A Publication of WTVP

On March 7, 2011, WCBU began offering all news, information and entertainment on 89.9 FM, moving its classical music to its digital frequency, 89.9 HD2. As anticipated, the format change was met with a mixed reaction from listeners. A number of vocal critics weighed in with phone calls and letters to the station and the Journal Star, but an even larger number of supporters praised the move. Six months after the format change—always a risk, for any media outlet—it appears to have been a success. iBi spoke with Tom Hunt, the public radio station’s executive director, about the reasons for and challenges of implementing the format change.

On the overall trend toward the all-news format, and when WCBU first started examining the possibility of a format change:
We noticed the shift in audience use of our news and classical music programming several years ago. As part of our audience report from Arbitron (the industry-standard, radio audience measurement service), we saw a significant shift in the way people listened. More and more hours of listening went to our news and information programming, such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace and Day to Day, and fewer and fewer hours of listening to classical music.

We did everything we could to promote our classical programming to attract new and younger listeners. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts within our limited budget, the listening trend continued to decline.

Talking to consultants and projecting these trends, we projected that classical listening would drop to about 15 percent of the total. Other public radio stations are experiencing the same sort of shift in many markets. This is not unique to central Illinois. Recently, I talked to a public radio general manager in a southern market (larger than Peoria). That station is already seeing classical listening down to 15 percent of the total, with news and information up to about 85 percent. They are in the process of making the same switch.

Classical music is part of our mission. For this reason, we chose not to abandon the music, but to move it to our HD channel, WCBU2. Now we broadcast 22 hours a day of classical. This is more classical than ever before. Those who have HD radios have responded that they really love the format, because classical is available whenever they want it.

The FCC issued a rule that allows FM stations to increase their HD power. This summer, we are in the process of installing additional equipment to add to our capacity. This will improve reception in the existing HD coverage area, and will expand the coverage somewhat.

On how the plan was constructed to minimize negative impact on listeners:
This was a difficult decision. Even the smallest adjustment in programming impacts listeners because radio is a personal medium. We worked with Converse Marketing to help communicate the change. The goal was to give people advance notice and to make sure they knew options were available.

One of the first things we did was to help as many people as we could get HD radios. We made them available as fundraiser thank-you gifts for a reduced pledge amount. You can still get a radio from us for a contribution of $200. Before the change, we gave donors radios for $365. We are also keeping listeners up to date on the availability of radios through retail outlets and online. For those who are not comfortable making an online purchase, we will help them with that process as well.

Classical WCBU2 is also available to listeners online. We improved our web streaming equipment and capacity so our listeners have exceptionally high-quality sound. Listeners can access WCBU2 by visiting our website,

There is no easy way to minimize the negative impact. This is a significant change for a portion of our audience. Change is difficult for both the listeners and the station, but it was necessary. We could have put it off for awhile, but the listening trends could not be ignored, and had to be addressed.

On how change was managed throughout the process:
Communication is the key. We did everything we could to respond to every listener. Staff members spent a lot of time on the phone answering questions on availability of radios, helping them set up their radios, and answering basic questions as to why this change had to happen.

Most of the callers understood why we did this. Some were accepting; others were not. Once the new programming was rolled out in early March, we began to hear from those who welcomed the change. During the spring fund drive, we had an overwhelming number of positive comments. This was not particularly surprising since we have had a significantly high number of people who prefer the news/information format for a number of years.

On the significant challenges, from the response of local retailers to recent high-profile problems at National Public Radio:

We were disappointed by the response from local retailers. We were in touch with managers of the local electronics chain stores to let them know that we were making this change and that they would get customer inquiries. They all sell HD radios online and through their stores. Unfortunately, even the managers were not aware of their own inventory. In larger markets where HD radio is common, this is less of a problem. We referred most people to online sources because the local retailers were not prepared.

Events at national organizations had little or no impact on the format adjustment. NPR is just one component of WCBU’s programming. We bring listeners programming from many sources including the BBC and CBC. The Juan Williams and Ron Schiller debacles had no impact on format change. These incidents were the result, in part, of a leadership problem at NPR. Fortunately, there has been a change in NPR’s management, and they are moving forward.

It is no secret that media is changing. People use radio, television and print differently. In addition to broadcasting, we are online. In June, the FCC released a report on local journalism. The conclusion was that, not surprisingly, there is a shortage of in-depth local journalism needed to hold government agencies, schools and businesses accountable.

Even though there is an abundance of news outlets in today’s multimedia landscape, good reporting is lacking. Newspapers are having serious problems maintaining their customers, and consolidation of radio and television ownership has significantly reduced competition and innovation. Peoria is down to two television newsrooms. When we examine the content and style of the cable and AM talk radio outlets, we see that news is being repackaged and presented as opinion, or entertainment.

This is an opportunity for public radio. At the network level, and especially at the local level, WCBU focuses on public policy and public affairs rather than the “infotainment” style of news. We go beyond the sound bite and spend more time on a story than other media. It has always been what we do. Listeners who grow tired of the usual fare in media turn to public radio. We are ready to fill that need. iBi