CPTV Celebrates 50 Years: Present at the Creation
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Radio, Radio (1978-present)
Spurred on by a series of unexpected developments, CPB finally joined the National Public Radio network 35 years ago with WNPR.
Arthur Diedrick: People tend to talk all the time about Connecticut Public Broadcasting in terms of television, without putting enough emphasis on radio. I think what we do with radio is absolutely terrific in terms of programming. We're always among the Top 10-rated stations in Connecticut.
John Berky (WNPR concert and music producer, 1977-2002): I got involved with Connecticut Public Radio (WNPR) before it even signed on the air. I was in touch with the management when the announcements were made back in 1977. When they went on the air in 1978, I signed on as a board operator. We did some practice runs, made sure we knew how everything worked before the transmitter was turned on. Very early on, I took on the role of being concert producer, because CTPR decided to present local concerts. In 1984, Paul Taff named me director of radio, and I stayed there till 2002.
John Berky: One of the reasons WNPR got going was because WTIC-AM, a classical station, decided to change its format to pop in the 1970s, and we got its library of recordings. That was one of the impetuses for Connecticut Public Broadcasting to get into radio. I believe the WTIC management gave us their library and some funding as well.
John Berky: Connecticut was one of the last states to inaugurate a public radio station. There was an issue about frequencies. Certain frequencies have to be certain distances from each other on the dial; otherwise, they interfere with each other. In the public radio spectrum, which is below 92 on the FM dial, it got pretty tight, because in Connecticut there were a lot of small 10-watt stations. So to fit another frequency in for Connecticut was really tough, because they were all taken up. There was WFCR in Amherst, Mass., which was broadcasting pretty nicely into the Hartford area—but there was nothing in New Haven, where there was a group there who really wanted to hear some public radio. So they set up a translator, which is a funny little one-watt thing that can pick up a signal and just rebroadcast it. They got hold of the frequency 90.5, and used a high tower to grab the WFCR signal from Hartford and broadcast it into New Haven. They called themselves The Friends of WFCR. 90.5 was the only viable frequency in the state, so Connecticut Public Broadcasting went to the Friends and negotiated to take over the frequency and spread it to a wider area. Over time, other stations were added in Norwich, Stamford and Bridgeport.
John Berky: One of the stipulations the Friends made in handing over the frequency to Connecticut Public Broadcasting was that the studio be established in New Haven. That was one of the reasons that Faith Middleton was hired, to manage that studio, and she's done a bang-up job ever since. She came on the scene with "The Faith Middleton Show," and she's won two George Foster Peabody Awards, which is just about the most prestigious award you can get in broadcasting. One was for a retrospective on the Shubert Theater, "The Shubert Theater: 75 Years of Memories."
John Berky: Another stipulation the Friends made was that they wanted to listen to Morning pro musica, which ran from 7 a.m. to noon every day on National Public Radio. Robert J. Lurtsema was the host. He was quirky, but very knowledgeable. So we kept that on; we had more classical music in the afternoon, and we had National Public Radio news at 5, followed by jazz in the evening. It was kind of a mixed bag of things, a typical public radio format.
John Dankowski (WNPR radio host and news director, 1994-present): I came to WNPR in August, 1994. I was essentially hired to be the first new news employee after a little bit of restructuring. We didn't really have a news department at that point, so I was hired to be the new "Morning Edition" host and a reporter, and I was essentially a newsroom of one until we started rebuilding. I did "Morning Edition" for the first couple of years, and then as we started to grow and add some reporters and other show hosts, I became news director. We grew pretty steadily until 2006, when we made the decision to drop classical music altogether and go to an all news and information format.
John Berky: Around the late '90s, we decided we had to do something about Morning pro musica. It was getting too esoteric and egg-headed for the average listener. And "Morning Edition" had then come along, which we were broadcasting 6 to 7 a.m., because we had to air the full Morning pro musica show. That was becoming a problem because it wasn't our program; it was coming from WGBH in Boston and they dictated the terms. It's the morning drive time that establishes who you are as a radio station, and at morning drive we were WGBH. So we decided we had to get out of this. The show had a lot of loyal support, and we were concerned that if we took it off, our donations could go down. But we finally pulled the plug, and it was pandemonium for awhile. We had to program our own classical music from the end of "Morning Edition" to 3 or 4 p.m., when Faith Middleton came on.
John Dankowski: 9/11 changed a lot for everyone. After 9/11, we saw that many other stations—and our listeners, too—were beginning to clamor for a larger view of the world. They wanted more news. We found ourselves breaking into the classical music for news bulletins when something was happening in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, or elsewhere in the world. It became clear that we'd essentially developed two different types of audiences: one that listened to the news shows and shows like Faith Middleton's, which appealed to the listeners who wanted to engage, and those who listened to classical music and used it as a retreat. Eventually, we realized that it was unsustainable to have two such varied listener bases. Being a service that was going to play records for people wasn't as important to the state as being one that could bring news and information to them on a full-time-basis.
