This is an extended version of the column that’s running in print Monday:
When John Weatherford took over as general manager of public radio station 90.1/WABE-FM six years ago, the newsroom consisted of just two reporters and two part-time announcers. Today, the station is about to hire its 10th full-time newsroom employee.
As other radio stations have scaled back local news staffs, WABE has been filling a void. And despite the economy, it’s been growing listeners and individual donor monies.
Weatherford, 66, was himself in front of the camera at Channel 5 from 1977 to 1982 and in TV management for 11 years from 1982 to 1993. He ran a production company after that. His big picture rationale for beefing up the news department:
Whether through radio or some other medium or outlet, I think it’s critically important for there to be a strong news organization in every community for the good of the citizens in that community, the community and, ultimately for the health of our democracy.
The station in the spring of 2009 averaged a 3.2 share in the Arbitron ratings. In the first seven months of 2010, it was up to 4.8, always landing in the top 10. WABE now draws about 450,000 listeners a week, with a record 43,500 supporters contributing the past year.
Even more impressive, donors who give $1,000 or more a year have more than quadrupled since 2006 to 450, thanks partly to invites to special outings such as a special exhibit at the High Museum or a live taping of “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”
WABE for years has drawn plenty of consumers who love national and international news via “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” But Weatherford wants listeners to get in-depth local coverage as well.
“The only place I consider I can get real journalism on the radio is WABE,” said Jim Massara, a 50-year-old cartoonist from Lilburn, who is listening more now than ever. He said he likes more than the headlines he gets on other stations.
“When they put Denis O’Hayer on,” Massara added, “I knew they were serious.” O’Hayer, a veteran of WXIA-TV and 640/WGST-AM, joined as a local afternoon host in early 2009.
The station, given its pedigree, avoids daily crime stories, focusing on local policy issues such as education and politics, feeding listeners about five or six local reports a day. “We don’t have the resources to chase every story out there. We try to identify stories and make them our own,” said news director and 30-year broadcast and radio veteran Michael Fields, citing the Grady Hospital problems a couple years ago as an example.
In the past week, WABE-FM has extensively covered the Atlanta Public Schools cheating investigation, despite the fact the station is owned by the Atlanta Public Schools. “We just need to make sure we are thorough and accurate whenever we report on the schools,” Fields said.
The station has also beefed up arts coverage with its daily “City Cafe” hosted by John Lemley at noon and Lois Reitzes’ weekly “Preview” segment highlighting events around town.
Though its listeners are largely older and more affluent, Weatherford said WABE can’t ignore younger listeners who are consuming news differently. He recently created a digital services department. The station now has an iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch application and a Droid version coming soon. And the 10th news hire will be focused on the Web.
“Our goal is to maintain high standards and put good work out there,” he said. “Then we need to find a way to connect with our listeners whatever way it works for them.”
And here’s some more information in case that wasn’t enough:
The station has been in solid financial shape for many years. It has not had to cut staff in this current recession. The station now has a $11.5 million budget for FY 2011 (starting July 1, 2010), which also includes the TV station PBA. That’s up from about $9 million in 2004.
It draws about $5.5 million from individual donors and $3.8 million from corporate underwriting. While individual donors are up, underwriting is down from more than $4 million at its peak. The station receives grants (mostly from the federal government) that totals $1.8 million, plus another $296,805 in ancillary income. About 80 percent of its revenue comes from radio station and 20 percent for the TV station, Weatherford said.
The station is able to operate year in, year out, without any financial help from the Atlanta Public Schools – except for some capital costs for the building. The station also pays only a nominal rent for the space (albeit the space itself is more than 55 years old)
As I’ve written about before during pledge drives, the station in 2007 shifted its strategy. Instead of begging people to reach a total goal, they push for number of participants instead. This has worked nearly every time. And Weatherford has the on-air staff talk more about how the money is used, to provide transparency.
Over the years, the news shows tend to draw larger audiences than the classical side. In 2003, a group formed to pressure the station to increase news/talk on its main station. But the station has held firm, maintaining that classical music is still an important component to the station, with Reitzes as the rock. For people who want all talk or all classical, they have HD, mobile, podcast and online options.