Media Scene

Sarow navigated WFAE through a quarter-century of change

His parents wanted him to find a career with stability, and they thought radio might be the thing.

Radio is one of the most topsy-turvy and unpredictable industries around, but it was better than show business, which young Roger Sarow seemed drawn to since childhood. As the first in his immediate family to go to college, much less graduate, he took their advice and found work in his native Wisconsin on public radio.

He later arrived in Charlotte in 1988 to lead WFAE-FM (NPR, 90.7), then a small station with a tiny staff attached to UNC Charlotte. When he retires early next year after 26 years at the helm, he leaves it as one of the city’s leading radio voices with a staff of about 40, a budget of $4.7 million and ranked among the top 10 public radio stations nationally in its average audience share.

Part of his success, he says, is leading a station in a town that has seen decades of growth. “It’s easier to look slick in Charlotte than it is in Buffalo,” says Sarow, 64.

A search committee is looking for a replacement and is expected to have an announcement in coming weeks.

His first major challenge in the job came in 1989 and was named Hurricane Hugo. It knocked the station off the air for days because of a lack of backup power at the transmitter and because winds bent over the small rooftop pole that sent the signal via microwaves to the tower. “We were off for days with essentially $25 in damage,” says Sarow. Today, the station has backup power and even a portable transmitter that can throw a signal across most of Charlotte if necessary.

He was in his third year running WFAE when then-news director Kathy Merritt came in and handed him an Associated Press story out of Raleigh saying the legislature was eliminating all money for university radio stations. “Know anything about this?” she asked. It was news to Sarow, but the cuts went through and WFAE severed its ties with the university and became an independent station in 1993.

Sarow remembers flying back to Charlotte the day after his father’s funeral to attend the first board meeting of the independent station. It had lost 20 percent of its budget in the separation, but overall it turned out to be a good thing. Once on its own, WFAE was free of state management policies and managed to raise enough money on its own to grow after a couple lean years.

In those days, the station’s format was largely jazz, but the news shows were the ones getting attention as Charlotte grew more urbane. In 1996, WFAE decided to drop jazz and went mostly news, adding “The Diane Rehm Show,” “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross and “Marketplace” in addition to the longtime standards from NPR, “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”

Jazz fans howled, but the audience grew.

In 1998, WFAE launched “Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins,” its signature public affairs program that airs weekday mornings.

Sarow remembers the terrorist attacks of 2001 as a watershed moment for the station. “Our talk shows around Sept. 11 were just incredible, local and national. I remember a person called in, an Arab American. He said, ‘I feel so terrible about this. I am an American. My life will never be the same,’ meaning everyone was going to treat him differently. I remember feeling that all this is awful, but we have to do it and that’s what we’re here for.”

Then came the recession, which hammered all public broadcasters. WFAE’s budget got chopped and some staff had to leave. “Everything that didn’t draw a breath got canceled,” says Sarow.

One bright spot was a surge in ratings for NPR’s daily news shows, which were up about 10 percent nationally, reflecting the nation’s appetite for news in the crisis. WFAE’s overall share of the Charlotte audience jumped 16 percent in the fall of 2009, making it No. 7 among the 25 strongest stations in the region.

WFAE, whose fund-raising is the strongest among all local public broadcasters, is now in a three-year expansion of its news department, part of a strategy to develop content that can’t be found elsewhere. This is Sarow’s legacy – putting the station on the path to survival amid a technological revolution in the business.

You can now get radio stations from around the world digitally and Sarow believes future success will depend upon delivering a unique product to the audience. “In public radio up until 2010 we were essentially retailers of the national programs,” he says. “What happens in the digital and mobile age is you can get any station in the world.”

In the long run, Sarow says, the survivors will be the ones who hold copyrights to valued content rather than fancy delivery systems for signals. “Content is king and the rest is toasters,” he says.

WFAE has expanded its local newscasts, he says, and continues to emphasize reporting on deeper issues and topics than commercial stations tend to cover. “We’re lucky to be where we are, but it’s local content going forward.”

In all, Sarow has spent 39 years in public broadcasting, a long time in an inherently unstable industry that is going through rapid change. So his parents were right – radio was a good business for their son, despite its nature.

For his part, Sarow is looking forward to retirement with his wife, Marilyn Sarow, interim chair of the Department of Mass Communication at Winthrop University. He also looks forward to watching how all the change in the media shakes out – viewing it, he says, from the safety of his bass boat.

Media Movers

WFAE-FM expands its news staff with the addition of Sarah Delia, hired to cover the arts. Delia, a graduate of James Madison University, comes from the NPR affiliate in Birmingham, Ala. … Tasnim Shamma leaves WFAE after two years to become a reporter at the Atlanta NPR station. …

WCCB (Channel 18) anchor Morgan Fogarty announced on Wednesday’s 10 p.m. newscast that she was pregnant and was expecting her second child in June. …

Former Observer columnist Tommy Tomlinson signs on with ESPN as a contributing writer to its website and magazine. … Cox Media promotes Paul Briggs, general sales manager at WSOC (Channel 9), to general manager of its Fox affiliate in Memphis, Tenn. …

Vince Coakley and Tara Servatius, both of whom held the afternoon drive-time shift at WBT-AM (1110), will start Monday at the Greenville, S.C., station WYRD-FM (”WORD” 106.3). Servatius, a graduate of Charlotte Catholic High School and the UNC Chapel Hill journalism school, started her career writing for alternative weeklies in Charlotte as “Citizen Servatius.” She joined WBT as late-night host in June 2007 and replaced Jeff Katzin the afternoon slot when he left in December 2008. Her contract wasn’t renewed in 2011, and Coakley took over the afternoon shift. Coakley, a Cincinnati native, is best known for his 18 years at WSOC (Channel 9) where he succeeded Bill Walker as prime anchor in 2005. He ran unsuccessfully as the Republican candidate for Congress in North Carolina's 12th District this fall. Coakley had been doing a Sunday afternoon show at WYRD after leaving WBT in 2012. Beginning Monday, Servatius will do the morning show on WYRD and Coakley will follow her in the mid-mornings. Before the move to the Greenville station, Servatius had worked in Myrtle Beach and Charleston.