Surfing the news

When the Beatles advised us to “come together, right now,” they probably had no idea that the Internet would one day make it so easy for the world to converge on the information highway. Nor could they have anticipated a day and age in which America Online — an upstart Internet company that hasn’t even turned a profit yet, but whose stock has amassed great value — can buy media giant Time Warner. And if the Internet can swallow up Time Warner, where does that leave such comparative midgets as public radio?

In need of a little jujitsu, National Public Radio President Kevin Klose said in a recent speech at UNCA. “There’s no way to run up our stock value by putting ‘dot-com’ into our name,” he told an audience of WCQS supporters on Jan. 10. “[But] in the converging world, where geographical barriers and time [differences] disappear, your individuality can disappear. … How do you find a place … you can depend upon?”

In the Information Age, mega-mergers like the AOL/Time Warner deal can threaten the very mission of public radio and television, Klose argued. Suppose, for example, that something you read on the Internet sparks your interest in a movie (produced by Time Warner, of course); when you get to the theater, the previews are interspersed with ads for … AOL. “Is it all one owner? Are you being conveyed by one hidden owner to an endless stream of sales [pitches]?” queried Klose. In modern media outlets, he charged, the commitment to the kind of in-depth, high-quality news reporting NPR provides could be losing out to the drive for maximum profit.

Such concerns are not surprising, considering Klose’s background. Before taking the reins at NPR last year, he spent 25 years with the Washington Post and then several years directing Radio Free Europe and U.S. Broadcasting International.

Swift technological change, noted Klose, is also forcing existing media to reassess their methods. In the virtual world of the Internet, the distinctions between such once-separate media as print, radio, television and cable get blurred. What’s more, the World Wide Web can present information interactively and almost instantly, in the blink of an electrical pulse, he continued (no waiting for the evening news, or the morning edition of your paper).

To meet this digital challenge, argued Klose, public radio must learn to take advantage of the new capabilities these technologies offer: “It’s a little bit like jujitsu — if you can take the oncoming force and make it work for you, you can achieve victory.” As an example, he cited NPR’s broadcasting of e-mailed letters from a young girl in Kosovo — which became a popular ongoing feature story during the war.

It’s not just a matter of enhanced capabilities, either, asserted Klose. In the 1940s, the Federal Communications Commission reserved certain FM-radio bandwidths for use by educational stations; but it wasn’t until 1967 that Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act, which led to the creation of NPR three years later (and television’s Public Broadcasting Service, as well). “If the Congress had not done it then, [public radio] would never have happened,” Klose declared.

All well and good, said a man in the audience, noting that NPR recently signed a satellite-broadcast deal with a company that plans to provide U.S. subscribers coast to coast with at least 100 digital channels. But where does that leave local public-radio stations?

In his answer, Klose pointed out that the Public Broadcasting Service had passed up a chance to jump on the cable-TV bandwagon many years ago, in favor of continuing to broadcast through local and statewide television stations. “And guess what — we’ve got the Arts and Entertainment channel, Bravo, and Discovery [this] and Discovery [that] on cable.” As a result, PBS’s overall audience share is down, and it may have lost a chance to establish a cable presence, he argued. Public television, said Klose, “had [its] lunch eaten by cable.”

Klose admitted that the new satellite-service deal does entail some risk for local stations, which could lose listeners. (Initially, subscribers would access the channels in their cars, avoiding the need to continually hunt for stations while they travel — but in-home is probably next.) “We didn’t ask for satellite radio,” he said. But, with the PBS story as a cautionary tale, Klose implied that passing up the opportunity could prove equally risky. And NPR, he said, will make sure its satellite channels point listeners to local stations, just as NPR’s Web pages provide links to local stations. “People want local [content],” Klose assured the audience, insisting, “We’re in this together.”

He should know. More than half of NPR’s $80 million budget this year, said Klose, is funded by local stations like WCQS and WNCW, which pay programming fees and raise money for public radio at the grassroots level. And, unlike the major networks, NPR doesn’t have its own stations or antennas — “You have that. It’s yours,” Klose told an audience composed mostly of regular WCQS sponsors.

A strong Internet presence, argued Klose, merely completes the loop: Many current and archived NPR programs are available at www.npr.org, but more Web content is needed, particularly to reach out to people not tuning in to public radio, Klose said. For starters, NPR needs material that reaches out to kids, especially youth and teens, he continued. “PBS spends 45 percent [of its budget] on children’s television. NPR isn’t doing any,” he revealed. Using his own brand of jujitsu, Klose promised that NPR will pump $1 million into a fund to encourage the development of new programming, , much of it aimed at youth.

And, making it clear that NPR is not about to turn its back on the promise and challenges of the Internet — or on local public-radio stations — Klose concluded, “We concur on [the need to seek] new ways to reach people. It’s clear we must be there.”

Breaking new ground

This isn’t the first time public radio has had to be a trail-blazer. NPR came to life during the Vietnam era, in the midst of Senate hearings and anti-war demonstrations. The network’s inaugural broadcast (on April 19, 1971) reported on the U.S. Senate’s Vietnam hearings, recalls NPR’s first news director, Cleve Mathews (now retired and living in the Asheville area).

“There was a key witness whose story was very moving — Bob Kerrey, now a U.S. senator — and we were the only ones covering [the hearing],” Mathews says. When the major networks and other media got wind of the story, he adds, they had to come to NPR to get tapes of the hearings.

