Rick Lewis opened his first staff meeting as the new general manager of radio station KLON in an unanticipated way: by announcing that he had no announcements.
"He's very low-key," said Ken Borgers, programming director for the National Public Radio station which broadcasts from the campus of California State University, Long Beach. "He's a good delegator (who) believes in letting his managers do the jobs they were hired to do."
Underneath that placid exterior, however, is a man with a mission: to make the station--known as "FM 88"--deserving of respect nationwide.
In 1981, when Lewis' predecessor, David Creagh, inherited what for years had been the educational voice of the Long Beach Unified School District, the station "didn't know what it was," said Gene Asher, director of university relations and KLON's executive director. It was an eclectic grab bag that presented Creagh with the challenge of "literally making a radio station from nothing but a signal," Asher said. That has been accomplished. KLON, now owned and operated by the university, specializes in news and jazz. A subscriber base of zero has grown to more than 5,000 and an estimated 120,000 listeners tune in each week.
But Lewis, 38, has a vision of what the station can become: an "authoritative news source" that covers developments throughout the state for its listeners in Southern California.
It was his strong news background, in fact, that Asher says brought Lewis to the forefront of the dozen candidates who were considered for the job. Lewis, a native of Iowa, spent the last four years as manager of an all-news AM station in St. Paul, Minn. and vice president for news of Minnesota Public Radio.
Before that he was deputy director of the news division for National Public Radio in Washington. When initially approached for the Long Beach job, the young manager was only mildly interested, according to Asher. But he eventually came around, Lewis said, because of the tremendous growth potential he saw in Long Beach. "We're poised to take off," said Lewis, who has been on the job only since Thanksgiving.
For that growth to happen, though, a number of things must occur.
First, he said, the subscriber base must be expanded even further to enhance the station's finances. To achieve that, KLON has applied to the Federal Communications Commission for a power boost that would more than double the population within its signal area from 2.7 million to about 6 million.
Also, he said, the station must expand and broaden its news coverage by either hiring or linking up with reporters in the greater Los Angeles basin, Orange County, Sacramento and elsewhere in the state. One way to do that, he said, would be to create a statewide network involving other public radio stations. In addition to covering events in California, he said, he would eventually like to cover economic or political developments in Pacific Rim countries that are of interest to Southern Californians. Whether that would be done by sending staff reporters to the scene or by relying on free-lancers, he said, remains to be determined.
And finally, Lewis said, the station must decide whether or not to remain affiliated with National Public Radio.
It's a question facing many public radio stations in the wake of NPR's well-publicized financial crisis which recently culminated in a major shift in how future federal funding will be divided between NPR and the local stations. While in the past, according to Lewis, about 65% of the federal money--which is channeled through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting--has gone to NPR, beginning in the fall most of it will go directly to the stations. In KLON's case, he said, the result will be an increase of $137,000 per year--from $201,000 to $338,000--in direct federal funding.
Stations that choose to affiliate with NPR will return some of the federal money to the network in fees.
"What we're seeing is a permanent shift to a marketplace system" in which national producers compete for the public-radio dollar, Lewis said. KLON, he said, will probably decide whether to stay with the network after April, when NPR leaders are expected to set new membership rates for the coming year.
In the meantime, Lewis said, he's been working seven days a week.
With the arrival this week of his wife, Anne, and 13-year-old son--both of whom stayed behind to take care of family business--Lewis was busy moving from the local motel room he had occupied for two months to a condominium near the ocean in Long Beach.
His plans for KLON? "To make it just as good as it can be," he said. To create "a nationally recognized, first-rate station that deserves the support it gets."