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Left of the Dial

Everybody’s wringing their hands over media consolidation and \ncorporatization, but in Missoula, public radio is top of the pops. What’s the secret to KUFM’s success? Location, location, location…

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This week or next, some dedicated Montana Public Radio listener will bake a lemon chiffon cake for Public Radio Week. Soon, another listener will receive the delectable homemade dessert, with an attached note identifying its baker as a “Southern Belle,” in exchange for their pledge of support to Montana Public Radio KUFM, found in Missoula at 89.1 FM. Saturday, April 2, marks the beginning of the Montana Public Radio Week pledge drive, and comes during the network’s 40th anniversary. The Southern Belle, along with nearly 2,000 others, will donate edible treats or oddities like live goats and llama manure to help lure other listeners to call and pledge. These rewards are different from the standard fare—cruises, cars and cash—often offered to draw listeners to commercial radio. Montana Public Radio itself is a little different.

Since 1996, the radio industry has changed rapidly. Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which largely deregulated the radio industry. Media giants like Clear Channel Communications and Viacom were poised and ready to expand. They went on buying sprees, gobbling up stations that were previously out of reach. To maximize profitability, publicly traded media companies downsized their staffs and centralized operations. Now, DJs in Chicago or Dallas sleep soundly while their prerecorded voice tracks filter through speakers into the companies’ smaller markets. Critics of radio deregulation say that its effect has been to impoverish the airwaves. Now, by design, one size fits most. Listeners, though, are as individual as the airwaves can be monotonous.

Industry analysts say that radio centralization peaked a couple of years ago. The business model was profitable through the 1990s, when new Internet companies funneled dollars into radio advertising, but the industry recently hit a slump on Wall Street. Music fans increasingly plug into iPods instead, and satellite radio attempts to draw listeners away from the FM dial. Standing quite outside the fray is Montana Public Radio.

Montana Public Radio has a different model, one based on strong local programming. And in Missoula, local plays well. Montana Public Radio’s local station, KUFM, holds its own. In the fall 2004 ratings, KUFM ranked ahead of all other stations in the Missoula market among listeners 12 and older tuned in from 6 a.m. to midnight.

“Local programming seems to have—not always, but generally—a positive effect on ratings,” says Mike Gould, president of media research firm Eastlan Resources, in a phone interview.

With roughly 50 percent local programming, Montana Public Radio is slightly out of step even with other public radio stations. It is certainly out of step with commercial radio in Missoula. From fairly humble beginnings, and with limited resources, Montana Public Radio has created an apparently bombproof niche in Missoula’s radio market.

YOU’RE ON THE AIR

Montana Public Radio started in 1965 as just one station, KUFM, broadcasting from the University of Montana’s journalism building. The station started as a student training facility, and its broadcasts were part-time, dependent on students and volunteers. In the beginning, KUFM used a 10-watt transmitter. “Just tiny,” says Linda Talbott, director of marketing and community relations. The signal didn’t reach beyond UM’s campus. Even so, the station gained a local following. During afternoon broadcasts of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, community members would pull their cars into the parking lot on the edge of campus in order to tune in.

Longtime station volunteer Kitty Ortman was a UM student in the 1970s; she had moved to Missoula to attend UM, and a friend told her to check out the “fabulous” station. She started volunteering, too. Ortman remembers one of KUFM’s early fund-raisers—a weekend affair during which KUFM asked for just a couple thousand dollars. Volunteers took pledges on just two or three phones in a room at the journalism school.

In 1973, KUFM moved a new transmitter to Snow Bowl, increasing the power to 14,500 watts, and opera fans no longer had to listen to Puccini from bucket seats. KUFM became a National Public Radio affiliate in 1974. Between 1993 and 1999, it underwent a signal extension project, which improved signal quality in some areas and extended service to others. Today, KUFM is one of 12 stations that compose the Montana Public Radio system. Together, the stations reach well beyond Missoula to Whitefish, Kalispell, Hamilton, Helena, Butte, Dillon and Great Falls.

As National Public Radio (NPR) grew, many of NPR’s public radio station affiliates began subscribing to more and more NPR shows, effectively becoming “repeater stations.” KUFM, too, could easily become a repeater station. Already KUFM broadcasts nationwide standards including NPR’s “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” “Car Talk” and “Prairie Home Companion,” as well as Public Radio International’s BBC World Service and National Native News. Nationwide, public radio stations offer on average 40 percent local programming, compared to Montana Public Radio’s 50 percent, according to NPR spokeswoman Jenny Lawhorn.

