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No News Good News? : Radio: Poor economy, alternative news services have made music stations rethink their approach to public affairs programs.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

John Q. Lawrence was at home Jan. 16 when news broke that the United States was bombing Iraq. The lone news reporter for oldies rock station KCBQ-FM (105.3), he rushed to work to anchor the station’s coverage of the start of the Gulf War.

For 24 hours KCBQ preempted music for news, joining a variety of San Diego stations, from jazz to rock, which turned their focus away from their usual formats to give listeners timely information.

“It was a proud moment for a lot of radio stations,” Lawrence said.

Eleven months later, Lawrence was fired as KCBQ joined the list of stations that have either recently dropped or cut news and public affairs programming. Tough economic times and an increasing number of news services, from television’s CNN to the new public broadcasting news format on KPBS-FM (89.5), have made many music stations re-evaluate their approach to news and public affairs in recent months.

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In the case of KCBQ, the station dropped news altogether, but General Manager Jim Seemiller said the station expects to hire a “sidekick” for the morning show who will do more upbeat, “U.S.A. Today style” updates instead of hard news.

“We are a music intensive station and as a result, news is taking a far back seat,” Seemiller said.

In the past, station managers were able to find several reasons to rationalize the expenditure of money and time on news, even if it meant nothing more than having a news person on staff to “rip and read” reports off the news wires. Not only did it provide a high-profile community benefit, it helped fulfill the vaguely defined requirements of public service responsibility set by the FCC as part of the station-licensing process.

But deregulation of the radio industry in the past 15 years has virtually eliminated all enforcement of public service requirements. At the same time, stations hard hit by a sharp decline in advertising are facing increasing pressure to define their formats, to develop a specific listenership that is interested in what the station does well, which is usually music.

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“Our thrust is not to diminish news and public affairs, but to reinforce what listeners like,” Seemiller said.

Yet, some music-oriented stations still feel news is important, regardless of whether it can produce concrete results, either in terms of advertising dollars or overall listenership. Whether a station needs news is turning into a fundamental debate within the industry.

“It is good programming to address what the community is talking about,” even if a station is music-oriented, said Tom Baker, general manager of KGB-FM (101.5).

Two weeks ago, as part of a station-wide cutback, Baker laid off part-time public affairs director Gary Whipple. But Baker emphasized that the economy was the only motivation for the change and that the station hasn’t changed its emphasis on community-oriented programming. Shelly Dunn, the station’s one-person news department, will assume many of Whipple’s duties, such as arranging events and public service announcements, Baker said.

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“In a tough economy, you look at other people who can perform the same duties,” he said.

Faced with declining revenue for the first time in recent memory, San Diego stations are “looking at every dollar we spend,” said Bob Bolinger, general manager of KKLQ (Q106), which broadcasts a youth-oriented dance music format.

KKLQ added news staff during the Gulf War, only to cut back and reassign a news person after the war ended. Except for longtime newsman Chuck Fritsch, the station primarily uses interns and employees in public affairs and promotions departments to cover news.

Yet, Bolinger views news as a “need to have,” not just a frill.

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“I don’t want our listeners to feel like they have to check other media to get information,” Bolinger said. “One of the real missions of a station is to serve the community and be involved, and you can’t fake that, you can’t just rip and read.”

KYXY-FM (96.5), which plays “soft hits,” recently laid off its one-person news department of the last five years, Nanci McGraw. But General Manager Dan Carelli said that the decision to lay off McGraw signals a reorganization of the station’s commitment to news, not an end to it.

“We’re not cutting back on news and we’re not devaluing news,” Carelli said. “We’re trying to economically present good news . . . to try to provide as good if not better news . . . in a creative way.”

Carelli would not specify what “creative” plans he has in the works, but it may involve linking up with a television news operation, a step many stations may consider in the future. KGTV (Channel 10) already supplies KIFM (98.1) with short news updates throughout the day, a relationship that was first forged during the Gulf War.

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That conflict may have focused more attention on radio news, but in retrospect it didn’t help stations that normally feature music.

“The Gulf War taught us a lesson,” Seemiller said. “People in music got killed by news-talk stations. The coverage of news didn’t help with the ratings.”

For station managers looking at the bottom line, news is expensive. It requires hiring employees and dedicating funds to equipment. Seemiller said he is dropping the Associated Press wire service, which costs him about $25,000 a year.

The expenses must be weighed against the results, some station managers say.

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“We’re trying to reflect our audience’s tastes,” said Carelli. “We’re doing it because the audience wants it.”

Losing a one-person news or public affairs department may not seem like a big deal to some observers--or station managers--but those in the industry say stations could be losing an essential part of their personality, a direct link to the community.

“Even though I’m just one-person, I did some neat things and KYXY should be proud,” said McGraw, who will leave KYXY at the end of the month. “From my perspective, I feel the public gets cheated on information. . . . There are a lot of people who listen to music and still want news updates and a little more.”

Even a one-person news department gives stations someone who specializes in current events and prepares contingency plans for coverage of emergencies, ex-KCBQ newsman Lawrence pointed out.

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“As soon as there is an earthquake (the station) is going to need somebody, and they’re not going to have anybody qualified to handle it,” he said.


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