If you know you need to be in the shower or hustle your kids out the door by the time a Scandinavian folk tune announces The Writer’s Almanac early every weekday morning, you may be among the many Washingtonians who have made local public-radio station WAMU the number-two station in the entire area—an almost unheard-of position for a public-radio outlet. But you also might be surprised to learn that the mellow voices and hushed reliability you hear on the air mask a media organization undergoing deep and existential changes.
One window onto the turmoil is the mostly quiet personnel changes over the past year: Afternoon host Elliott Francis disappeared this summer, as did managing editor for news and occasional on-air presence Meymo Lyons. In November, beloved traffic reporter Jerry Edwards was cashiered in favor of “smart phone map services, GPS devices in cars, and traffic apps,” as a station press release put it. He had outlasted his afternoon counterpart, Mike Cremedas, by a year.
Bigger changes are coming. In December, Metro Connection went on hiatus and WAMU announced that, beginning in January, The Kojo Nnamdi Show will lose its second hour, with an as-yet-unnamed “national show” filling its second hour.
All of these moves followed the arrival of a new general manager, J.J. Yore, who came aboard in August 2014 from the business-news show Marketplace, which he co-created for American Public Media. (The station’s goofy slogan “Where the mind is our medium” vanished the following month–listeners often misheard it as “Where the mind is Armenian,” station spokesperson Benae Mosby says.) But Yore is no corporate hatchet man brought in to squeeze employees and boost WAMU’s bottom line.
“WAMU is a strong station—it’s a good station,” Yore says from his office overlooking Connecticut Avenue in Van Ness. “But it could be a great station. And so I see my role as taking WAMU from good to great.”
The good: the ratings. “I’d be hard-pressed to name another major market” where public radio has that kind of reach, says NPR president and CEO Jarl Mohn. Also some terrific journalists, such as Kavitha Cardoza, Michael Pope, and Patrick Madden. And a new content chief, Andi McDaniel, who came this past summer from Twin Cities Public Television and is encouraging staff not just to build a better megaphone but also to think about how to make stories that listeners want to share on social media. When it comes to stories, McDaniel says, “We just don’t get the luxury of making it and hoping someone will find it.”
The challenging: Too few of the people who have made WAMU number two are paying full freight. “We have 52,000 members,” Yore says. “We should have a hundred thousand.” And the station has run deficits—$2.58 million in its 2015 fiscal year—since moving to expensive new offices in 2013.
Yore hired the firm Market Enginuity to handle underwriting—the soft, public-radio version of on-air ads—which he expects will move WAMU from the 60th percentile of public-radio stations to the 90th in sponsorship income. He has also created a major-gifts department to identify people who might kick in more than $20 a month. (David Rubenstein, check your in box.)
There’s an actuarial element to consider as well: WAMU’s two biggest stars, Diane Rehm and Kojo Nnamdi, are 79 and 71, respectively. But perhaps the biggest challenge is the age of listeners: While other big-city stations have found younger audiences through podcasts and other digital products, WAMU has remained mostly a creature of territorial radio, with a dated website and podcasts that are canned versions of on-air programming.
In pondering the future, Yore has made rethinking content his first move. He inherited a station whose news operation tried to compete with WTOP, the number-one station in the market. WAMU had been trying to pull off a difficult task—producing a tonier but similar approach to breaking news, traffic, and weather. “We were filling 130 newscasts a week, with a reporting staff of less than ten people,” says Yore. That pace “means your reporters are on a hamster wheel and doing very little enterprise work.”
Yore has ordered an about-face. Slower, more time-consuming work, he reasons, will attract more listeners. He cites recent triumphs including Madden’s investigation into a PAC that supports DC mayor Muriel Bowser and Cardoza’s series on the challenges low-income students face in college.
But it’s not just about prestige journalism. Taking reporters off the breaking-news beat can also attract the sort of outside funding that can help the station’s bottom line. Cardoza’s series, for instance, was financed in part by a Corporation for Public Broadcasting initiative. Likewise, “Localore,” an upcoming project embedding producer Katie Davis in Anacostia, is funded by a consortium of donors that includes the Ford and MacArthur foundations.
