Craig Dorval, the new general manager of KPBS-FM (89.5), San Diego’s public broadcasting station, makes only one promise about the future of the station.
“The one certainty is there will be changes,” he said in a recent interview, as he relaxed in his office on the San Diego State University campus.
KPBS has reached a plateau, in members, listeners and financial resources, Dorval said. He intends to take it to the next step.
“People are going to look back at this as a really terrific time for public radio in San Diego,” said Dorval, 35. “It’s going to be very different in the next 10 years.”
Within the next few months, Dorval expects to hire someone for the key program director position he vacated when he took over as general manager in December.
Dorval said the station also will embark on a major research project in the next few months to determine exactly what course it will take.
“I don’t see anything in the program schedule as sacred,” Dorval said.
Now, KPBS primarily features popular shows supplied by National Public Radio, such as “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition,” and a classical music format, in addition to an eclectic smattering of programs such as “Calling Moscow” and “San Diego On Air,” a half hour produced by local community producers.
The station’s many critics complain that KPBS has been moving further and further away from the role a public broadcasting station should fulfill in the community. Classical music, they point out, is available on KFSD-FM (94.1), a commercial station.
“I feel like they have a responsibility to provide services that are not duplicated elsewhere, services that are not economically viable,” said Rick Moore, a former KPBS community producer.
A public broadcasting station should not concern itself with such things as ratings and building a broad audience, KPBS critics say.
“They are not in the game to get ratings,” said long-time KPBS employee Ken Kramer, now a writer, producer and host for KSDO-AM (1130). “They are here to enhance the community and do the types of programming not heard elsewhere.”
Dorval has heard the complaints before.
“You can turn on the transmitter, but if people aren’t out there on the other end, who cares?,” Dorval countered. “We’re looking to make a difference.”
Dorval is focusing the upcoming research project, expected to cost about $10,000, on KPBS’s most devoted listeners, the fans of the NPR programming, the “strength” of the station. People habitually tune in radio stations, not specific programs, Dorval said. San Diego, Dorval said, simply does not have a strong audience for public broadcasting, compared to other cities such as Boston and San Francisco.
“You have to have people listening to you,” Dorval said. “What we’re doing is targeting (an audience). Right now we’re attracting a certain segment. Our strength comes from those listening to NPR. We need to grow from that instead of trying to attract people who don’t necessarily like that.”
KPBS switched its emphasis to classical music in October, 1986. Although it has attracted a loyal following, the format forced a cutback in regularly produced local community shows. In the format before the switch to classical music, though, the locally produced news and information shows had to be repeated throughout the day to fill the daily programming schedule. In many markets, public radio stations air a broad mix of programming, from the folksy to the political.
“You have to remember, (KPBS) exists to address an audience that is necessarily small,” Kramer said. “If they are going for ratings, they are missing the point.”
Thirty-one percent of KPBS-FM’s funding comes from federal and state money earmarked for public broadcasting. Accepting the money obligates KPBS to operate as a public broadcasting entity, to have priorities vastly different from those of a commercial station, Kramer and others say.
Money, of course, is a major consideration in Dorval’s planning sessions. Membership for KPBS radio, a key indicator of its fund-raising ability, has been hovering around 6,000. A major capital fund-raising drive for both the KPBS radio and television is tentatively planned for next year. One of the goals is a new building for the radio operation.
“When they get a station that matters to people, the dollars will be there. The community won’t be able to imagine living without it,” Kramer said. “If KPBS was to go off the air tomorrow with its classical music format, listeners would just switch to KFSD.”
But Dorval doesn’t necessarily talk like a ratings-conscious technocrat intent on turning KPBS into a commercially viable entity. A veteran of public broadcasting, he joined KPBS in 1978 after two years with the public broadcasting station in Birmingham, Ala.
“A good public radio station is willing to take chances in a financially responsible way,” Dorval said.
Dorval and the rest of the KPBS staff are rewriting the station’s mission statement to give the station more clearly defined goals.
He said he wants KPBS to do more programming aimed at the Hispanic market, and he’s committed to expanding the audience for the station’s radio reading service for the blind. He also wants to put KPBS at the forefront of public broadcasting by producing more shows such as “Calling Moscow,” the live link-up with the Soviet Union that is beamed around the country, and developing a young audience through shows such as “Imaginary Playhouse,” which debuts in April.
Dorval talks of KPBS assuming a “leadership role” and being a “vanguard” for public radio.
“I see us doing a lot more national productions,” he said. “I see us becoming a major production entity.”
It is, he said, a “balancing act” between business and creative interests. Doing audience research and taking risks, he said, are not mutually exclusive propositions.
“I like to keep people thinking about the future more than the past,” Dorval said. “People have to realize that, in order to grow, you have to leave some things behind to move on to something greater.”