The emphasis on local programming is a legacy of one of the station’s founding fathers, Terry Conrad, says William Marcus, director of the Broadcast Media Center and station manager of both KUFM radio and KUFM TV.

“We could just be a repeater station on the satellite all the time,” Marcus says. “Terry made a concerted effort to not go that way, to maintain a local voice, to maintain a local identity.”

Much of KUFM’s programming remains not only local but also eclectic. “Field Notes” (Sundays at 11:55 a.m. and Thursdays at 9:30 p.m.) discusses the bugs and birds of Western and Central Montana. On “Front Row Center” (Sundays at 12:05 p.m.), Program Director Michael Marsolek and Montana Repertory Theatre Director Greg Johnson have chatted about upcoming productions. On “Musicians’ Spotlight” (Tuesdays at 3:30 p.m. and Wednesdays at 11:30 p.m.), local singer-songwriter Tom Catmull has chatted about his latest album. Montana Public Radio also produces local news, from News Director Sally Mauk reporting on the Black Mountain fire two summers ago to William Marcus noting the recent closure of the Italian Broadway Market.

Conrad, 59, retired in 2001 but still selects the classical music playlist. He explains how the station’s eclecticism evolved. At one point, he says, the station asked listeners to help expand its slim collection of blues. Blues fan Bob Presthus walked into the station. He had an enormous blues library, Conrad says, but no knowledge of radio.

“We introduced him to radio,” Conrad says.

Presthus, in turn, introduced Western and Central Montana to the Blues and has been hosting “Blues on the Move,” (Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m.) for more than 20 years now.

“I’m glad KUFM is not just classical,” says fan and volunteer Ortman. “It’s got jazz. It’s got children’s shows. It’s got bluegrass. And in larger cities, public radio is so often just one style. And we have so much.”

BREAKING THE MOLD

“The most popular format in public radio is news/classical,” writes NPR’s Lawhorn. “Many of those stations also air some jazz—maybe one or two hours a week.”

Montana Public Radio focuses more broadly.

“There’s been a trend in the public radio industry to narrow the focus to be either all one kind of music or all news and talk,” Talbott says. “We’ve really held onto being a little bit of everything to everybody.”

It wasn’t market success that Montana Public Radio was after when it steered down that path. Rather, as Montana Public Radio grew, Conrad wanted to preserve the relationship it had cultivated early on between its stations and local volunteers and their diverse expertise. Today, most of the 30 or so staff positions are paid.

Marcus believes that Conrad’s dedication to maintaining a strong local identity was “absolutely the right decision to make.”

“You can get in your car in Seattle and drive to Miami and listen to the same station,” Marcus says. “For some people, that’s cool. To me, there’s a whole local flavor of radio that you lose. That’s why I think we have a reasonable chance to survive, because we do have a local sense to us.”

KUFM, though, is not merely surviving. According to the ratings book, it’s thriving. Some say the station’s success is due to the character of its listener. There is a persistent belief that the public radio listener is a liberal and that KUFM dominates the Missoula market because Missoula is a liberal town. It’s not that simple, and if true, it’s an encouraging definition of liberal. Roughly 60,000 listeners out of a potential 300,000 in Western and Central Montana tune into a Montana Public Radio station in any given week, Talbott says. “My sense of our listener base in Montana is that it is mixed. It’s the full spectrum of people who are in Montana. During the pledge drive, we get phone calls from children and families that are listening to the children’s show. We get calls from the hard-core business types that are listening to the morning and evening news. The ones who get up and have it on in the shower with them. We get calls from farmers and ranchers who are out in their tractors or combines with public radio on.”

NPR has studied the listener demographic nationally.

“Independent studies of listeners by Pew, Gallup and other research organizations show that the NPR listenership reflects the general political views of the American population, evenly divided among conservative, middle-of-the-road and liberal ideologies,” NPR’s Lawhorn writes.

While listeners may run the political gamut, members (and donors) do lean toward a more liberal demographic, Marcus thinks. That group of core contributing members “skews more educated, more white, more liberal,” Marcus says.

If there is a commonality among public radio listeners, writes Lawhorn, it is that they tend to be educated. “Fifty-eight percent of our listeners have college degrees,” she writes. In other words, public radio stations do well in markets where the population is generally well educated. She cites Seattle and Raleigh, N.C., as examples. Missoula lags behind those cities in terms of education (both have college-educated populations of close to 48 percent, while the college-educated account for only 37.7 percent of Missoula’s population, according to Missoula Area Economic Development Corporation), but it passes for highly educated in Montana at large, the degreed population of which hovers at a percentage in the mid-20s.

