Herb Zien, a local digital entrepreneur, is a longtime listener of WHAD, Milwaukee’s outlet for Wisconsin Public Radio. But he’s canceled his membership, miffed at how little attention Milwaukee gets from the radio network. “Why is the largest city in the state completely ignored?” he asks. Lisa Nalbandian, WPR’s Milwaukee-area regional manager, concedes that coverage […]

Herb Zien, a local digital entrepreneur, is a longtime listener of WHAD, Milwaukee’s outlet for Wisconsin Public Radio. But he’s canceled his membership, miffed at how little attention Milwaukee gets from the radio network. “Why is the largest city in the state completely ignored?” he asks.

Lisa Nalbandian, WPR’s Milwaukee-area regional manager, concedes that coverage of this city isn’t a high priority. “If you’re looking for specific Milwaukee information all the time, you’re not going to get it on Wisconsin Public Radio,” she says. “We’re much more of a statewide emphasis.”

Zien is actually less concerned about news than WHAD’s lack of classical music, despite the state network’s strong classical offerings elsewhere. For a community so smitten with performing arts – including a symphony, ballet and two opera companies – it is surprising the state’s largest city has no classical music station.

How things came to be this way is a complicated story rooted in the one-time rivalry nearly three decades ago between WHAD and the UW-Milwaukee public station, WUWM – which isn’t part of the state network. When Dave Edwards became WUWM program director in 1985, both his station and WHAD carried classical music as well as the signature National Public Radio news magazines, “All Things Considered”and “Morning Edition.”

Edwards began talks with WPR. “The tenor of the discussion was that we were not really competitors. So it made little sense for us to be doing the same thing.”

The 1990 split of WPR into two subnetworks largely resolved the issue. Under what Edwards calls “more of a gentleman’s agreement,” the NPR magazines became exclusive to WUWM. WHAD, meanwhile, became part of the new “Ideas Network,” carrying call-in talk shows with hosts like poet Jean Feraca. Both stations still carry popular programs such as “Car Talk” and “A Prairie Home Companion,” along with NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.

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The other WPR subnetwork was dedicated to classical music and the NPR magazines. Anchored by WERN in Madison and carried by stations across the state, it had no presence in Milwaukee, thus ending any overlap with WUWM.

Ironically, WUWM later dropped classical music for other public radio news, interview and analysis shows, and a growing mix of eclectic pop music evenings and weekend afternoons. Meanwhile, commercial station WFMR changed its call letters and switched to “smooth jazz” in 2007, dropping classical music.

The good news for Milwaukee is that the strength of the NPR programming helped build WUWM’s popularity and increase its local news staff. Strongly Milwaukee-centric, WUWM claimed three of the six Milwaukee Press Club radio awards for 2009 in a contest from which both commercial radio news operations, WISN and WTMJ, were strikingly absent.

The bad news is WPR’s muted presence in Milwaukee. Although WHAD broadcasts from the Reuss Federal Plaza downtown, the station’s actual license is in Delafield. Its broadcast reach extends west to Madison and south to the state line, but some East Side listeners complain they can’t get the station.

WPR does have one reporter based at WHAD. “If something is really big in Milwaukee, Chuck Quirmbach is there to cover it,” says Nalbandian. Two talk shows also originate here: Kathleen Dunn and Ben Merens.

Yet Milwaukee-focused programming or news items are rare. WHAD primarily offers this city “an opportunity for folks to be part of the state dialogue” through the call-in shows, Nalbandian says. Meanwhile, what Milwaukee news stories are done by Quirmbach often arise from his other beat, environmental issues. Thus there may be more stories on the health of Lake Michigan than metro-Milwaukee politics.

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Perhaps WHAD’s audience is content with that. Nalbandian says the station averages 89,000 listeners a week, second to Madison’s WERN in the statewide network. (WUWM has 96,400 weekly listeners.) And Nalbandian says many listeners switch between her station and WUWM when they want the NPR programs or Milwaukee news.

As for classical music, WHAD has started offering a separate classical subchannel – but Nalbandian acknowledges it’s been underpromoted. It also requires listeners to buy a digital radio – an investment of $100 or more. And Zien says that signal can’t be picked up on the East Side.

Zien proposes that WHAD switch its evening programming, dropping a quirky Canadian news show, “As It Happens,” and repeats of the day’s talk shows in favor of two of WPR’s big classical evening programs. “It wouldn’t cost them a cent,” he says.

Well, not quite. “Technically we could do it,” says Gene Purcell, executive director of the Educational Communications Board, which holds the license to WHAD and other WPR stations. “From a programming standpoint it probably is not a good idea. The more you can not divide the format, the better off you are in terms of building an audience.”

As for Zien’s complaint, Purcell sighs. “It’s very disappointing. But you can’t make everybody happy – that’s just a reality.”

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