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KUMR Rolla, Missouri: a model for small-market public radio stations.

A little over three years ago, a small public radio station in Rolla, Mo., had its neck on the chopping block. And while the ax was being honed on the grindstone the station survived by rallying its supporters from all sections of its listening area -- the rustic Missouri Ozarks.

Today, the public radio station KUMR and its eclectic mix of music -- from bluegrass to blueblood, and the Austin Lounge Lizards to Antonio Vivaldi -- has become a model for other public radio stations.

KUMR's troubles began after Proposition B, a tax proposal to fund higher education in Missouri, was defeated at the polls in November 1991. Following that defeat, the University of Missouri-Rolla -- KUMR's home -- started looking for ways to cut programs that were not essential to its mission of "educating leaders in engineering and science." The FM radio station was one of several programs slated for possible elimination, explains KUMR General Manager Janet Turkovic.

"The chancellor had been given eight programs where he had to consider making some serious cuts, and we were one of them," Turkovic recalls. "There were two options for us. One was extinction -- we would simply cease to exist. The other was to become a repeater for KBIA," the public radio station at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism. (A repeater station simply receives and simulcasts programming from another station.)

This experience was occurring at other public radio stations. "It wasn't just here," says Turkovic. "It was happening all over the country, especially in the smaller market university stations, over a hundred of them."

Turkovic, an accomplished classical violinist who has been with the station since November 1990, says small-market stations have fewer resources than their large-market counterparts, so cuts of a few thousand dollars can put a small station under. "The stations in the metropolitan markets can count on a lot of corporate support. They can crank up the PR, and they know that their staffs can go out and get what they need. KWMU (the affiliate station at the University of Missouri-St. Louis) probably has 250 times the resources we do. Only the Alaskan stations have it worse than the smaller stations like KUMR.

"We tried to find a way that the university could have its cake and eat it too, so to speak. So we took our case to our listeners, explaining our predicament, and the response was overwhelming. We got more than 300 letters of support." At the time, KUMR had only 600 members.

The university also held an open forum on campus to discuss the station's future, and KUMR supporters filled the room. "We had the farmer from Salem in his flannel shirt, we had the university professor, the housewife from Cuba -- they all came."

The composition of the group reflected KUMR's broad-based support. The station's bluegrass shows draw as many supporters as the more traditional programming of classical music, jazz and news.

To counter the proposed cuts, Turkovic and her staff came up with a five-year plan to become self-supporting. "We wanted to appeal to the public," she says, "and we brought in a consultant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting." CPB provides consultation services to member stations at extremely low rates.

The consultant, Linda Carr, a former KUMR general manager, "revamped our fund-raising techniques, coached us in effective methods of raising money," says Turkovic. "Our goal for the first year was to raise $55,000 and gain 150 new members (subscribers); we ended up getting $74,000 and 300 new members." KUMR also topped the national average on pledges to public radio stations. That average is $51; the average pledge to KUMR was $87 in 1993 and topped $90 for the fund-raising drive concluded this spring.

Turkovic points out that before the original phase of the five-year plan began, an isolationist, "ivory tower" mentality was prevalent among the station's management, and this attitude alienated many listeners. (Of more than 500 NPR stations, over half are affiliated with colleges and universities.)

"That won't work here," says Turkovic. "Diversity is part and parcel of what we do in our programming." There is, for example, "the old woman with her cats out in Licking, Mo.," a small town a few miles outside of Rolla, who "loves our Saturday night bluegrass program." She has given us hundreds of dollars and is very enthusiastic.

"We really try to give a local feel to as much of what we broadcast as we can," Turkovic adds. "We have to include the communities around us in order to survive."

Fort Leonard Wood, the Army's basic training facility in nearby Waynesville, is one such community. "We try to provide a distillation of national news down to a local level," Turkovic says, so the station's news staff looks at local angles to national issues. "We covered the issue of gays in the military because of the proximity of the base in our area."

