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Public Radio Station Wants More Listeners

THE PUBLIC RADIO WARS, last of four parts

October 11, 1985|JOHN VOLAND

In a megalopolis that has given birth to a litter of five public-radio stations, KPCC-FM (89.3) has always been the runt.

While its somewhat bigger siblings are reaping the benefits of increasing audience shares and fund-raising revenues, the 28-year-old Pasadena City College station is still scratching out an existence in the San Gabriel Valley.

KPCC management recently juggled its format for the third time in as many years, trying to make something it calls "intimate radio" appeal to a wider listenership.

If all goes well, less (less money, less audience, less resources) will become a little more.

Less money, however, prevents KPCC from affiliating with American Public Radio--an affiliation that KPCC program director Larry Shirk thinks might add more to his station's regular National Public Radio fare.

"We can't afford to get APR, and we'd have only tertiary rights--which leaves us with practically nothing," Shirk said indignantly.

Under the APR exclusivity rules, first rights to any APR program go to the first station in a market that contracts with the Minnesota-based network. Because KUSC and KLON have already signed up for first and second rights in the Los Angeles basin, KPCC would only get to broadcast what those two stations didn't want, a prospect that, once again, would put beleaguered KPCC in the "also ran" category.

"I think these guys (APR management) are going about it all wrong," Shirk said. "They're dictating terms of membership from above. If they're going to be a public radio network, then all the programming should be for the public, not siphoned to one station in the midst of 7 million people."

On the "more" side of Shirk's "less is more" formula, KPCC's latest format change is away from modern and be-bop jazz to their more traditional cousins: swing and big-band-era music. In addition, the station is applying to the Federal Communications Commission to place a new transmitter on Mt. Wilson, a move designed to potentially double its audience size.

"We're trying to get it moving before Oct. 26, when we'll have our next fund drive," Shirk said.

The station garners about 46,000 listeners during any given quarter-hour period, an increase of 8,000 over last year, Shirk said. (In contrast, Santa Monica-based KCRW has 180,000 listeners and KUSC, 250,000.)

KPCC does have one advantage in its relatively small current audience. Within the next year, NPR is expected to drastically increase its membership fees, partially basing its charges on audience share and station budget. KPCC's fees should increase only slightly (about 25%), chiefly because the station's $200,000 annual budget, as well as its audience size, are significantly smaller than other area NPR outlets, Shirk said.

Currently, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting picks up about 33% of the station's annual tab, Shirk said.

There would be no change in the 3,800-watt station's attitude toward its student help, which Shirk estimated is instrumental in producing "around 70% of what you hear every day."

"The students still play a very major role in the station's operation," Shirk said. "We're proud that we can give students a chance to work under professional auspices here and that they respond so well. No other National Public Radio station in town gives their students as much work as we do. And if APR comes aboard, then there'll be more still."

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