your PBS and NPR anywhere. So how do we then add value locally? And it has to be through those local stories,” McCabe said.

Trying to be the ‘alternative’

The change began with a public affairs magazine show. Keystone Edition launched in 2019 as a radio show. A TV version debuted in October 2020, just months after McCabe arrived. The station’s TV production crew worked with radio hosts to produce interview segments and video packages for the weekly half-hour show.

A year later, WVIA hired its first journalist. Julie Sidoni came on as news director in October 2021. The longtime TV news anchor at a top-rated local commercial station saw WVIA’s news venture as a chance to bring something new to the regional media landscape, she said.

WVIA News Director Julie Sidoni

“Commercial TV is a different thing, and it’s very short, and you don’t have a ton of time for creativity or to really explore good stories,” she said. “I thought there was a huge opportunity here at WVIA to tell real journalism, real good in-depth stories.” 

Sidoni wanted to tell community-based, issue-driven stories with depth and creativity. But the initial budget to support three reporters posed a hurdle. The station’s coverage area stretches across 22 counties. 

“What we decided to do at first was to be sort of the alternative,” Sidoni said. “If you saw a story on a TV station, or as a quick mention in the newspaper, maybe that was our time to take that story, really flesh it out.” 

The newsroom steered away from regional news that was already heavily covered. 

“The fires, the car accidents — the reactive sort of news,” she said. “We have TV stations here who do that very well, and they’ve done it very well for a very long time.”

The newsroom wouldn’t overlook the daily news cycle — they’d cover a visit from the president — but Sidoni wanted the team to spend more time exploring broader community issues, especially outside the well-covered Scranton-Wilkes Barre metro area.

Angles ‘people might not have heard elsewhere

WVIA’s local radio newscasts went live in March 2022, mixing anchor copy, sound on tape and voicers about local developments with wraps from statewide partners. At the same time, the nascent news team filled the weekly radio version of Keystone Edition with long-form reporting, such as a six-minute piece on a second chance for local convicts. Another in-depth piece reported on Ukrainian residents trying to keep in touch with loved ones during the first months of Russia’s attack on their homeland. 

One reporter traveled to a nature preserve near the New Jersey border to document a push for a national park designation. Community Reporter Kat Bolus filed a nine-minute radio feature with perspectives on both sides of the debate, including archival audio from 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation designating the preserve as a national recreation area. 

“That was a story that we took, and took it to heart, and said, ‘How many other angles can we figure out about this that people might not have heard elsewhere?’” Sidoni said. 

WVIA soon added a fourth reporter, and by August 2022 the station had its first national spot on NPR — the one that caught McDonnell’s attention. She later came on as a consultant.

Later that year, WVIA was selected to receive a Report for America corps member and raised $69,000 in its first NewsMatch campaign, a collaborative fundraising effort to support nonprofit news, according to minutes from a Dec. 2, 2022, board meeting

But WVIA’s big swing came in June 2023, when the radio station began airing more news and talk programs. A legendary local classical music host retired, and WVIA filled the gap in its schedule with another hour of Morning Edition and a midday broadcast of Here & Now. A locally hosted evening music show was trimmed to one hour to make room for Marketplace and The Daily, and the BBC World Service took over its overnight schedule. 

The locally produced classical music programming that had aired overnight was cut, and a syndicated classical feed was added to a 24/7 HD Radio channel and webstream, WVIA Arts Radio.

That’s when complaints came in.

‘It’s working for us right now’

For nearly half a century, loyal audiences tuned into WVIA Radio for hours of classical, jazz and Triple A music. The station produced special coverage of a regional jazz festival and concerts by the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic. 

Mixed Bag, founded by host George Graham in 1973, is one of the staples of WVIA’s music lineup. It is considered the nation’s longest continuously running Triple A program. 

“I saw WVIA as the perfect platform to … bring something different to the airwaves that could resonate with people on a deeper level,” Graham said, recalling his inspiration for creating the show.

The state broadcasters association cited Graham’s historic efforts when naming him Broadcaster of the Year in February 2023.

