These are not good times for the mainstream media – market shares are dropping, advertising is draining off toward the internet and studies show the nation has increasing distrust of the news industry.
In Charlotte, though, there’s one outlet that runs against the outgoing tide – WFAE-FM (90.7), the city’s National Public Radio affiliate.
Based on metrics and trends, you can argue that things have never been better at the station that launched 35 years ago broadcasting bird calls from a basement at UNC Charlotte:
▪ Its news and public affairs staff has grown over time from three people to 17 and the station is talking of expanding it more.
▪ It has passed news station WBT-AM (1110) during some monthly ratings periods in the last two years and lags behind the heritage 50,000-watt giant by only a 0.3 percent share of the region’s radio audience. In early November, around the elections, WFAE saw a spike of 70 percent in total listening hours on its web stream.
▪ In fundraising last year, it took in $4 million – four times that of WTVI (Channel 42), the city’s television PBS affiliate.
▪ Median age for its listeners is 46 – 12 percent lower than the median age of NPR listeners nationally.
▪ Membership, which equates to listeners who donate money annually, had never been above 16,000 in the station’s history. It’s now at 18,000 and on track for 20,000.
Joe O’Connor, who took over as WFAE’s president in February 2015, has some ideas about why.
New blood at the top
O’Connor believes a number of factors explain the station’s growth, including the rapid changes in society at large.
“We have to maintain relevance in a time of great change,” he said. “We need to be making sure we’re giving people the answers to the questions they have.”
O’Connor, 59, is a Philadelphia native who grew up in Bethesda, Md., attended Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and got a master’s degree in broadcast journalism from Boston University.
He worked for CNN in its fledgling days and spent 22 years at ABC News, working for “Good Morning America,” “Nightline” and “PrimeTime Live.” He rose to senior producer in Washington for “World News Tonight with Peter Jennings,” directing capital coverage. Along the way, he won five national Emmys and a Peabody Award.
He went to public radio as senior producer for NPR’s “On Point” produced in Boston, then led Rhode Island’s Public Radio network.
In Charlotte, he succeeded Roger Sarow, who was president of WFAE from 1988 to 2015, taking it from a small station attached to UNC Charlotte to its rank as a major player in the city’s broadcasting universe.
O’Connor impressed the members of the search committee with his deep news background and commitment to quality storytelling with an emphasis on local public service.
“We have a higher calling than ratings and revenue,” said O’Connor, who at 6-foot-8 is the tallest broadcast executive in Charlotte media, probably ever. He still spends much of his time in the community raising money for the station and advocating for more development in WFAE’s news division.
“Our investment in local news is paying off,” he said. “We’re delivering local news as good as what NPR does nationally and internationally.”
One hallmark of O’Connor’s term is WFAE’s increasingly aggressive approach to covering major community issues.
Behind the riot: ‘We got underneath all that’
WFAE has always looked to provide depth in its reporting, but now it is tackling breaking news – not the garden-variety crime and routine urban mayhem that drives the city’s five TV news stations, but finding substance in the big stories of the moment.
When riots erupted in Charlotte after a police shooting in September, local TV covered developments like a rugby scrum. WFAE sent reporter Michael Tomsic out to get at what was driving demonstrators.
He developed a long-form piece on two women who described their frustrations with authorities and their activism after the shooting.
“They were not representative of the violence,” said Greg Collard, WFAE’s news director. “So much of TV focused on that. We got underneath all that and got to the issues.”
When District Attorney Andrew Murray announced the reasons he was not charging the CMPD officer in the shooting, WFAE produced an instant 20-minute special, something beyond the capabilities of the team only a few years earlier.
WFAE’s reporters all have specialties outside general news reporting – education, environment, politics, arts, education, health care and others. Tomsic is one of the state media’s leading experts on redistricting (and one who is also capable of knocking out a NASCAR feature). These are all topics largely given just passing attention by the city’s TV newsrooms.
