Asheville’s public radio station, WCQS, is poised for change. Two key jobs at the station are open. Jody Evans, the WCQS executive director since 2010, recently announced her departure. Greta Johnsen, the station’s morning host during NPR’s All Things Considered Morning Edition Morning Edition Morning Edition, also recently left. (Helen Chickering has been hired as the local ATC host, according to the station.)
The vacancies give the station’s Board of Directors a great chance to better connect the organization to its listeners in Asheville and all across Western North Carolina.
Evans came to town with one big mandate – get WCQS on stable financial ground. She also arrived with one big dream – to move the station toward a regional leader in local news. She talked about both those goals a lot, but she really only made progress on the one to do with the bottom line.
The station recently sold its ownership in the office condominium building it calls home in downtown Asheville for $1.7 million. The station also increased its listener support 67 percent, and its business support by 32 percent, during Evans’ tenure. (She would often note that the station has 80,000 listeners every week and 7,000 people who contribute cash each year, leaving even more room for improvement.) Those moves leave WCQS with a solid bottom line moving forward.
On the news programming front, Evans cut several of the locally produced shows that listeners became familiar with over the years. The conversation-style shows with Asheville-area gardeners and doctors and journalists afforded listeners a mix of local, lively voices (and gave listeners the chance to call in). Bring back those shows, or create new ones that highlight local voices. And in general, the station doesn’t cover local news on its own – it simply spotlights the work of other local journalists.
Evans dreamed of having WCQS serve as regional voice for news connecting our far-flung mountain towns. She did something similar as director of programming at Vermont Public Radio during her decade there. (On that point, here’s what the station said when it announced Evans’ hiring: “As director of programming at Vermont Public Radio, she pioneered a sustainable model for two distinct statewide public radio services – one news, information and culture, and another focused on classical music programming.”)
WCQS is uniquely positioned to tell Western North Carolina’s story, especially as independent news outlets rise up out of the ever-changing media landscape. Is it financially feasible for a local station? Maybe not, but NPR seems to have cracked the code for funding great reporting.
There’s also plenty of room for WCQS to cover and promote Asheville arts and culture. Those topics are often cited as reasons for Asheville’s tourist appeal and its overall quality of life. They could use coverage of arts/culture to their advantage – the topics clearly appeal to their listeners i.e. donors. (The station plays classical music for most of its weekday hours.)
Listen to WCQS today, and it comes off as a quaint little public radio station happy with the status quo. Maybe that’s just fine with the station’s donor base and its board of directors as it launches a national search for a new CEO. But WCQS can do better. A city as vibrant as Asheville cries out for a public radio station that holds local institutions accountable and reflects a fascinating mix of natives and newcomers. The city deserves a public radio station that’s turned on and tuned in.
Addendum: Three points I want to add:
-WCQS was $1.2 million dollars in debt when Evans arrived. There was no debt, and an $800,000 operating reserve, when she left. That leaves the station in an excellent position to invest in new initiatives because of the debt. Was selling a valuable asset the right move to get to the point of financial security? I’ll let listeners argue over that.
-To be clear, I don’t think Evan’s tenure was a failure. She accomplished what she could, given the financial constraints she had to deal with. Now WCQS faces a new crossroads, and there’s opportunity.
-The WCQS mission statement, as a point of reference:
Western North Carolina Public Radio, Inc. operates WCQS-FM and its associated broadcast services as a community-based public radio network, committed to enhancing the quality of life in Western North Carolina by:
Expanding listeners’ horizons through new perspectives and listening experiences; Promoting the free and independent interchange of ideas and information; Enriching and reflecting the cultural climate, heritage and traditions of our region and society through classical and other music, and the arts.
Asheville deserves better than WCQS, which sounds like it’s programmed out of a retirement home.
I really miss the shows that David Hurand hosted interviewing veterinarians, gardeners and doctors. I never figured out why THAT was ended, especially if the goal was to make WCQS more of a local station. Seems like it got turned more into a generic NPR station.
You’re right, Jason, this is a huge opportunity and I hope something great happens here. Thanks for the coverage.
Was the real estate prime when the station was purchased?
I’m a longtime listener and agree with many of the points above. More local news would be a good thing. (think the new afternoon announcer comes with a news background – maybe she’ll do some reporting?) New versions of the local “talk” shows would be a good addition… We can all use a bit of updating…
However, please remember that Jason’s article is an opinion piece. It’s easy to sit back and pick apart the station. But before you go on – ask yourself… How much do you really know about WCQS’s history? (You’d know the location was not “prime” when it was picked) Did you know many of the original staff members helped build the studios, etc.? Do you know that at least one announcer – is a volunteer?
