KCPW-FM will drop its National Public Radio affiliation next week as it strives to grow in a marketplace dominated by its larger public radio rival KUER-FM.
The switch to less familiar public radio programming, effective June 24, was driven largely by economic considerations. Fundraising has become more difficult because many contributors see little difference in programming offered by KCPW and KUER, Ed Sweeney, KCPW's chief executive officer, said Monday.
"It became evident to us that it was harder to convince lenders and underwriters that we were unique in light of the fact that they could hear most of the same programming during daylight hours on KUER," Sweeney said. "You have to say you are unique. Otherwise [contributors] say 'Why should we continue to support you?' "
Right now, just 31 percent of KCPW's programming between 6 a.m. and midnight is not duplicated by KUER, Sweeney said. That will rise to 87 percent when the new programming is rolled out, he said. The station, heard at 88.3 FM and 105.3 FM, is owned by Wasatch Public Media Inc., a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit company. KUER is a nonprofit broadcast from the University of Utah.
The change is clearly a plus for consumers.
KCPW has signed contracts with three other public radio providers Public Radio International, Public Radio Exchange and American Public Media. Morning and midday news will be provided by "BBC News Hour." Popular shows like "This American Life" and "To the Best of Our Knowledge" will be available on weekends.
But the risk that KCPW will lose listeners is significant. Much of the station's new broadcast lineup includes new programming unfamiliar to some of KCPW's audience. In an average week, the station has about 35,000 listeners all in Salt Lake County. By contrast, KUER has close to 150,000 listeners in the metropolitan region, plus an additional 10,000 to 15,000 statewide.
"There is risk anytime you make a change," said Steven Rosenberg, owner of specialty foods store Liberty Heights Fresh and a KCPW underwriter for two decades. He admits there may be times when he and other listeners will turn to KUER's programming since it won't be available on KCPW.
"But face it, we live in a world that is rapidly changing,'' Rosenberg said. "Unfortunately, the economics [of public radio] don't always continue to work the way things had been done before."
The upside, he said, is "there are many wonderful programs around the country that we haven't had access to until now."
KCPW's annual bill to NPR is about $110,000. That amount is based on the size of its operating budget and the geographic reach of its signal. Sweeney said the NPR bill accounts for more than half of the station's programming budget of about $200,000.
He wouldn't say what KCPW will save by switching to less expensive programming, but he claimed the reduction will be significant. By freeing up more money to pay its debts, the savings will strengthen the station's hand when it seeks to refinance its loans, Sweeney said.
He said the decision to drop NPR has been part of a broader, year-long discussion on how to reduce the station's costs.