“If not for going in depth, then why are we here?” said Collard. “I couldn’t make it in commercial television.”
One of the station’s most popular weekday shows is “Charlotte Talks With Mike Collins,” which is going into its 19th year. Wendy Herkey, its executive producer, said that show, too, has perked up to handle local issues in a more urgent manner.
On Friday mornings, local reporters do a “Weekly News Roundup” modeled on the one developed by “The Diane Rehm Show,” discussing issues from the week.
Politics was a hot topic all autumn on the show, which followed major debates with analysis the next morning with Michael Bitzer of Catawba College and others.
Herkey, who has been with “Charlotte Talks” almost since its inception, said that in the early days, Charlotte wasn’t much of a news town. Big stories tended to come from the school board or county commission.
She’s seen the news landscape expand monumentally, though one story and one issue has been a constant, she said: “Charlotte’s growing pains.”
Corporate and community support fell at both public stations WDAV-FM (Classical 89.9) and WTVI-TV in the last fiscal year. WFAE was up in both categories, and expects to exceed its 8 percent growth target in the current fiscal year, said O’Connor.
Despite its annoying beg-a-thons universally regarded by listeners as ear torture, WFAE continues to post gains. October became the best fundraising month in WFAE’s history when $966,000 came in. At midpoint in the fiscal year, corporate underwriting is at 75 percent of annual target.
“Our audience is telling us,” O’Connor said, “by increased revenues and ratings, to keep going.”
One thing O’Connor would like to put more resources into is the station’s public conversation series, which provides a forum on local issues like HB2. It’s a function that public broadcasters are uniquely qualified to deliver, O’Connor said.
“There’s a growing market for these things. You get a community together of common interests to improve Charlotte. It’s important to democracy. You’re enhancing the listener’s connection.”
O’Connor also said that there is discussion of moving WFAE out of its longtime home in University City to join the dynamic growth of uptown. Other stations that have made similar moves have seen them pay off in deeper connections to listeners and ratings. WFAE’s current lease is up in 2019.
Its home in the One University Place Building is palatial compared with its birthplace nearby.
WFAE (for Fine Arts and Education) signed on in 1981 in a basement at UNC Charlotte. For reasons lost to antiquity, it started its broadcast day every morning with 15 minutes of birdsong.
WFAE became independent in 1993 after the UNC System made a series of cutbacks. In 1995, it added a transmitter in Hickory, WFHE (90.3 FM).
It grew in stature as NPR began producing high-quality programming and steadily added staff for local production.
Unfettered by the burden of attracting a mass audience, public radio was able to provide a spectrum of programs that would probably be failures on commercial radio and serve a thoughtful, and what some might call elite, audience.
With big 3 gone, what’s next?
Three of WFAE’s biggest shows are hitting the end. Diane Rehm retired this month. “Car Talk” will end syndication in September. Garrison Keillor has given up hosting “Prairie Home Companion.”
How the hand-offs are handled could be critical to WFAE’s momentum.
“Car Talk,” now in reruns, remains one of WFAE’s most popular shows. “Tom and Ray have been a staple for a generation,” O’Connor said. “It’s not about the cars, it’s about the family, it’s about relationships through the frame of car repairs.”
Rehm, likewise, has developed a loyal audience through the years.
“On Point,” which now airs at 7 p.m. weekdays and is hosted by Tom Ashbrook, will replace Rehm in WFAE’s 10 a.m. slot on Monday.
NPR is developing a new show to replace Rehm called “1A,” which will be hosted by Joshua Johnson. O’Connor said he will probably find a place for that in the station’s schedule, but not in that prime morning slot.
“That’s a time slot you don’t experiment with.”
O’Connor believes the station hasn’t reached its potential yet either on the business side or the storytelling side. As other media struggle, he said, WFAE intends to keep pushing on.
Part of what will help it climb, he said, is the nation’s uncertainty about its political and economic future.
“When times are tough,” he said, “people look to news sources they can trust, more than ever.”