Do you know how much money and manpower it takes to create a daily or even a weekly local news presence? (see a lot of press releases on this site)
Ask the staff at WUNC in Chapel Hill/Durham. Yes, they have the State of Things, but have struggled to produce local news.
I think Jason’s opinion piece raises some good questions, but if you want to come up with some real suggestions for WCQS’s future, more homework is needed.
I think this is a fair take. WCQS doesn’t have the advantages of college-based stations like WUNC and WUGA where the universities can provide backing and attract staff. There are also technical issues: WCQS has to spend more on infrastructure to serve remoter bits of WNC than a public broadcaster in flatter territory that can just pump out more wattage from its transmitter.
You might as well ask why WNCW in Spindale, with its roots/world playlist, doesn’t have much capacity to do local culture and news reporting.
As for the location, I’m not sure how Jason squares the circle here: cash in on the downtown property boom and move the station elsewhere, and it’s going to be harder to do any kind of local programming.
WUNC used to be part of UNC-Chapel Hill, but now it is totally independent. It is actually located at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham. And is an amazing station with a larger number of donors living nearby than Asheville has (more than 1 million). So their budget is much larger, able to produce local programming.
What’s with all the %$&@ flute music! Some of it aimless noodling. I like classical but Jeeeez!
Change nothing about WCQS. I enjoy it as it is. If they do as the author suggests, it will devolve into a platform for complaining about the low pay for no skilled persons much like Ashvegas is.
This loyal reader appreciates Jason Sandford’s thoughtful analysis and opinion of an important community resource. I’d be interested in his views on other local issues. They might have some impact on our thought leaders. Would other loyal readers like to see more opinion pieces from him?
Hey Jason, I was the morning host during NPR’s Morning Edition. I couldn’t have been the morning host during All Things Considered, which airs from 4-6:30pm. Trent Henley was the ATC Host before Helen took the shift. Worth a correction.
They seriously need a new logo
Damn. That’s a college radio station, but this is the kind of community-driven, quality original programming I would love to see from an Asheville radio station. Interviews with artists passing through the Peel and Echo Mountain? Sponsored concert series? Local opinion on movies? Food programming? Cultural programs about art and craft, in partnership with Center for Craft, Creativity & Design, and others? Local news coverage from diverse sources, including corporate media AND Asheville’s growing alternative news media (Asheville Blade, Ashvegas, Carolina Public Press?) The possibilities are endless, if we want a KCRW of our own and find a leader willing to undertake the task of growing it over time.
I would listen to this.
KCRW is great, but that’s like comparing apples to zebras. More diverse music programming on WCQS would be great, though. Well-produced and engaging local shows and segments are not easy to make.
So pitch ’em an Ashvegas Radio Hour then … you’ve got more than enough connections and associates and local knowledge to pull off an hour per week local news and culture radio show. If you can do it more cheaply than some of the NPR show fees they’re paying for their current programming, they might well take you up on it . . .
I miss Byline, Conversations, The Wild Gardener…It’s what made WCQS so special. Now I listen to it as I get ready for work, but stream other stations and listen to satellite and podcasts the rest of the time.
WCQS is still my favorite local station, but I think it’s mostly out of nostalgia, not because of what it’s become. More local content, please! Give Hurand some full-time help!
Even more agreement. When a newsbreak is interrupted for “local” news, I get all excited, then it turns out to be press releases from Raleigh nine times out of ten. Then there are the “filler” shows that are one-off from PRX where great local content could be- just like Byline, Conversations and The Wild Gardener. I am very pleased that “The State of Things” is in the lineup, but is that all there is? I seriously get so much for off of the #avlnews and #wnc hashtags than I do off of WCQS. Perhaps that’s just the future.
What Melissa said! I was a faithful listener to The Wild Gardener. I also remember shows about weather from folks who knew what they were talking about and other informative and entertaining sessions of local/regional interest. I miss that.
I agree. Jason needs to replace Tony Kiss, who gives the same exact report about the same 5 friends businesses every week. He must be an investor in Isis Theatre and Highland Brewing. It’s hysterical and blatantly disconnected from the community as a whole.
I have always wished there would be more news and local features than classical music. I hate having to wait until 3 pm in the afternoon to get news updates from around the world while I’m driving around.
Totally agree! Other (larger) markets have Diane Rehm and some of the other shows on throughout the day…… they can afford it with a larger donor base.
Perhaps, we could pay for one more NPR segment and produce a local show….
It’s a radio station, do they really need to (now) rent such prime real estate? Agree on all points of the article.