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KCRW gets ‘Le Show’ off the road as part of new strategy

Harry Schearer of KCRW.
(KCRW)

Harry Shearer is wondering what went wrong.

His Sunday morning satire program, “Le Show,” is syndicated to about 100 public radio stations nationwide and is also available on shortwave radio, NPR Worldwide and as a podcast on iTunes.

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Yet the station where “Le Show” has originated for more than 29 years, KCRW-FM (89.9) of Santa Monica College, kicked him off the air last week. Instead, it will stream the program over the Internet.

KCRW General Manager Jennifer Ferro cast the move partly as a simple matter of math: She’s trying to make room for new voices while hanging on to some old ones by putting them online. She contends that it is part of a two-pronged strategy to boost the station’s profile on the air and in the rapidly expanding audio world of smartphones, tablets and personal computers.

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Along with dropping Shearer’s show, the station pulled Tom Schnabel’s world music and jazz program off the Sunday schedule after 20 years, shifting him to a new online-only show premiering next month.

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“The old way was always about radio,” Ferro said. “You’ve got your bandwidth. You’ve got 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and that’s all you get. KCRW has to be more than a place on the radio dial.”

That strategy is being challenged by the 69-year-old Shearer, who voices multiple characters on TV’s “The Simpsons” and played the bassist in “This Is Spinal Tap.” Many of his listeners, he said, don’t have the technical savvy or the gadgets to stream his program over the Internet.

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“Drivers, the poor and the elderly — who wants that audience? Well, gee, I do!” Shearer said while opening his show Sunday, briefly explaining the dispute between him and KCRW.

“I love my online audience,” he said. “Yes, this is a podcast and an online stream and all of that. But it starts off proudly as a radio program.”

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The station’s decision comes in an increasingly competitive radio environment, which Ferro said makes the need for change urgent.

KCRW has always vied for listeners with dozens of other stations in the market, and for pledge dollars with local public stations such as KPCC-FM (89.3) and KUSC-FM (91.5). And now, listeners with the right app or a steady download stream can sample music and news stations from around the corner or around the world, as well as Pandora, satellite radio and other audio options.

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Shearer and “Le Show” have already laid claim to some of the digital landscape that Ferro wants the rest of the station’s programming to conquer. In addition to all its over-the-air options, the weekly hourlong mix of comedy sketches and observations on current events is available on smartphones via Stitcher.com. And as Shearer says, it’s also “live and archived whenever you want it at two different locations, HarryShearer.com and KCRW.com.”

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She says it was the robust online presence that made it a handy candidate to drop from the airwaves.

“For many listeners, there would be little to no interruption of ‘Le Show,’ and that was important to us,” Ferro said.

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She pledged that KCRW would still serve as home base for “Le Show” and continue offering its facilities, syndication, live online stream and podcast menu — everything but airtime on the FM band.

Shearer said he’ll look for another station to air the show in L.A.

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“I’m examining my options. I think it’s only prudent to do so,” he said in an interview.

As for “Le Show,” “I’m changing nothing, except it won’t be on the radio in Los Angeles. People in any city other than L.A. won’t notice any difference.”

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Before this, Shearer said he had scant contact with KCRW management since the show premiered in late 1983. One reason: He has never been paid.

“No money changed hands,” he said. “The reward of doing it for free was that I was free. I think we both liked it that way.”

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In March, the most recent period for which Arbitron ratings are available, KCRW tied for 30th in the Los Angeles-Orange County market with 1.1% of the overall listening audience. In March 2012, the station had ranked 36th, with a 0.7% audience share. That was down from 1% and 33rd place in March 2011, according to Arbitron.

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By comparison, crosstown rival KPCC-FM was in 25th place last month with a 1.6% share of the audience.

Shearer’s program aired at 10 a.m. Sundays. That slot is now going to “TED Radio Hour.” Hosted by Guy Raz, it’s an offshoot of the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Talks — the speakers’ series of 18-minute monologues on offbeat topics that have become popular pass-alongs in social media.

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Ferro said KCRW listeners liked “TED Radio Hour” when NPR previewed the program last year. The weekly show premiered March 1 on more than 300 stations, one of the biggest launches in NPR history.

“It’s a show about exciting and compelling ideas from people you normally wouldn’t hear from — scientists, physicists, engineers, mathematicians, artists,” Ferro said. “I think it’s a natural fit for the intelligent audience we have.”

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KCRW also made a number of other programming changes, including pulling “Weekend All Things Considered” from its 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday slots so as not to interrupt the flow of music shows.

Schnabel’s show aired from noon to 2 p.m. on Sundays; Anne Litt and her show featuring “progressive pop” moves there from later in the day.

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Before Schnabel hosted his Sunday show, known for most of its run as “Café L.A.,” he was the station’s music director from 1979 to 1991, and was the architect of the eclectic music format that still sets KCRW apart from most of public radio. He was a longtime host of the station’s signature weekday music show, “Morning Becomes Eclectic.”

“I will miss doing radio,” Schnabel, 66, said in an interview, but added that with his new program, “There are a lot of possibilities here, and that’s exciting.”

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Ferro said his new weekly “Rhythm Planet” on-demand show will feature music, interviews, archived material and live performances.

“The way I looked at it, he’s now going to break ground in this digital space,” she said. “I felt like this was the tipping point, when the digital side of things is just as robust as the radio side.”

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