Graham said he learned that he’d won the award the same day that he heard the new radio schedule would cut one hour from his nightly Mixed Bag broadcast. He supported the station’s investment in local news coverage, he said, but questioned the decision to cut the music lineup to make way for widely available national programs.

“Why would somebody support something that they can easily get from sources other than WVIA?” Graham said.

McCabe was prepared for such questions. The news lineup added to the journalism brand the station is trying to build up, she said. 

The launch of WVIA Arts Radio followed the playbook for creating more airtime for news programming, but it didn’t completely displace music from the flagship FM service. Locally hosted classical shows continue to air on WVIA’s FM stations. They’re also simulcast on WVIA Arts, where syndicated music programs fill out the schedule.

Though the changes were announced months in advance, listeners still called to complain. A handful even pulled their memberships, McCabe said. But the reaction to the addition of news programs wasn’t as bad as she expected. 

“It’s working for us right now,” she said. “We’re not going to see the numbers go super high, but we are just going to continue to experiment and find ways to work on up.” 

Graham said he respects management’s decision. 

“I hope that, you know, that it proves to be successful.”

Endowment drawdown 

Days before the FM schedule changes went into effect last June, McCabe told board members it could take up to five years to see an impact from the radio shift, according to the minutes from its June 2, 2023, meeting

A few months later, WVIA’s stewards doubled down on the news expansion. After budget-gutting hedge fund Alden Global Capital bought the Scranton Times-Tribune and three other regional newspapers, WVIA moved to scoop up veteran reporters facing potential layoffs. 

To accelerate the strategy, WVIA’s board authorized a transfer of up to $2.9 million from the station’s endowment over the next three years. 

“The drawdown assumes Journalism will raise minimal funds in the next few years,” the December 2023 meeting minutes state

At the time, the station was in its second year of an operating budget deficit and undergoing a $10 million capital campaign. 

With the board’s investment, WVIA welcomed five new journalists this February, nearly doubling its news team to a staff of 11.   

The expansion creates more breathing room to focus more on building sources and stories, Sidoni said. 

“We can handle a reporter not creating a story that day — they might be more valuable being out in the community,” she said. “I think it is a heavy lift — I’m not gonna say otherwise — but I think it’s the most important thing we’re doing right now.” 

The focus on creating distinctive local coverage is beginning to produce results. When a homeless encampment made headlines for trespassing concerns and garbage complaints, WVIA’s freelance photojournalist drew on her connections in the pop-up community to help tell the intimate story of an unhoused father raising three kids in a tent. 

“That is definitely an example of how I mean the … ‘boots on the ground’ makes a difference,” Sidoni said. The story didn’t originate from a press release or a tip. “It was someone internally on my team who said, ‘I know where to go for this.’” 

McCabe hopes revenue growth from the news service will help minimize withdrawals from the station’s $29.5 million endowment, but the board’s support gives her team time to figure it out. 

The board’s investment reflects directors’ belief in the community and a commitment to having enough “funding on the runway” to “figure out how to build a self-sustaining service,” McCabe said. 

So far they’re seeing some positive signs. Page views and returning visitors have grown nearly threefold from last year, and impressions on Apple News had doubled as of February, according to metrics provided by the station. 

WVIA didn’t share metrics for radio listenership, but board documents show the station ranked ninth in the market by weekly average-quarter-hour share as of late 2020. Nationally, radio audiences have been shrinking, dropping more than 26% over the last six years, according to a 2023 Pew Research Center analysis of the top 20 NPR affiliates in the country. 

Radio isn’t the only channel where WVIA aims to build audiences, McCabe said. “We want to attract the audience wherever they are. And we want to bring them in wherever they want to land.”

WVIA is also working to build up their brand as a distinctive source of local news, Sidoni said. 

Sidoni said the news team recently nailed down its identity for an upcoming campaign to officially hard-launch its news department.

The branding statement will be “We Report To You.” 

“It’s a way for us to remember that we work for people, for communities,” Sidoni said. 

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