Can KRCL be saved?

I discovered in January of last year when I was driving from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas. It was a Sunday morning, and the music was some kind of Native American fusion mix that I couldn’t turn off. I love radio like that: radio that surprises me, radio that’s unlike anything anywhere else except in the sense that it’s good, radio produced by real people sharing original work that challenges and engages listeners.

I was amazed that KRCL existed, and in Salt Lake City of all places, and with a big signal too: as big as any other in that part of the West. It was the kind of station I expected to find in artsy-liberal enclaves such as Santa Cruz or Austin or Madison. But here it was, serving up fun and challenging stuff for one of the most Republican states in the nation.

I have KRCL’s stream programmed into our Sonos system at our home in Santa Barbara, where I listen from time to time. But since we spend most of our time around Cambridge these days, and our lives are full of Other Stuff, I haven’t listened much in awhile.

So now here I am at the Public Media Conference in Los Angeles, where I just heard that KRCL is going through big changes. Specifically, I was pointed to Dead Air: KRCL is getting a corporate makeover. Is community radio done for? by Ted McDonough in the SL Weekly, which has a follow-up story in KRCL Update [Focus Group Hell] — Get Ready for Baby Boom Radio. Of course, what’s happened is that KRCL isn’t making its fundraising goals, and has a shrinking measured audience. Between focus groups, consultants and other deliberations, a decision has been made to make KRCL into, well, something else. Here’s how Ted McDonough puts it:

  The station started 28 years ago by anti-war protesters, hippies and counterculture activists was now replacing all of its weekday volunteer DJs with three paid radio professionals.
  The change, to take place in two months, appears to be part of a plan hatched by managers and directors to turn KRCL into the best music station in Utah. But then, many think it already is the state’s best music station. And the planned changes raise a larger question:
  If DJs are paid professionals; if they are told what to play; if programming is the result of consultants, market surveys and focus groups of listeners watched from behind one-way glass—is it still community radio?
  “The station as we know it is going away,” says Alison Einerson, a KRCL drive-time volunteer who will soon be off the air.

Now, it could be that KRCL is simply dealing with a fact of life that will become a fact of death for many stations everywhere: listeners have many more choices of (what we now generically call) content, including goods they store and produce for themselves — or for listeners of their own. Certainly that’s involved.

But we still live in a world where all new and old cars come with AM/FM radios, and radio listening on the whole is still strong, and where the flywheels of habit and technology maintain the relevance of advantages stations like KRCL still have — such as a core of listeners, volunteers, relationships and a powerful mountaintop transmitter.

The thing that consultants and focus groups are unlikely to tell you, and that in fact cannot be changed, is where something comes from. In the case of KRCL, that something is hippies and war protesters and music mavens. There’s nothing wrong with KRCL making moves to better serve its community, or from doing what it does better. But there is something wrong with changing what the station is. According to the second SLWeekly story, that’s exactly the plan:

  The consultant’s bottom line: KRCL should play a mix of “heritage rock” and “modern adult contemporary.” In the future, the difference between KRCL and the oldies station will be that KRCL will play the B sides.
  Dominowski said the sound would be like (all together now) WXPN in Philadelphia. That just happens to be the direction station management was hinting at more than one year before the consultant ever set foot in Salt Lake City.

I don’t know where things stand now. The Salt Lake Tribune ran Listeners give KRCL managers an earful for cutting volunteers on February 10. That story makes clear at least two of the problems:

  Although the Salt Lake Valley’s population has grown by nearly half a million people over the past decade, KRCL’s listenership – roughly 35,000 people – declined slightly over the same period, said Roberts, the board chairman. Roberts blames recent technology, such as Internet and satellite radio, that makes it easier for today’s listeners to find the fringe music heard on KRCL.
  The station may have been able to weather the loss of the CPB funds, Maldonado said. But the CPB also negotiates complex music-licensing agreements for KRCL – an invaluable service for a noncommercial station with seven full-time staffers, she said. So last year the station applied for and received an additional $195,000 grant from the CPB. Under the conditions of the grant, KRCL agreed to hire the three DJs, including a music director.

The first thing is, “fringe music” isn’t just a pile of stuff on hard drives. It’s stuff that grows and spreads when connoisseurs share it with others. KRCL should face that challenge by doing a better job, not by abandoning the mission.

The second thing is, the deal with the CPB is turning out to be a bad one (that I suspect is bad even from the CPB’s perspective) — for the simple reason that compliance with the CPB’s requirements are killing the station.

Or maybe not. The Trib piece closes with this:

  Although some listeners are skeptical, Ryan Tronier, KRCL’s program director, believes the station’s musical palette won’t sound much different from how it does now.
  “We’re still going to be playing music you’re not hearing on the commercial end of the dial. It’ll be more than just putting your iPod on ‘random.’ It’ll be a cohesive mix of many genres,” he said. “We’re still going to be the best radio station in town – we’re just going to have more people listening.”

Here’s my own closing thought about that: If I wrote this blog for the largest possible audience, you wouldn’t be reading this right now.

3 comments

  1. Technical Writing Geek’s avatar

    They take a look at sales figures, and think they can repeat the high-profit miracle somewhere else. Little do they know the value of the brand is its uniqueness and appropriateness for the community of which it is part. So, they kill it, slowly and without knowing they’re doing it, and then their profit isn’t what they expected. Broken dreams await for everyone.

  2. Tim Stewart’s avatar

    Doc,
    I am glad to see there are people outside of Utah who are aware of, and disheartened by the changes coming to KRCL. Those of us here in Utah are now coming out of the initial shock of what has transpired and are contemplating different strategies to fight the changes. KRCL is a 501(c)(3) with a self appointed board of directors. Any suggestions or input would be greatly appreciated. See also: radiofreeutah.org

  3. SLC Resident’s avatar

    i do not know if the current DJs are paid or volenteer; but “Bad Brad” is indeed, bad. A horrible horrible DJ in one of the times of day that boasts high radio listerners on any other station.

    Maybe if they got new managment instead of new DJ’s. Well… maybe a new DJ for the 4:00 time frame.

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