KPCC Fights Identity Crisis as It Tries to Reinvent Itself for Digital Age

KPCC Fights Identity Crisis as It Tries to Reinvent Itself for Digital Age

Socal's largest public radio station has been on a quest to change the definition of public radio — with mixed results

KPCC, the biggest public radio station in Southern California, is grappling with an identity crisis amid programming changes and murmurings about its sustainability, according to an investigation by TheWrap.

The Pasadena-based station has undergone major changes in the past year to combat digital disruption and broaden the station's reach with Latinos. Results have been mixed, according to numerous inside and outside observers: Ratings remain steady, website traffic is up and the newsroom has expanded.

But the station has shed local programming and key talent, including popular hosts Madeleine Brand and Patt Morrison, upsetting longtime fans and employees.

Also read: Madeleine Brand on New KCRW Gig: It Will Be a 'Deeper Think' (Exclusive)

As KPCC rolls out its new schedule and Brand prepares a new show on rival station KCRW, critics are questioning its choices. Current and former staffers spoke with TheWrap about a station in flux.

Said one frustrated employee who spoke on condition of anonymity: "I work at a radio station that's trying to be a website that's run by newspaper people."

Former Los Angeles Times editor Russ Stanton, who came to KPCC in January 2012 as head of content, did not entirely dispute the assessment.

Stanton said that he's trying to create the unique emotional connection of radio on KPCC's other platforms. "Going forward, we need to figure out how to replicate that emotional connection in the digital and mobile environments," he said, telling TheWrap that it has been "fun and fascinating to learn a new medium."

Also read: Madeleine Brand Quits KPCC Radio After Failed Shotgun Marriage With Sports Host

Since his arrival, Stanton (left) has lost or cut 14 people from the newsroom and hired 34 others, many of them reporters. The position of longtime program director Craig Curtis, who left in February, will be filled next month; senior news editor Cheryl Devall followed Curtis out the door. Tony Pierce, who had edited KPCC's blogs and assisted in its social media networks, lost his job the same month.

Neither Stanton nor executive editor Melanie Sill, formerly of the Sacramento Bee, had radio experience before coming to KPCC.

"If you're truly trying to do something that's new and different on the radio, is hiring a newspaper person the right person to do that?" one former employee said.

And six new shows introduced in June are not locally programmed, leaving the station with only two original shows per weekday and one hour of original programming per weekend.

You don't have to look too hard to find the audience response to the changes: KPCC's Facebook page still gets angry comments from listeners threatening to cancel their memberships, and a recent post on KPCC's website announcing six new shows in its lineup was met with similar disdain sprinkled liberally throughout the 94 comments in response.

Much of the criticism centered around the loss of Brand (below), who left the station in September a month after she was forced to team up with public-radio newcomer, ESPN sportscaster A Martinez, for an extended version of her "Madeleine Brand Show." KPCC hoped it would benefit twice over from the show: adding Martinez satisfied conditions to receive a multi-million-dollar grant ($6.31 million over three years, with $2.28 million of that yet be awarded) to create more diverse programming from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and there were hopes that "Brand and Martinez" would get national syndication.

Following Brand's departure, the show was renamed "Take Two." Almost a year later, KPCC's syndication hopes have yet to pan out, but Stanton told TheWrap it's still very much a possibility, with six stations seriously considering picking it up: "We think the show has great potential outside of L.A.," he said.

"Take Two" has succeeded in growing its Latino audience, though: Stanton provided TheWrap with demographic information showing that the percentage of "Take Two"'s Latino listeners quadrupled from 9.2 percent in August 2012 (when the weekly cumulative was 215,500 listeners) to 21.25 percent in April 2013 (when the weekly cumulative was 254,600).

Also read: Alex Cohen on Replacing Madeleine Brand at KPCC: 'I Know Some Listeners Are Unhappy' (Exclusive)

As for Brand, she's headed to KCRW for a one-hour show that she told TheWrap will be much like her KPCC program, but "more culture-y." When the show premieres in the fall, she'll be competing for listeners against her former co-worker Larry Mantle's "AirTalk."

KPCC also canceled multiple Golden Mike award-winning public-affairs program "The Patt Morrison Show" to make room in the schedule for "Take Two's" second hour in August 2012. Morrison (left) has stayed at the station, contributing short segments to various programs and filling in for Larry Mantle when he's out.  

KPCC's overall ratings share, according to Arbitron, has stayed fairly steady over the past year, and weekly cumulative audiences have grown over that same time.

And Stanton says that KPCC has added sustaining members during his tenure, not lost them, and nearly doubled its fundraising take over the last four years — from $6.75 million in fiscal year 2010 to $10.67 million in fiscal year 2013 from listener support and membership revenue.

According to its most recent financial report for the period ending June 30, 2012, Southern California Public Radio, of which KPCC is part, individual gifts and membership revenue decreased almost 8 percent by about $900,000 from fiscal year 2011, though foundational and governmental support nearly quadrupled to nearly $6 million, bringing SCPR's total take in 2012 above 2011's. The report for the period ending June 30, 2013, which covers the tumultuous past year, is not yet available.

Stanton maintains that said KPCC has no current funding issues, but there are certainly concerns among some staff that the money won't be there for them. Pierce told FishBowlLA he was laid off in February due to a "budget shortfall."

Morrison's show had a small staff yet cost too much for KPCC to continue, and Stanton said funds are not yet available to bring the show back (though he hopes there will soon be).

Those six new shows – one of which is an condensed version of "Take Two" — were free to the station. Stanton described it as "an expense-neutral upgrade."

The increased expenditure on digital news gathering has paid off in increased online traffic: According to ComScore, the number of unique monthly visitors rose from 228,000 unique visitors in January 2012 to 355,000 in June 2013; KPCC's internal numbers show a gain of more than 50 percent between January 2012 and June 2013, from 420,000 to 736,500.

But questions about its direction persist: Not that long ago, KPCC conducted an employee survey. The results showed a workforce that was still uncertain of its direction and what was expected of it. In its latest financial report, the station acknowledged that there had been "challenges."

Editor's Note: The story originally mischaracterized the timing of "BBC Newshour's" addition to the station's schedule and did not note that a replacement for former program director Craig Curtis would be joining the station next month. Colin Campbell will be managing editor for broadcast, not program director. TheWrap regrets the errors.