That set a news standard Mathews was familiar with: Before jumping into radio, he had worked for The New York Times. And a few months later, he and his meager team unveiled a new program that was destined for success: All Things Considered.“We were trying to do on radio what they did at the Times — quality news.” But the fledgling network had hired only two reporters for its nationwide beat, with no budget to speak of for secretaries — or even furniture. “We learned the tribulations of trying to do a 90-minute program, every day.”

In those days, too, says Mathews, NPR had to grapple with a changing media environment: “Radio in 1971 was the pits. But people still remembered what radio [had been] before television.” He and his team tried to recapture some of that pioneering spirit. “We didn’t know if it would work or not, and we put on some horrible stuff, in the early days. But we learned.”

A lot of the credit for NPR’s innovations, notes Mathews, goes to cohort Bill Siemering, who came up with the idea for All Things Considered. “He was the creative genius behind [it]; the rest of us just sat around and figured out how to put it together.” The team, continues Mathews, came up with other trend-setting ideas, too: “It’s a cliche now, but we were the first to use terms like ‘news you can use.'”

Meanwhile, back in the trenches

That’s the big picture — but what does all this mean for local NPR affiliates like WCQS and WNCW?

Even in the virtual world of the Internet, radio stations need physical space. The day of Klose’s visit to Asheville, in fact, WCQS General Manager Ed Subkis unveiled the station’s admittedly ambitious plans to leave its 4,000-square-foot home at 73 Broadway and move up in the world — to a third-floor, 6,000-square-foot space next door. WCQS bought the 24,000-square-foot building three years ago and rents out parts of it for residential and commercial use.

The black-and-white tile at the entrance still reads “Eagles Home” (it was built in 1913, for the Fraternal Order of Eagles).

But taking the antiquated structure under the station’s wing won’t be cheap, conceded Subkis: Phase I renovations and construction financing are expected to cost nearly $2 million. And the station’s comprehensive vision for the future adds half again as much to the price tag: about $500,000 to convert to all-digital technologies; $100,000 for new translators; and $400,000 to beef up the station’s endowment fund.

“This is obviously tremendously ambitious. … All of this is visionary, [and] we want your feedback,” Subkis told a group of WCQS sponsors and supporters at an evening reception on Jan. 10. “To be blunt, we’re going to have to come to you to make this happen.”

In keeping with the station’s high-tech aspirations, the proposed renovations were displayed via video animation — a 3-D, virtual tour of the third floor at 75 Broadway, as it could be. Crafted by Garry Byrne of Appalachian Animation, the presentation “walked” viewers into the main-floor lobby right up to the (not-yet-existing) elevator doors. “We would have an elevator, so you wouldn’t have to mountain-climb like you did today,” Subkis joked — to view the presentation, the invited guests first had to climb a steep set of stairs up to a huge, open space now being used as a dance studio.

The virtual tour, simultaneously displayed on one huge screen and several smaller monitors, continued: The renovated third floor would house more and larger offices for staff and volunteers, plus new studios, built to higher acoustical standards than the current ones. The renovated first and second floors would be rented out for retail, nonprofit or residential use, providing income for the station (and room for future expansion).

A few days after the presentation, Subkis explained to Mountain Xpress, “We are running out of space here [at 73 Broadway].” The station employs about a dozen full-time staff and needs more — but has no place to put them. “I could justify doubling our staff right now, but we have staff offices the size of closets, with a couple of people [sharing space],” said Subkis. The new digs could accommodate nearly 20 full-time staff, with additional room for volunteers and their projects.

Another staff need is someone to run WCQS’s Web page and Internet services, as yet only minimally developed. “People haven’t been knocking down our doors, asking for [live] Web-casting,” said Subkis. “But we’ll be moving in that direction. Many people like Web-casting [live-feed broadcast over the Internet], because you can listen to our station on the road, from almost anywhere,” he added. Then, reflecting on Klose’s comments about the need for a Web presence, Subkis observed, “Nobody knows what they’re serving, but everyone wants to be at the [Internet] dinner table.”

You can’t stand still: And changing technologies often challenge us to evolve. Accordingly, WNCW — the region’s other NPR affiliate based in Spindale, N.C. — has already begun live broadcasts via its Web site (due, in part, to listener demand, says operations-support staffer Amy Jones). “I think we were the first station in [WNC] to do Web-casting and live-stream audio,” she says (the service went on-line last October). “But we’re kind of taking this thing one step at a time.”

The station sought Internet expertise from a local Web master since, as Jones puts it, “We’re radio people — we’re not computer experts.” But, she concedes, it’s a step into the digital age that the station — and others — will have to make. Like its Asheville-based neighbor, WCQS, WNCW is in the process of upgrading its equipment to digital systems — soon, there’ll be little, if any, reliance on old-fashioned, reel-to-reel audio. “But we’ve still got a few of those relics here,” Jones notes.

“The Internet is such an interesting medium, though, because it crosses so many media. It expands our presence, too,” she concludes.

And, though most folks seem to agree that the future is digital, for these local stations, there’s still some question about the when and the how.

“Radio will go digital, just like television is now,” said Subkis: “But the standards aren’t even set yet, and won’t be for another three to five years. We don’t know what to plan for yet.” That — plus other pressing needs at the station — have kept WCQS from expanding its Web presence just yet, he explained. “We don’t want to close our eyes to the future, but we might need to hire a new news director or a receptionist [before a Web director],” Subkis pointed out.

Nonetheless, for WCQS, the move into the digital age and the move into a larger space have an interrelated aim: “The key thing … for us is to expand our services. We don’t want to find ourselves falling short in 10 to 15 years — especially the way this area is growing.”

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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