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Station Split

Love the talk but could leave the jazz? You might like WBEZ a whole lot better by late 2006.

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Chicago Public Radio general manager Torey Malatia wants to leave himself some wiggle room. As CPR adds a second frequency for Chicago broadcasts, probably late next year, it's gearing up for major change, and Malatia doesn't want to say just what that change will be. But the general direction is pretty clear: Malatia doesn't believe that WBEZ's hybrid formula really works. The talk-by-day, jazz-by-night regimen that's produced there and broadcast on CPR's three frequencies amounts to "two radio stations in one," he says. As a result, "nobody's really getting what they want." While a few listeners stay tuned for both, for the most part there's one audience for talk and another, much smaller one for 'BEZ's music. With mushrooming competition from the likes of satellite radio and podcasts, a breakup's on the horizon. Either late next year or early in 2007, talk will claim the mother ship, 91.5, and music will be sent off to WBEQ in Morris and a beefed-up WBEW, out of Chesterton, Indiana.

The split became an option earlier this year, when the FCC gave CPR permission to pump up the Chesterton signal from 7,000 watts to 50,000 watts. After installing a new transmitter and a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of antennas, WBEW's reach will jump from a population of 400,000 to 4.1 million, and Chicago public-radio listeners who want music will just have to move down the dial to 89.5. There will be a little static, though: Morris and Chesterton will get music with a Chicago hook, other cultural programming, and news with an emphasis on their geographic areas, but many listeners in those areas won't get 'BEZ's talk shows; on the other hand, jazz fans in, say, Lincoln Park will learn more than they might want to about public affairs in northwest Indiana, and music will drop out of earshot entirely for listeners in the north and northwest suburbs. Even with its new muscle, the WBEW signal will reach only as far north as Evanston and as far northwest as the Kennedy expressway.

Malatia says he's shopping in earnest for a fill-in frequency in the northwest suburbs, but there's no timetable for an acquisition, and the station will go ahead with the new programming even if they haven't made one. Any intention of waiting until the geographic gap was filled was swept away when "we looked at the map and saw this covers four out of seven million listeners," he says. "That's a hell of a lot of people." When the right station comes along, he expects to work out an operating agreement or make an outright purchase: "It's not like buying full-power stations on the commercial band--the price would be more reasonable." CPR paid about $500,000 for WBEW three years ago; Malatia says grants or loans would be available for another acquisition.

This expansiveness may seem surprising in light of the station's recent announcement that it would kill some of its original programs--Odyssey and Schadenfreude--because of financial constraints, but vice president for programming Ron Jones says not to confuse apples and oranges. Those shows are "restricted projects," he says, not intended to be funded out of the general operating budget. "Ideally they would have been able to stand on their own through fund-raising and, in the case of Odyssey, carriage fees," he adds, but in the end they couldn't. CPR wraps up its fiscal year at the end of this month and is making an on-air appeal for donations to help close a budget gap that's currently more than $700,000.

Malatia says the expansion is overdue, pointing out that "most major cities in the country have more than one full-power public-radio outlet." As things stand, CPR hasn't been able to air much of the "arm's length list" of national and international programs available to it. With two 24-hour services, he says, "we'd be able to do more original production and bring in more outside programming." Of course, there's an economic reality to deal with: it costs more to produce than to acquire programs. "In order to make this work, we'll stage the amount of original production introduced on both services," Malatia says. "The worst thing we could do is to throw open the gates and say, 'OK, we now have 24 hours a day--let's do nothing but a bunch of call-in shows because that's all we can afford.'" Along with shows produced elsewhere, expect a fair amount of rebroadcasting: Worldview, for example, he says, might run at 1 PM and again at 9 PM.

According to what Malatia considers a conservative projection, a talk-and-music split will add about only $1.4 million to CPR's $17 million annual budget the first year (making it cheaper than other dual-format possibilities) and result in a first-year loss of about $500,000. But, he says, the new members and new revenues it'll attract should translate into a $150,000 budget surplus in the second year and continue to grow from there. Right now CPR has 60,000 members out of a listening audience estimated at 600,000.

Also, in an effort to get people into the trenches, CPR is opening three bureaus this year, beginning with one in Chesterton in October and two at yet-to-be-determined spots on Chicago's west or south side. Each will be staffed with a reporter and/or a producer; a job opening's been posted for the Chesterton reporter's slot. According to Jones, in the next fiscal year they'll also add a reporter, a desk editor, and another four editorial people to the public affairs staff, which currently stands at 23. He expects the music staff, now seven full-timers and a few part-timers, will also get some help the following year. A CPR spokesperson says the station is interested in suggestions from the public about how to proceed; file those comments at expansion@chicagopublicradio.org.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Laura Park.

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