Along with local news, classical music and the highly popular bluegrass programming, KUMR also features call-in programs with local experts on finance, law, state and local government, and other issues. A different call-in show airs every Friday morning.

While the local audience is KUMR's bread and butter, the station hopes to make a national reputation by syndicating a locally produced science program, "Brainstorm." The program, which Turkovic calls a "light-hearted science and technology program," is sort of a "Beakman's World" for the NPR crowd. Brainstorm's hosts, a University of Missouri-Rolla chemistry professor and a local high school science teacher, will provide "nuggets of information" and answer questions mailed in from listeners. Turkovic hopes to begin syndication in January 1995.

Turkovic says the station strives to pay attention to listeners' interests. The station averages 30 to 50 letters a week, but special programs can bring in several times that amount. When KUMR taped and rebroadcast a speech by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who spoke at the University of Missouri-Rolla last February, "we got more than 100 calls," Turkovic says.

Another way the station connects with its listeners is its Council of Twelve concept, new this year. KUMR has a broadcast radius of 90 miles and a potential listener audience of about 250,000 people in 13 counties. The Council of Twelve project targeted a dozen communities in the listening area, and KUMR appointed representatives in these towns. "We tried to identify the people interested in public radio," Turkovic says. "These people tend to be active in their communities, anyway." In addition, the station profiles one of the towns each month as a "featured community." In the future, Turkovic hopes to do live remote broadcasts from the communities represented by the Council of Twelve as a means of building the base of support and attracting corporate donations.

The idea has not gone unnoticed. "I spoke with someone from the Washington-based Corporation for Public Broadcasting a while back," Turkovic says, "and they thought it was a great concept."

This idea, along with other fund-raising techniques, earned KUMR the designation as one of two "Model Stations" at the Public Radio Conference in Washington, D.C. two years ago.

"That's the big conference," Turkovic said. "Everyone from public radio attends -- not just management, but engineers, salespeople, and people from National Public Radio and Public Radio International. The idea was to present a session to help other university licensees who were undergoing cutbacks and give them some firm, practical advice on how to make sure their station continued to thrive." Since the other Model Station was from Minneapolis, KUMR's training session effectively showed how smaller-market stations can survive in the face of dwindling finances.

Turkovic also stressed the importance of volunteers to help run the station. KUMR has a full-time staff of seven, including a marketing manager and a senior secretary. Since funds have been too limited to hire additional staff, the call went out for volunteers. Besides doubling the membership and tripling the amount of money raised, the station has seen a sevenfold increase in volunteer-participation hours.

"At the top end, volunteers actually produce some of KUMR's programming," Turkovic says. "They book the guests, ask the questions, do the research." One volunteer put together a history of KUMR for the station's 20th anniversary celebration in the fall of 1993.

Besides the traditional volunteer work -- answering telephones during pledge drives and licking stamps and envelopes -- KUMR volunteers also preview and catalog compact discs. "The station has hundreds of compact discs coming through every year. We have to know what fits, what is well-executed and what isn't; that's quite a chore, and it's all done by volunteers." One volunteer even designed a computer program to catalogue the classical music library, while other volunteers are handling the data entry.

Another volunteer provides "fill music" after concert programs, Turkovic explains. "You have a period of time after a concert program ends until the top of the next hour, and this particular person has the expertise to know that, for example, you don't follow Brahms with Viennese waltzes. He can find, say, 37 minutes of appropriate music to fill the time."

In some cases, the station uses people ordered by a judge to perform public service for volunteer work, as well as people who are unemployed and wish to learn new skills. "In certain cases, some of our volunteers have made contacts with other people in the community and actually gotten jobs through volunteer service," she says. "We can match up, say, a secretary who we know is capable with an employer who needs one. It's exciting to see that happen."

With KUMR entering the third year of its five-year self-sufficiency plan, Turkovic is hopeful that volunteers will continue to pull through for the radio station.
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Author:Ekstam, Frederick
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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