Wiping Out Music for News

Jul 15, 2020

No one in the public radio world wants to let listeners down.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Tammy Terwelp, executive director of Aspen Public Radio (KAJX). “We are public radio. But we are also a business. If we don’t operate smartly, we will be eliminated.”

And so, at the beginning of the year, Aspen Public Radio ended nearly all of its music offerings. Gone are its mostly jazz mix of programs that filled the evenings. For the summer, it will continue its grant-funded classical music offering with Chris Mohr through August 31, then “Fresh Air” and the “BBC Newshour” will take its place.

In place of music, the station decided to “go all in” on news. It’s an ambitious decision for a station with some seven news staffers.

“One of the most dangerous things you can do is keep slicing at your schedule. You have to kind of do it all at once,” said Terwelp, who brings public radio chops from Chicago, Pittsburgh and Colorado Springs.

Now, listeners in Aspen – and throughout the valley of the Roaring Fork River and its tributaries – can hear “Marketplace,” and “All Things Considered” (ATC) in the afternoons and “The World” and “1A” in the evenings.

Of its own programs, the station is moving forward with its Hearken-like “Rocky Mountain Why?,” which responds to listener questions.  It’s adding another round of “Gen Z Tea,” a podcast hosted by and aimed at teens.  And, once person-to-person meetings resume, it will continue its “Tell Me More Tour” for journalists to meet and talk with local residents.

With the impending arrival of a new news director, the station hopes to launch a half-hour newscast to cover the first portion of “ATC.”

Aspen Public Radio is not the first station to do away with popular music programming to make way for more news.  Two years ago, WAMU in Washington, D.C., took heat for canceling its 38-year-old big-band “Hot Jazz Saturday Night,” to help it “better reflect a news and information format.”  However, a public outcry caused New York’s WNYC to reverse last year’s decision to end John Schaefer’s “New Sounds” as part of an ongoing shift to an all-news format.

Aspen Public Radio
Aspen Public Radio website

Eliminating music programming to focus on news might seem like an odd decision for Aspen Public Radio, considering that the town already has two daily newspapers and a couple more covering the rest of the valley.

In addition, listeners can hear three other nonprofit radio stations: Colorado Public Radio; community access station KDNK; and public radio station KUNC.

“Our station had planted the flag as being the NPR station, but we hadn’t embraced it fully,” Terwelp said. Volunteers hosted its evening music offerings, and most protested the decision to eliminate their shows; some have since landed music berths at one of the other stations.

But the “push-pull” of listener preferences was hard to serve.

“The news people would turn off the station at 1 p.m.  They hated classical music, and they would not come back,” Terwelp said.  And listenership “really dropped after 7 p.m.”

Data collected during the station’s pledge drives showed listener preferences skewing toward news. But “the music people don’t like to have news,” Terwelp said. “And the news people don’t like to have the music.”

Throughout the year, classical music lovers can now be served by Colorado Public Radio’s classical offerings, Terwelp said. Plus, Spotify, iTunes and Apple Music now compete with public radio in the music space, she noted. 

And instead of supporting digital streaming of the local music, Terwelp said she’d rather use the funds to hire a reporter. “We need to be out in the community, reporting what’s happening,” especially in a community that consists of a lot of affluent residents on the mountain and farm laborers and poorer listeners in the valley. 

In terms of news, Terwelp has aspirations to partner with one of the local newspapers and with Aspen Journalism, an investigative nonprofit that covers water and environmental issues. She said the station will soon join the Mountain West News Bureau, which CPB funds. And she hopes to apply for reporters funded by Report for America and ProPublica.

Terwelp is betting that her new strategy will better serve her listeners and avoid the fate of some other small pubcasters that have been swallowed by larger stations and turned into repeaters, relaying programming from their new owners. Or they have been sold, sometimes to Christian broadcasters. “I’m seeing that happen now in many newsrooms,” she said.

With her vision set, Terwelp is optimistic. “Come hell or high water, we are going to build this team.”

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