John Berky: Back in the classical music days, we did a show called "Connecticut Concert Hall," for which we attempted to go around and record all these local concerts, and we didn't have to air them blow-by-blow—we told the music organizations that it might be more useful if we play one segment, then we use that to promote your next concert, then we move on to something else. This way we got more mileage out of the recordings we collected. So that became the structue for this program, which aired right after "All Things Considered." I remember when we did the first program it went very well, and the program director came into my office and I congratulated him—and he said, "Thanks, but now I've got to do this every day." He had kind of built himself a monster. We had one engineer who would go out—with these incredible $10,000 Swiss recorders—and record all these concerts. Certain organizations, like the Yale School of Music, would record their own concerts and send us copies. We acquired quite a library of in-concert performances. The tricky thing was if you had an orchestra whose upcoming show you wanted to promote, you had to find a performance of theirs that could fit in a one-hour program, along with a couple of other pieces. We did do a couple of live broadcasts, including one after Yale discovered a number of Bach choral preludes that had never been performed before. The world premiere took place at Battell Chapel, and we decided to air it live nationwide. I think 100 stations across the country picked it up.
John Berky: I think the shift to news was a very justified maneuver, because there had been a gradual shift in the way news was presented by commercial radio stations. In many ways, the commercial stations were handing the news to us. They were doing fewer and fewer news broadcasts and nothing in the way of in-depth reporting. That work was coming our way, as was legislative coverage. As a result of taking that on, we received boxes of Associated Press Awards, and for three or four years straight, the Mark Twain Award for overall station excellence.
John Dankowski: Now the broadcast day begins with "Morning Edition," the NPR national magazine, from 5 to 9 a.m. daily, into which we insert local newscasts and reports. We added my talk show, "Where We Live," in 2006 when we went all news and information, that runs from 9 to 10. Then we have other national NPR shows, followed by Colin McEnroe's "The Nose," from 1 to 2. Then "The Faith Middleton Show," which has been a staple for more than 30 years, from 3 to 4. Then we pick up with "All Things Considered," which is the afternoon newsmagazine show out of Washington, D.C., that we also insert local segments into.
John Dankowski: What we try to do with "Where We Live" is have long-form conversations with a wide variety of people from around the world about subjects that are important to people here in the state. We don't want to be a strictly local show that just deals with issues that are happening at the local town council or state capitol. We want to cover those when we can, but we understand that our listeners have a broader view of the world, so we want to cover new research in science or developments in transportation that connect Connecticut to the rest of the region. We talk an awful lot about education and the environment. One of the things we have going for us is great local resources; the countless national and international experts who live here because of our proximity to New York and the great universities here. So we can have a thoughtful conversation about a whole range of things every day, while really making it a Connecticut conversation at the same time.
John Dankowski: When the show started in 2006, you'll remember that we were in the middle of that really contentious Senate race between Ned Lamont and Joe Lieberman. That wasn't the only important race; there was a race for governor at the same time. We made a pledge to have as many candidates for the important offices of the state in the studio for long-form, sit-down interviews. Almost without exception, we were able to get those candidates to talk at length and answer questions from our audience. We really feel strongly that one of the things we can do is put elected officials—or those seeking elective office—on the record, in front of a large audience, and tease out some of their ideas and thought processes. I'm proud that those shows have been used by other reporters, editorial writers and talk shows to fuel further discussion and coverage.
Bob Douglas: I think Connecticut Public Radio gets better all the time. I think they deserve a pat on the back; they provide good news work and public affairs coverage. I think John Dankowski has become the best radio news interviewer in the market. Public radio has now filled a huge void because AM commercial radio is so godawful.
John Dankowski: We need to get out of the studio more often, get on the road and go out to talk to people where they live. We need to find a way to get at more of the small stories in towns and cities, rather than just the ones that impact the entire state. We need to talk to more citizen reporters and citizens who have important stories to tell. We also want to make sure we're doing a good job of covering Connecticut's art and culture. We sometimes get so tied up in what's happening with the state budget that we don't sit down and find out who's the hot new band in New Haven, or what's happening with the jazz scene in Fairfield County.
John Dankowski: We currently get about eight percent of our funding from the federal government through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and another 30 percent from sponsors—corporations, foundations and local organizations that want to support us directly. But more than 60 percent of our funding comes directly from listeners. The reason our model is more sustainable than that of commercial radio is, commercial radio is tied to its advertisers. We're not beholden to any big interests. Federal government funding may go away at some point, but as long as our listeners like what we do, they've proven that they'll give us enough money to allow us to continue.