McDaniel plans to wrest the news team from location-based beats and divide the news into “signature” topics—education, for instance, or crime—that will be reported regionally and, she hopes, find a wider audience.
Then there’s Rehm, who helms WAMU’s biggest show, broadcast on some 200 stations across the country. She had a rough summer—in a widely publicized boo-boo, she asserted incorrectly that US senator Bernie Sanders was an Israeli citizen—and plans to hang up her microphone after next fall’s elections.
Yore says Rehm initiated the retirement talk and that the station will likely select a host from the understudies who fill in during her absences—including new voices Yore says we can expect to hear in coming weeks: “We’re picking those people with an eye toward whether they might have a long-term role.” In her book On My Own, due in February, Rehm writes, “It’s time, I believe, to have a younger voice in the ten-to-noon national spot. I’m not thinking of it as an act of generosity—rather, one of realism.”
A generational change in Rehm’s chair would rhyme with an investment in digital initiatives, designed to bring in younger audiences. Yore has assigned Nnamdi’s former managing producer to lead a project on innovative new content, including, yes, podcasts. A couple of these initiatives predate Yore, including the music site Bandwidth and WAMU’s bluegrass station—which broadcasts on the FM band after years as an online and HD-radio enterprise. “A lot of my peers, certainly, are taking jobs in the bubbling podcasting sector,” McDaniel says, “and I made a decision to work within quote unquote legacy media because I believe in what it represents.” Asked what that is, she replies, “trust.”
“For a long time, we’ve looked bigger than we were,” former Kojo Nnamdi managing producer Brendan Sweeney says. “We had all this incredible content, but the station had to find another gear to [get it] where it needed to go.”
If WAMU wants to find that gear, it’ll need to free up some cash. It pays American University, which owns the station, an annual fee of about $3 million of its income for administrative duties, on top of rent on those fancy new digs (a much-needed upgrade over its East German-like former studios on Brandywine Street) and a loan from American to refurbish them.
Yore’s spartan office is on the chopping block, too—he hasn’t moved anything in, he explains, because shrinking the station’s back-office space would shave hundreds of thousands of dollars from the more than $2 million a year it pays in rent to AU: “It’s painful for people here because I’m taking money out of the support areas”—he’s made cuts in the membership and IT departments—”and putting them into content.”
So far, Yore has kept his plans for content close to his vest, though he has promised to release a strategy document next month laying out the station’s direction for the coming five years. Ask newsroom staffers if they know what’s ahead, however, and they’ll describe general bewilderment as consultants, including some from Atlantic Media, have filed through, holding presentations and generally freaking everyone out. The problem with Yore, one employee says, is that “no one knows what he wants.”
The thing to do is ask. Yore appreciates his new outlet’s deep claim on Washington. “For me, this is coming home,” he says. He grew up in Springfield and attended Gonzaga High School, and he now bikes or walks to work from his house in Chevy Chase DC. Many of his changes are intended to make WAMU feel more local. The tweak to Nnamdi’s show cuts out its national-news segment. Yore also wants to see more “Kojo in Your Community” live events so that conversations on the show don’t end when the red light goes out.
Doubling down on regional issues could aggravate what Yore calls “traditionally a very fractious relationship” with NPR. As it faced its own revenue struggles in the last couple of years (before finally balancing its budget in 2015), NPR has been keeping its reporters closer to home, increasing the confusion between the two Washington-based media organizations. It’s not unusual to hear NPR stories set in Beltsville or Fairfax—or, as some at WAMU complain, redoing that station’s stories with no credit. But Yore, who invited Mohn to dinner at Rasika soon after he hit town, is determined to turn the common strains into advantages.
“To have a station in our own back yard and not work with them is a bit of a crime against nature,” says Mohn, who notes that he enjoys wearing the microphone pin that identifies him as a top WAMU donor.
Yore will need to find a lot more of those donors to fund his plans. Which may give worried staffers a clue to what, exactly, he wants: everything, and now.
“I’m not a very patient person,” Yore says, “but I’m struggling to fight my nature.”
Senior editor Andrew Beaujon can be reached at email@example.com.
This article appears in our January 2016 issue of Washingtonian.