As It Turns 60, WUOT Faces New Challenges

WUOT celebrates 60 years on the air, as the medium of radio itself faces new competition and other challenges

WUOT first checked air on Oct. 27, 1949. For $16,000, the University of Tennessee bought an FM transmitter from the now defunct Knoxville Journal, which had failed to see promise in the new technology.

It seems FM transmitters became available before FM radios were commonplace. That changed within a year or so and the rest, as they often say on the radio, is history.

WUOT now broadcasts around the clock, a combination of local news and music—almost exclusively classical and jazz—and popular syndicated opera and symphonic showcases, along with news programs generated by public-radio outlets from around the world. This year the station added a second signal, available online and broadcast in HD—yet another forward-looking technology, the success and popularity of which remains to be seen. WUOT's fixture as a historical institution works both for and against it. Like newspapers and television, radio everywhere now faces competition from your iPod, your computer, satellite radio, even your cell phone, and all manner of other sources.

As the station prepares to blow out 60 candles, WUOT also faces the daunting task of making tough programming choices in order to please a large and discerning listening audience with lots of other choices.

FIRST, THE NEWS...

"There's so much noise now," says WUOT Station Director Regina Dean, who came to the station in 1995. "There's information coming from everywhere. When I was in journalism, it was considered the gatekeeper function in democracy. Now, with the Internet and new media, public radio is different because of its historical perspective. People don't need it to tell them what to think, but it encourages them to think. I think most public-radio listeners are engaged in their communities. For the most part, public radio is a civil discourse."

WUOT was the first public radio station in Tennessee, and one of 90 charter stations of National Public Radio when it was formed in 1971. (There are now 797 NPR affiliates.) Dr. Kenneth Wright, who retired from UT in 1976, was the station's first manager.

"We were dedicated primarily to serious music," says Wright. "We had one program of popular music, but that didn't last very long. When the Metropolitan Opera began broadcasting, they offered the program to us. We had only our own records and what we could get from the faculty.

"This was all before the talk-show phenomenon."

WUOT was founded at a time when a classical radio station on a campus was considered a boon and an educational tool for the music department. There is now a trend nationally in public radio toward all or mostly news, and mostly syndicated programming. WPLN in Nashville recently adjusted its daytime schedule to be entirely syndicated news and commentary.

If you've taken a road trip with a friend or spouse, you know that it's a challenge to find something that both of you want to listen to at the same time. Imagine trying to satisfy an audience of 68,700, the number of people who listen to WUOT every week. Everybody has a favorite syndicated program that WUOT doesn't broadcast for some reason or other. And everybody is nostalgic about a favorite free-form (or barbershop harmony) show from the station's history that they feel was ousted from the schedule unduly. And some people favor an all-news format.

"People who want an all-news format will come to me and think I'm going to take a side," says Matt Shafer-Powell, WUOT's first news director, who came to the station in 2002 and built its three-person (counting him, Chrissy Keuper and Ann Lloyd) news department. "I'm not going to take a side. It's more complicated than just pulling the plug on classical music. I know of a Utah station that switched to an all-news format. Their ratings went through the roof. Their donations went through the floor.

"It's a much more complex issue than people realize. The people who are dedicated to the classical music don't have anywhere else to go in town. If we were a bluegrass station and pulled our bluegrass music, they could go to WDVX. Any of these other formats, there'd be other places for them to go. If we pulled classical, there would be no place for them to go and I recognize that."

Shafer-Powell, who came to Knoxville to get himself and his family away from western Michigan winters, can cause some confusion to longtime WUOT listeners. Now you can regularly hear his dispatches from Knoxville on NPR's national programs like Morning Edition and All Things Considered. It was not unheard of for WUOT to contribute to those programs before Shafer-Powell's arrival, but it was uncommon. And it deserves to be said that Shafer-Powell is not merely WUOT's first news director. He is thought by some to be the best broadcast reporter in the country. Regina Dean is ebullient by nature. But she has trouble staying in her chair while discussing Shafer-Powell.

"Matt Shafer-Powell won the Edward R. Murrow national award for writing in all of broadcasting," she says. "That's huge."

"I try to be cool about it and downplay it," says Shafer-Powell, who visited New York earlier this month to accept his award. "But it's not working."

For the Murrow competition, Shafer-Powell entered features from his coverage of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church shooting, a piece on 17-year cicadas, and a segment from his election-year series, "My Life, My Vote."

"Here in Knoxville, we're more fortunate than a lot of people realize to have access to the media that we do," he says. "I feel strongly that we've got a pretty good public radio station. At WNOX, the fact that they've got an operating newsroom is a benefit. We've got three TV stations with working newsrooms. We've got a daily newspaper and a weekly newspaper. That being said, I think that what WUOT can offer that other media aren't able to offer is that we have the luxury of being able to really explore the human voice in ways that other media can't. I still think there's something magical about the human voice absent pictures. We have the luxury of doing these long-form stories. We have the time. And we have the support of management here who says they'd rather have us take the time to do a better story than to have us do it faster and do more stories."

