On The Air
Local Radio Station Representatives Discuss Recent Changes, Funding
Al Bartholet retired in 2012, or so he thought. It didn’t take long for a friend, who worked as a headhunter for public radio and television, to call him up and ask him to take a job in the Shenandoah Valley.
“He said, ‘It’s a beautiful place … but they do have a deficit; they’re running in the red,’ ” he said this week, while sipping from a mug advertising Folk Alley, the 24/7 Internet-based folk music service he started before moving to Harrisonburg.
Bartholet, who had been working as the executive director and general manager of WKSU, Kent State University’s public radio station, became the executive director of Harrisonburg’s WMRA on July 1, 2013.
Though he was prepared to enter a workplace running in the red, he found on the first day that the station had lost more than expected.
“What was sitting on my desk the first day was a letter saying you’ve lost your rural status,” he said.
The station lost a federal grant meant for rural funding since its “terrestrial footprint” — the area where its radio waves can be picked up — had grown. At 525,000 people, it’s barely over the threshold recipients of the grant can’t reach.
Bartholet later found out the grant was worth $60,000. About two years prior, WMRA had lost all of its state funding — about $86,000.
“In a very short period of time, they found themselves looking at 150,000 or so dollars less than they were previously getting,” roughly a 10-percent slash from the budget, he explained.
A veteran in public radio, Bartholet had some tricks up his sleeve for raising money and drawing attention to WMRA. And, anyway, the station is no stranger to change.
Part Of The National Puzzle
WMRA, which sits on a hill behind the CVS Pharmacy on Reservoir Street, went on air as an NPR affiliate Nov. 12, 1975, according to Matt Bingay, assistant general manager who heads up programming for the station.
At the time, universities nationwide felt a strong push to apply for licenses and start their own NPR stations, he explained, so the fact that James Madison University owns the station isn’t unusual.
WMRA existed for about five years prior to that date, he said, but it wasn’t an NPR affiliate.
When Bingay came on board, WMRA was housed at JMU but it moved to its current location in 2006, where it shares space with and manages Eastern Mennonite University’s all-volunteer-run station, WEMC.
WMRA, which streams music and content 24/7, airs 18 hours of locally-produced content each week, such as “Blues Valley” and live call-in show “Virginia Insight,” and picks up NPR and other stations’ programming to fill in the gaps.
The station, which won the Daily News-Record and Rocktown Weekly’s Best of the Valley award for “Best Radio Station” this year, has evolved over time, as has NPR and public radio in general.
The number of nationally-distributed programs has increased, Bingay said, but possibly the biggest change in public radio has been a jump to the 24-hour news concept.
“The most successful model in an NPR station is to be news for the majority of the day,” but affiliates used to air a lot of classical music with just a chunk of news, Bingay explained.
NPR stations have always been very academic, but they originally put out information without fully taking advantage of the “wonderful storytelling medium” that is radio, he added.
“It wasn’t a bad idea,” he said. “It just didn’t work.”
So, stations have been honing the craft to put out that info in the most intriguing way possible. NPR’s “Radio Lab” program is the perfect example, Bingay argues, because it’s a cutting edge, creative show that uses sound effects that help listeners remember content.
In general, stations in small markets are disappearing, too, as they fold into regional and statewide networks, Bartholet said.
He and the rest of the team at WMRA are trying to prevent that from happening to their station.
Just in the past year, since Bartholet came on board, several specific changes have taken place.
NPR ceased production of its “Talk of the Nation” program, forcing WMRA to switch up its afternoon schedule. A show the station carried called “The Story,” produced at the University of North Carolina’s public radio station, also ended.
In July, the station picked up “Here and Now,” a Boston-produced program that airs locally at 1 p.m. weekdays.
WMRA also picked up “Mountain Stage,” a West Virginia Public Radio music show that aired for the first time locally in early May, featuring The Steel Wheels for its first show. It airs at 8 p.m. Sundays, in place of “Music Without Borders,” a locally-produced show that WMRA took off the air.
The station has also added “The Takeaway” at 9 a.m. weekdays. The show, an hour-long national news program, airs on roughly 200 stations across the U.S., but WMRA is the only one in Virginia, Bartholet said.
Aside from program changes, the station also added an app in January, allowing listeners worldwide to tune in to WMRA and WEMC, as long as they have Wi-Fi.
“I knew [that] was going to be important for WMRA, because of the mountainous terrain and the fact that you can lose stations here real quickly,” Bartholet said.
The station is also working on producing more local news content that’s pertinent across its coverage area, which reaches to Charlottesville, Lexington, Winchester and Farmville. Next year, WMRA will push a fundraising effort to allow the station to hire stringers to report on arts and culture, the environment and science and technology, in particular.
Actually, the station has put more of a focus on raising funds in general through fund drives, such as the one that just played out this week, and a sustainability program that encourages contributors to donate consistently, with an automatic monthly payment.
WMRA is also hosting a series of sustainability summits to find out what the public wants to see from its local station.
Funding for the station has been on a steady downward slope since about 2008, Bingay said.
“We have just watched resources that we depended on erode and, in some cases, completely disappear,” he said.
Bartholet, who served as director of development at the Kent State station for 18 years, was hired in part to accomplish some heavy fundraising.
The station is seeking more pledges before the fiscal year concludes June 30, in order to bridge a funding gap.
Despite all the changes, though, the heart of WMRA’s mission and its style in carrying that out are remaining the same.
Martha Woodruff, host of the Friday afternoon show “The Spark,” sums it up like this: “I like to think of WMRA as an information resource, so that our community conversation can be better informed,” she said. “Having a change at the top always sort of reenergizes everything, but what’s stayed the whole time is this sense of wanting to be part of this community and wanting to bring programming that enriches life in the 'Burg.”
Woodruff, who’s been with the station since 1999, and won the “Best Radio Personality” Best of the Valley designation this year, partially retired last summer; her show dropped from an hour to ten minutes. She calls herself a “job gypsy” but can’t seem to get away from WMRA.
“People come and stay here,” she said, pointing out the uniqueness of a personnel change; many of the 10 or so employees have been around for awhile. “It’s really kind of a charmed little space.”
WMRA’s “stationality,” or personality of a station, is to treat listeners like neighbors, Bingay said.
“We’re more like you’re talking to your neighbor across the fence,” he said.
Tune in at 90.7 FM in Harrisonburg. For more information, visit wmra.org.
Contact Candace Sipos at 574-6275 or email@example.com