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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP
City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP

WABE-FM beefs up its news staff, grows its audience

News director Michael Fields, morning host Steve Goss, GM John Weatherford and "Second Cup" host Lois Reitzes on August 19, 2010. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

News director Michael Fields, morning host Steve Goss, GM John Weatherford and "Second Cup" host Lois Reitzes on August 19, 2010. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

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's news operation

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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.

19 comments Add your comment

shadow7071

August 23rd, 2010
7:47 am

It’s encouraging to hear that WABE is doing so well in light of the fact that so many classical stations are suffering. However, my benchmark for a good classical station is WDAV coming from Davidson College, N.C. This is a station that minimizes news and commentary and focuses on music and the arts. And, they are the station that gets my financial support. One can only listen to so much NPR, All Things Considered and some of the pseudo-intellectual talk/dialogue that WABE broadcasts.

r

August 23rd, 2010
8:26 am

Sorry, shadow, I would rather have that “pseudo-intellectual talk” and NPR news broadcasting than classical all day. WABE has a respectable balance. A more appropriate model for what you’re wanting is the South Carolina ETV Radio network, which has separate NPR news and classical (and even jazz) stations across the state. I never thought I would say it but I think this is one instance where South Carolina is ahead of Georgia.

erebus

August 23rd, 2010
8:32 am

Hiring Martha Dalton was a smart choice.

lkjlj

August 23rd, 2010
8:38 am

I too would like them to dump the music and add more of the NPR programming and/or local news. Seems like most large cities I visit have the full NPR feed…

Daryl-Atlanta

August 23rd, 2010
9:21 am

WABE has several feeds to choose from online. You can get the 90.1 broadcast stream, pure Classical stream, an all news stream, and a Spanish language stream. On broadcast, still only 90.1. In this day of digital radio and new receivers, that could change when car radios are able to handle digital channels. Still though, listening off the website on a PC with good speakers, a stereo sound card and connection is as good or better than on a traditional radio.

Janet

August 23rd, 2010
10:21 am

I’ve noticed the difference and I’m glad. The police-blotter stuff is absent and the surrounding programming more felicitous to the ears than what other stations provide. When they hired Denis O’Hayer I knew they were getting more serious about local news coverage and I hope it continues.

WABE fan

August 23rd, 2010
10:56 am

Love WABE but HATE listening to Lois Reitzes on air! Heavy breather alert! Is she smoking?
John Linldly in the afternoon is awesome.

Nick Wright

August 23rd, 2010
11:29 am

Given Lois’s voice, I thought she was in her eighties, so this picture really surprises me. Maybe she had some sort of ailment?

Lula R. Denney

August 23rd, 2010
11:53 am

“Veteran of WXIA-TV and 640/WGST-AM” does not equal successful or a good on the air personality! I was so disappointed once Mr. O’Hayer made the jump from TV to radio. At the risk of sounding mean, I have to say he sounds like a used car salesperson. John Lemley may not have had the news or journalistic background, but he sure knew how to tell a story and how to sound like the NPR crew in Washington. As much as I hate to say it, I now listen for my daily dose of All Things Considered on my iPhone from the Boston NPR station. On the other hand, I am now listening to the middle of the day programming, so that I can still hear John Lemley. His City Cafe has become my daily lunch date.

Mark43

August 23rd, 2010
2:04 pm

Wow! I thought Lois Reitzes was some old elderly lady too. Are you sure that is her in the picture? Definitely does not match the voice.

Wayne Walker

August 23rd, 2010
4:02 pm

Am I the only one who thinks Lois Reitzes sounds really cool? Kinda cougar-sexy??? Anyway, I really would prefer to hear less Classical on Saturday afternoon/evenings… I don’t really enjoy the opera while performing family shopping chores. Otherwise, I think the station has improved dramatically in the last couple of years, and it makes for an intelligent listening choice to “angry White-folks radio” WSB-AM.

Dan

August 23rd, 2010
4:36 pm

Gee, you mean you can increase ratings for radio news when you report on something other than who got shot and what burned down last night?
Who knew? Certainly not WSB.

Thanks for the lengthy article Rodney. It provides a clear summary of the reasons why WABE is increasing its ratings and taking a big bite of the ratings at 750 AM.

On another point, agree with the comments on Lois Reitzes – I had her in her 60s – has to have smoked a pack a day at soem point with that great voice for radio

maria

August 23rd, 2010
6:29 pm

You can definitely increase ratings for radio news when you report on just about anything, if you add Steve Goss to the equation!

maria

August 23rd, 2010
6:37 pm

oops-wasn’t finished. I started listening a few years ago when Mr.Goss was made host of Morning Edition, and now I find my radio tuned to WABE morning, and through The World, All Things Considered, all the way up to and through Terry Gross’s show. I used to listen to DAVE FM most days! The intelligent reporting and interesting series are refreshing and to be found no where else! Now, if NPR on the whole could be perceived by the masses as a little less left-leaning, that would be lovely!

d-man

August 23rd, 2010
9:27 pm

Enter your comments here

active listener

August 24th, 2010
12:22 am

WABE is an enjoyable station. Sometimes a bit tooo much talking. Sunday afternoons could be much better with less interviews and talk..Bob Edwards and all the other talk needs to stop, please!
Could WABE have a talk only station and a classical only station…two channels like other public radio stations? Good article. Thanks

Billy

August 24th, 2010
6:47 am

WABE does have NPR news/talk on their Hybrid Digital 3 channel. Unfortunately, there are serious engineering problems with the audio on their HD channels. The high frequencies are boosted so much that I find the station impossible to listen to on my HD receiver.

Silent Jay

August 25th, 2010
2:14 am

That’s the Stunt Lois in the picture. Actually, they’re 90.1 because that’s her age.

Susan

August 28th, 2010
8:48 pm

WABE needs to give us the NPR feeds, and drop Lois Reitzes. the voice is unbearable. It is not just the breathing issues, but the fact that by dragging out each word it takes an interminable amount of time for her to say anything …( And…this …. Saturday… at the …Fox… you can…expect to …be …charmed…by….)…oh, it is horrific! I never write in, but please!