Although its first sparks flew during the 19th century, radio is clearly 20th century technology trying to compete with 21st century advances. You may already have your eye on the new iPod Nano, which features a radio emulator that makes it easier to buy songs and programs you hear and like... and make you less dependant on radio as most of us grew up with it.

WUOT's HD/online signal offers popular programs not broadcast on their main signal. Dean describes its function almost as a farmer's test plot; the station can test the popularity of programs they may not consider immediately worthy of FM broadcast. But if a listener is at his or her desktop already, thinking of the Diane Rehm Show or Performance Today, what's to keep him or her from going directly to the websites that host those programs—and their archives—rather than waiting for a Knoxville time slot? (Granted, today you can only hear yesterday's interview or performance online; but like this article, the bulk of those interviews and performances have been in production for days, weeks, or months.)

The generations that grew up with and may have shaped public radio tend to think of computers at fixed positions and radios as portable, but not so their technophile youngsters. Anyone with a smart phone or iPhone can not only be their own DJ, they can also be their own programming director.

Some cultural critics think that the increasing popularity of spoken-word programming and emergent technology are related. As computer-dependant communications make life more insulated, people tune into the sound of conversation rather than making conversation. Writers like Neil Postman and Wendell Berry think that this generation's penchant for exotic, newsy titillation is actually a force that works against a healthy society, resulting in Americans who don't know the names of their next-door neighbors but—thanks to the BBC and NPR—are well-versed on the travails of rubber-harvesting natives along the Amazon.

ECHOES OF A GOLDEN AGE

Ashley Capps, president of AC Entertainment, was in high school in 1973, when he got his first show on WUOT.

Some of the first live shows by visiting performers that Capps organized in Knoxville were in conjunction with WUOT. Numerous Knoxville-based jazz musicians who came of age in the '70s and '80s cite Capps' radio shows as their initial attraction to the music.

"There was a free-form show called After Midnight," Capps recalls. "I used to call this one host all the time and say, ‘What was that you just played?' After a while he said, ‘You should have your own show.' I did that for about a year and a half before I started playing jazz. Having the opportunity to do that was extraordinary. I'm grateful to WUOT for that opportunity. I was a senior in high school the first time I went on the air. That could never happen now."

Currently, aside from a rotating student news intern, everyone on and off the air at WUOT is a paid professional.

"There is a common misperception that if you put more variety on the air you will attract more listeners," says Daniel Berry, WUOT program director since 1995 and on-air host of multiple programs since 1983. "Exactly the opposite is true in radio. The more variety you have in programming, the fewer listeners you will have. Because people will listen to what they want to hear and then turn the radio off. The proof in the pudding is our commercial brethren out there. If WNOX or WIVK could reach more of an audience by following country with avant-garde rock, they'd do that. Most successful stations do the same thing, 24 hours a day. Because we're public, because we get funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the university, that allows us to be more adventuresome. But still there's a point when the audience begins to drop.

"We have this split format. We concentrate on classical music and jazz, and this multiple category—news/information/entertainment—format. It's that way by design. Those are the biggest audiences out there that aren't served by commercial radio. Those overnight shows were basically formats that other people were doing already. So when the time came to make a move, we focused on what our strategy said we should be doing to increase our audience."

WUOT's annual budget is roughly $1.5 million. It's biggest source of support is listener gifts. It also receives support from UT (including the use of space in the Communications Building), the CPB, and its endowment. All of those sources give to the station so that the station may ostensibly offer public radio to the community free of charge. Again, the station's long and impressive history—and that of public radio—may be a friendly enemy. It's possible that listeners who are not hearing their favorites on WUOT in 2009 are only aware of the possible avant garde music programs because they once heard them on the station. Fans of Democracy Now who might wish they could hear it on 91.9FM most likely became aware of it because they heard it on a station like WPFW, 89.3FM, in Washington, D.C. The more people are aware of, the more they want.

"This is just human nature," says Dean. "We are so diverse that there are people who would like to hear more of one thing or another. It's an art and a science. We look at our audience and say, what is available commercially? Because there's not much sense in duplicating."

If someone at your house is in high school and decided that she wished to study at UT's School of Journalism and Electronic Media for a career in public radio, she would probably take some classes on Research Methods or Media and Society from Associate Professor (and Knox County Commissioner) Mark Harmon.

"The commitment of public radio is to serve areas that would not be served otherwise," says Harmon. "WUOT does that by offering news, jazz, and classical music. When National Public Radio set out to become a serious network, WUOT was exactly the kind of station they were looking for. I think that with the resources they have, WUOT does a very good job."

Harmon is also quick to remind readers that UT is in fact home to two radio stations, and as a student you would be much more likely to be working at WUTK than at WUOT, which these days typically has only one news intern per semester.

