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Friday December 19th 2014

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Under-loved and Misunderstood

By Jennie McKeon

Public radio in general is the underdog in news media. It’s only fitting that WUWF’s mascot is a dog.

“People get the wrong concept about us,” said Program Director Joe Vincenza. “They think we’re long-haired hippies or they think of the ‘Delicious Dish’ skit on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ We’re under-loved and misunderstood.”

But as WUWF—the local portal to National Public Radio, Public Radio International, and more—enters into new changes, perhaps it can get more of the listenership it deserves.

Starting September 29, new and exciting programs will be added to the station’s menu. As the hosts of NPR’s popular show “Car Talk” retire, Vincenza and staff decided to introduce new voices.

The decision to discontinue airing a popular show when you depend on your listeners’ donations is not easy. In fact, when news broke that the “Car Talk” hosts were retiring it created a debate among public radio listeners. To syndicate or not to syndicate, and do they get to keep a coveted Saturday morning timeslot? Even Ira Glass, “This American Life” host, weighed in.

“We need to make space for new shows, new talent, new ideas,” Glass said in a public statement. “That’s our mission, and ultimately, it’ll be good business too to have exciting new shows bring in new audiences.”

“We’re going to add some additional programs, shift things around,” said Trish Allison, director of member services. “Joe did all the research on the new programs.”

As the station bids farewell to “Car Talk” and the local show “Swing Chronicles” with the late Charlie McIntosh, you can look forward to anticipated shows such as the “TED Radio Hour,” “Travel with Rick Steves” and “On the Media.”

Hopefully, these shows will be well received.

“You’re never going to make everyone happy,” said Allison.

But that doesn’t stop the station from trying. When they stopped playing classical music in between programs and created a second, 24-hour classical radio show or when they switched to high definition, they had to work twice as hard to make listeners happy.

“Pat [Crawford, executive director] went to members’ houses with HD radios and helped them set it up,” Vincenza said.

It’s important that WUWF has a good relationship with its listeners. They are, after all, what keep the station running.

“We do faith-based budgeting,” said Allison. “We just [crosses fingers]. The programming costs for 2012 are $368,000. We’re now responsible for raising 51 percent of the budget. If we lose federal funding, we’ll be responsible for more.”

And that six-figure number is just for programming costs.

WUWF is lucky that it has benevolent supporters. The station is usually able to meet its budget needs in two 10-day membership drives throughout the year. The next one starts October 10.

“It’s hard because you can’t control behavior especially in this economy,” Allison said of fundraising. “It’s inspiring when listeners donate. When they do come through, it’s a love fest.”

Sometimes, it’s easy to take something that is free to use for granted, but WUWF is an asset to the community, and it’s that same community that the station enjoys serving.

“Our mission is to serve the community,” Allison said. “Hurricane Isaac is a perfect example, we’re the emergency alert station. The university shut down and we went to work.”

The station does more than read weather reports though. Allison said one of the most significant outreach programs is the reading service for seeing impaired, called SightLine.

“When WSRE gave up the service due to budget cuts, Pat thought we could absorb it,” said Lynne Marshall, promotions director. “What we do for the community is as important as what we do on air.”

Volunteers donate their time to read newspapers, which is broadcasted on one of the WUWF channels. There’s even a children’s hour and through Gateway Radio Reading Service, listeners can hear a wide-range of magazines.

WUWF also adds culture to the community by hosting nights of live music such as RadioLive, where audiences bring in donations to Manna Food Pantry, and has opened its station doors to artists, calling the space Gallery 88.

“That’s my baby,” Marshall said about the gallery. “We’ve used the space for an alternative outreach—in-reach too because it brings people into the station. It’s so awful when the art has to come down.”

There is one piece of art in the station that doesn’t move. It’s the Radio Torii, modeled after the entrance to a Shinto shrine, created by Peter King in 1992.

Also contributing to the community are the local stories, although Vincenza wishes there were more.

“We might have 10 to 15 minutes of local programming an hour, but it’s not enough,” he said.

With only two full-time news reporters, Vincenza said that the station does put out an amazing amount of stuff.

“We never look back, we’re always on to the next project,” Allison said.

“Which is why I give them chocolate,” Vincenza said. Sure enough, there is a bowl of individually wrapped chocolates on the conference table.

And even though state funding has been cut and public radio risks a cut from federal funds, the staff at WUWF are positive that their hard work is worth it.

“Public radio is bucking the trend,” Vincenza said. “We’re seeing more listeners all the time. People are always worried about the next platform. The content we provide is unique, what we do is not going to be replaced.”

WUWF 88.1 FM
WHERE: 11000 University Pkwy.
DETAILS:  474-2787 or wuwf.org