Whether public radio’s core listener is a Democrat or Republican, higher-brow listeners have a tendency to turn up their noses at commercial radio. Ortman is an anomaly: a public radio fan who listens to public and commercial radio both.

“You can win fabulous prizes between some of the different radio stations, and some of them are very supportive of public radio, too.” Ortman says. “I do listen to—God forbid—commercial radio, but yes, I do.”

Why God forbid?

“There are some people who are real purists and think we should listen only to [public radio],” Ortman says. “You know what it’s like.”

THE BIG BOYS

Two companies, Clear Channel Communications and Fisher Communications, Inc., own most commercial radio stations in Missoula. Clear Channel’s holdings include Wild 107.5, KGVO news radio 1290, KYSS FM 94.9, 96.3 The Blaze, KLCY 930 AM and, in Hamilton, KLYQ1240 AM. Fisher Communications, Inc., owns six Missoula stations: KZOQ 100.1, Z-100, KGGL “Eagle” 93.3, KXDR 98.7 FM, KGRZ sports talk at 1450, talk radio KYLT 1340 and KBQQ 106.7.

Clear Channel General Manager Gene Peterson declined an interview about the local radio market, claiming that his company has been historically misrepresented by the Independent, including a barb in the Feb. 24 Best Of Missoula 2005 issue. (“Loud and endless advertisements have kept Clear Channel’s pile of cookie-cutter stations uncompetitive (again)…” our writer wrote in announcing the readers’ choice for best radio station: KUFM, followed by UM’s student station KBGA.)

Clear Channel not only declined to talk with an Independent reporter, it severed all promotional ties with the newspaper. (Clear Channel and the Independent had bartered advertising space.)

Clear Channel’s national public relations firm requested an emailed list of questions and, upon receiving them, determined that local Clear Channel contacts were best equipped to answer.

Fisher Communications, Inc., owns radio stations in Billings, Butte, Great Falls, Missoula, Wenatchee, Wash., and Seattle and television stations throughout Oregon, Washington and Idaho. The company has a “Northwest footprint,” says general manager Chad Parrish. Parrish, too, believes that local content is of utmost importance. Three out of six of its Missoula stations are 100 percent local, meaning DJs living in Missoula host the shows and select the playlists.

“To us, it is absolutely paramount that we are local,” Parrish says.

In Clear Channel’s lobby, Rolling Stone covers dominate the coffee table and wallscape. Fisher’s office, on the other hand, resonates with Missoula relics. A Monte Dolack print, “No Room to Roam,” hangs in the reception area. On a small table sit copies of the Kaimin, UM’s student-run newspaper. Inside Parrish’s office is another Dolack print and a souvenir from Glacier National Park: a plaster cast of a grizzly print from a bear Parrish believes may have once crossed his path.

Parrish, who has steel blue eyes and a steady gaze, has been in the radio industry since 1968. He started as a DJ, owned his own station and now is general manager for Fisher Communications. Parrish does not see KUFM as a competitor.

“Public radio is a very viable product,” he says. “But because they don’t sell advertising, they are not our competitors. After all, we are a business and we are here to make a profit. So yes, KUFM does have listeners, which takes away from the overall marketplace. But they don’t sell advertising so, therefore, they are not a true competitor to us.”

Fisher’s stations generate the most calls, Parrish says, during fund-raisers. He cites Z-100’s tsunami fund-raiser, a 24-hour call-in in January, which generated $25,000 from area listeners. During the smoky summer of 2000, many people in the Bitterroot lost power, and lost the meat in their freezers. The station asked listeners to donate and “hundreds” called in. During those times, Parrish says, the station merely facilitates the community’s generosity.

“That’s the community speaking their heart, you know. And so those are the things that matter to the community and that’s what being local is,” he says.

But Parrish also cites pragmatic and tangible reasons that broadcasting from—and advertising in—listeners’ back yards is important: “They wouldn’t know if Bob Ward’s is having a sale and they’re having a sale on Columbia and you want a Columbia jacket. They wouldn’t know when the tire shop is having a sale on winter snow tires and you know full well that you’ve got to get your winter snow tires this week. They wouldn’t know when the Kiwanis Club is having a pancake feed. I mean, they wouldn’t know those things that are local…They wouldn’t know that Sentinel won that ballgame by 12 points,” he says.