Third-year law student and WUOT member Lesley Foglia says the split format works perfectly for her tastes.

"What I appreciate specifically is that they do play a wide range of music," says Foglia. "I'm a violist, and I played in the Civic Orchestra in Chicago when I lived there. So I know a little about music. A lot of stations just play baroque. But if you look at WUOT's playlist for any day, you'll see 20th century composers like Bernstein and Shostakovich. I was a member of WBEZ in Chicago, which had a similar format. My parents live in Nashville, and are members of WPLN. WPLN just switched to all-talk broadcasts, and moved their music to their HD signal. They're seriously considering not renewing their memberships. Who has an HD radio?

"I really like everything they offer. Nobody else presents the news the way NPR does. And they cover things you certainly won't hear about anywhere else. I love Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Car Talk, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. Who doesn't?"

Alas, WBEZ is now syndicated spoken-word programming pretty much all day on weekdays now.

Again, there's no pleasing everyone. But it seems possible that one of the things lost since the days when students and volunteers could host at WUOT is simply the beneficial presence of multiple, music-minded personalities making programming choices. Daniel Berry hosts The Morning Concert and Allan Ellstrom (WUOT staffmember since 1984) hosts The Afternoon Concert. They are knowledgeable, to say the least, and play very good music that leans toward the mainstream. The syndicated classical programs broadcast during the evening—such as SymphonyCast—are often worth hearing, but typically consist of music one might choose so as not to interrupt dinner conversation or wake the children, rather than broaden anyone's intellectual horizons.

Chuck Taylor is station manager of WTJU, licensed to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He has nearly 50 volunteer classical announcers, and WTJU's classical programming is wondrously diverse and daring.

"Conformity and that kind of doctrinaire policy-making is one of the things that comes with having a programming director, which I simply can't afford," says Taylor. "Diversity is one of the very few advantages that comes with a volunteer staff and community radio like we have here."

But Taylor says that given the choice between the two schools of programming philosophy, he'd much rather be able to hire someone to do for him what Berry does for WUOT. He'd be happy to give up a little diversity in exchange for better organization.

Between All Things Considered and the evening classical music comes one of WUOT's most widely admired and listened-to slots, Improvisations. Improvisations features 90 minutes of jazz, Monday through Thursday, hosted by an eclectic group of effusive aficionados (John Habel, Todd Steed, Paul Parris, and Chris Woodhull).

"I think WUOT's jazz programming is spectacular," says Ashley Capps, who also hosted Improvisations for many years. "I would put it up against any public-radio jazz program in America. I think one of WUOT's strengths over the years has been its choice of programming. But I do feel that their shift to this almost Muzak-style of overnight music with only the hits is unfortunate. If you listen to the music programming during shows like Morning Edition and All Things Considered and Fresh Air, you'll hear all kinds of great music for which there is no space made at WUOT.

"One of the things that attracted me to public radio was the adventurous music programming that happened overnight. The current overnight music serves as nothing more than a place-holder."

STAY TUNED

Writing about human nature is fun, easy, and silly. If you've been listening to WUOT as you read this, you can probably articulate at least some reasons why. If you've not been listening to WUOT, one assumes the same is true. Arbitron numbers or Pew Trust poll results probably wouldn't bolster any opinion you already have, or change your mind.

"With any radio station, there is a lot of inertia involved," says Berry. "Radio does not evolve particularly quickly anywhere. In this area it evolves particularly slowly. It's not like television, where it's the survival of the fittest and programs come and go. Some radio shows are on just there because there's nothing better.

"I wonder sometimes about American Public Media, whether they are terrified of the day Garrison Keillor decides he's had a enough of it. Or the Magliozzi brothers for Car Talk. Even Terri Gross, who's taking about as many vacations these days as Johnny Carson used to. What will happen to these companies that are so bound up in these shows? The smart ones try to come up with new shows that will take off. This American Life has developed legs. NPR worked on Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me for about eight years."

With a few dips over the past decade, the number of WUOT donating members has been steadily increasing. There's a semi-annual fund-raising drive taking place as this goes to press. The station currently estimates its membership at just over 5,000. (Membership coordinator Lisa Beckman says the records are kept by a system that measures membership in various ways, and makes it difficult to be precise.) WUOT has a market share of 3.7, which more or less means that out of 1,000 Knoxville-area radio listeners right now, 37 are listening to WUOT.

"Radio in general is losing audience," says Berry. "Public radio is holding its own. WUOT is holding its own. The classical music audience is growing, although it is down from what it was 15 years ago. The news audience is falling. Some people think that NPR news is not what it used to be. The people here in East Tennessee are very generous. They tend to have a feeling of proprietary interest in owning the place. We tend not to have the problems in fund-raising that some of the other markets do. East Tennessee is a very insular place; people are very proud of what they have and they protect it."