Parrish provided the Independent with the most recent ratings—fall 2004—tracking listeners ages 12 and up from 6 a.m. until midnight during a one-week time period. KUFM had the greatest listener base—12 percent—of any Missoula station. Since at least spring 2002, for the same time period and demographic, the station’s rank hasn’t slipped below number four.

Categorized by station owner, the same report shows Fisher Communications consistently outpacing Clear Channel since at least spring 2002. Clear Channel’s hold on the Missoula market, by comparison, has slipped over the last two years. Spring 2002 ratings show that 34.3 percent of the 12-and-up listeners tuned into a Clear Channel station between 6 a.m. and midnight. By fall 2004, that percentage had fallen to 28.9.

Parrish isn’t willing to speculate whether Fisher stations collectively carry more local programming than Clear Channel stations do.

In 2004, Fisher Communications lost Z-100 morning show hosts Craig and Al, who jumped to Clear Channel’s KYSS-FM. That topic is not up for discussion with Parrish.

KUFM’s Talbott, however, says that even during Craig and Al’s tenure with Z-100, ratings showed that KUFM and Z-100 were “neck and neck” for morning listeners. Now that Craig and Al have moved to Clear Channel, KUFM is back in the morning lead. (For the record, Clear Channel’s Craig and Al again rank tops in the “Best Radio Personality” category in the 2005 Independent reader’s poll.)

Clear Channel appears still to be attempting to decipher and respond to the Missoula market. The Wild Boyz, a hip-hop threesome who stormed the Missoula airwaves last year, signed a contract with Clear Channel last fall, essentially renting hours on 107.5 to play hip-hop. At the time, the Wild Boyz told the Independent that Missoula was “hungry for hip-hop.” Clear Channel critics charge the conglomerate with delivering the least diverse and most repetitive playlists to its listeners. The Wild Boyz, though, believed that Clear Channel’s willingness to sign them on indicated that the station was receptive to local programming. Parrish, too, has observed that Clear Channel’s Missoula stations, perhaps in response to the local landscape, strive for more of a local focus than Clear Channel stations in other markets.

HOMEGROWN

KUFM’s ratings compared with its commercial counterparts are, to public radio staff, “an interesting tidbit.” Ratings do not drive public radio’s programming. It’s Public Radio Week that best embodies the elements that make Montana Public Radio the homegrown companion that it is for many people. Loyal listeners drive from Kalispell and Whitefish to volunteer at the station. Others donate premiums, or gifts for the givers. In the fund-raiser’s grand finale, Pet Wars, listeners make competitive pledges on behalf of their favorite pet.

“To me, the legends are how things start,” Marcus says. “How did we end up with 2,000 premiums? How did we end up with Pet Wars? Because you really can’t plan that. On the face of it, that sounds like a really dumb idea to do. But I think that the trick there was not saying ‘no’ to people. When we got the first call from someone who said, ‘you know, I really don’t have any cash but I’ll mow somebody’s lawn if they give you 15 bucks,’ we didn’t say, well, you know, we don’t want to handle that. We said, okay.”

“All of a sudden, people started calling in with these offers, so it came from the community,” Conrad says.

The premiums “just grew over 25 years into what is something that would be unbelievably daunting to start from the ground up and it would take 10 years to develop,” Marcus says.

“One that’s really tickled my fancy this year is an anti-road-rage lavender car sachet,” Talbott says. If road-rage is getting to you, “squeeze the sachet and relax.”

Some premiums are undeniably rural and Montana. Llama manure, for instance, wouldn’t likely be auctioned off in Seattle or New York City. But probably the most famous premiums are the goats donated by the local Gisselbeck farm. The station decided against accepting live animals as premiums years ago, but the goats are “grandfathered in.”

“They’re so Montana, so unusual,” Marcus says.

“They’re just like little babies,” says Ortman.

“We couldn’t do without them,” Conrad affirms.

Pledge week fundraising takes place in a small room in the PAR/TV Center on campus. It is, Talbott says, “cozy, to put it nicely.”

“It’s not our largest studio, but it is the one that is adjacent to the broadcast booth, so we have the dynamics between the person on the air and the people in the volunteer room,” she says.

More than 300 volunteers show up during the week, most to answer the old-fashioned ringing phones.

“We steal everybody’s handsets that have a shoulder rest for the week,” Talbott says.

The week culminates with Pet Wars. Then the call volume skyrockets, the noise levels peak and the pace becomes frenetic.

Volunteers must be seasoned before they’re put to work on the Pet Wars session.

“You put the phone down and it immediately rings again because people are trying to get through because they want to pledge in honor of their pet ferret or their dog,” Ortman says. Or weasel.

Her favorite Pet War pledge, Ortman says, came from a friend of hers who owned a weasel named after a not-so-beloved Montana politician. “He would pledge every year on behalf of ‘My pet weasel, Judy Martz,’” she says. “It was probably a ferret, but he called it a weasel.”

Over the years, Montana Public Radio has gained many die-hard volunteers—the ones who have set the dial and ripped the knob off their set, Talbott says—who spend time at the station during fund-raising week. “We don’t have a paid group of data enterers to work during [public radio week],” Marcus says. And he says he wouldn’t want to. “I would resist that just for the sake of involvement of volunteers. It’s a lot of fun to see everybody.”

Ortman is one such die-hard volunteer. She talks of “driveway moments,” when a listener parks her car but can’t turn off the radio to run an errand because she’s got to hear the end of the program. Ortman had one such moment just the other day, she says, when composer Stephen Sondheim was being interviewed. She pulled into the parking lot of Macy’s and stayed in her car until the interview ended.

Her three children were born to the broadcasts of public radio, she says:

“We brought a radio into the delivery room.”

Her son Zach Nachtigal, 7, was born at 4 p.m., during “The Pea Green Boat,” a children’s show, and they heard the frequently played children’s song, “Waltzing with Bears.” As a volunteer, Ortman is watching the next generation of public radio listeners grow up. She sees the same families and children in the telephone room year after year.

“They started when they’re maybe 10, 11, 12 at least. They’ll sharpen pencils while their parents answer phones,” she says.

Each year, the kids get taller.

“It’s kind of fun to see that—another generation,” she says.

Much of Montana Public Radio’s financial support is local, too. More than 5,000 people donate pledges as small as $1 and as large as $10,000. Listener contributions account for 65 percent of the station’s budget, Talbott says. The other 35 percent is divided more or less equally between state support through the University of Montana and federal Corporation for Public Broadcasting grants.

Only rarely does KUFM fail to reach its fund-raising goal.

“I don’t think that we’ve ever had a failure of response,” Marcus says. “It’s been overreaching expectations on our part.”

ON THE MOVE

In the past five years, NPR listenership nationally has grown 64 percent, according to its 2003 annual report, the most recent posted on its website. Growth locally has been more gradual.

By 1999, the satellite extension project had improved the quality of the signal to many stations.

“We’ve seen an increase in our membership since then,” Talbott says. “It’s been gradual, but we were expecting it to be gradual.” Montana Public Radio would like to expand. Four years ago, the station applied to put a transmitter in Libby. Due to a “very complicated legal battle” that is wa

ging nationally, the Federal Communications Commission “just froze all noncommercial transmitter applications,” Marcus says.

The FCC influences not only the station’s transmitters, but its content as well. After Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, the FCC received an onslaught of caller complaints. Then-Chairman Michael Powell levied a $550,000 fine against CBS and went on a media morality witch hunt. In 2004, FCC-levied fines reached a historical high of $7.7 million, compared with $48,000 four years earlier.

An FCC fine is a fee that Montana Public Radio does not want to receive, so it watches its mouth. While the FCC has never fined or even cited Montana Public Radio, Talbott says that more stringent enforcement has compelled the station to occasionally edit its on-air content. During “Selected Shorts,” for instance, the station edited a reading of author Maile Meloy’s story “Ranch Girl,” which included some swear words.

“My personal opinion is the words in the context of the story were not in bad taste and probably would not have offended [listeners], but we had to bleep some of them,” Talbott says.

With only about a $1 million annual operating budget, an FCC fine could cripple Montana Public Radio, so the station steps carefully.

Montana Public Radio founding father Conrad describes radio as an old technology that just will not go away. Radio, he says, is with people in their most intimate spaces: “It wakes you up in your bedroom.” Since 1996, though, the number of radio listeners has dropped. Industry experts cite increased commercial time on radio and, more recently, competing media like iPods as culprits. Nevertheless, public radio listenership is up in general, and strong in Montana. Analysts say ratings are an inexact science, and the recipe for success is complex and elusive. Montana Public Radio, though, has a model that resonates heartily with Missoula and through Central and Western Montana, too. It isn’t the “cookie-cutter” model of the larger commercial networks. A good number of locals choose the farmer’s market and resist the chain grocer. They drink Montana-made brew over beers made in Nevada. So people who cherish locally grown tomatoes hold local radio in high esteem, too. That shouldn’t be so surprising.

kszpaller@missoulanews.com

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