Major changes at Wisconsin Public Radio. What does the future hold?

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Posted by on July 26, 2010 at 21:43:25:

Changing channels at Wisconsin Public Radio
As director Phil Corriveau steps down, network faces the future

By Jay Rath on Thursday 07/22/2010

On July 1, Phil Corriveau, director of Wisconsin Public Radio, resigned.

Still recovering from a 2008 stroke, he's been moved out of the network's campus headquarters and given a Beltline job. Officially, he's "director emeritus," leading research and collaboration at the Educational Communications Board and the University Wisconsin-Extension.

In some ways, it's a step up. But Corriveau's heart is, frankly, breaking. It's difficult for him even to find the words.

" know, know, this job, the director of WPR, is something that I worked toward virtually my entire career," he says. "This was the job that I wanted. I love this place. It's what I always aspired to. And I think this is one of the best places in the country to work."

The management change comes at a time when public radio faces severe challenges. Listener support nationwide has been dropping for two years. WPR's corporate underwriting is down by $240,000 annually. In Washington, D.C., home of National Public Radio, support has fallen by as much as 15%. Some in Congress are again agitating to eliminate federal funding for public broadcasting altogether.

"We have reserves," says Corriveau. "We've actually budgeted for a deficit. But I think next year is going to be a challenging one."

WPR and Corriveau, 57, have seen a lot of changes since he joined the state's radio service 39 years ago. All media have fragmented as the Internet and even newer communication conduits draw away audiences.

Just as the network is poised to renew itself, so must Corriveau.

"Unfortunately, life dealt me a cruel hand with this stroke," he says.

With his resignation, what hand has now also been dealt to Wisconsin Public Radio?

To be sure, WPR has its eye on the future. With the help of a consultant and 22 WPR managers around the state, the network has just finished a three-year plan, focusing on marketing and new media, "audio to people when and where they want it, including mobile phones and other devices," says Corriveau. "It's predicted that within five years or so, Wi-Fi in cars will be becoming common, so we're trying to keep up with the new media trend."

Another goal of the plan is to increase WPR's audience to 10% of the state population, for a total of 550,000 listeners. "I think part of this process is we're going to look at programming and see if there are any changes we might want to make in the future to help increase audience," says Corriveau. "We haven't really made any significant program changes since that big batch we did back in '96 or so."

Early in his tenure, he had high hopes for building listenership via "sideband" or high-definition (HD) digital radio, and nationally via satellite radio. Both technologies are so far lagging. HD broadcasting remains a huge source of potential growth. WPR already has a 24-hour classical music sideband service.

"We need to do a better job of getting that story out," he says. "I would guess that 90% of the population � and that's probably conservative � has never heard of it and does not know what it is."

Many stores don't even stock HD radios. "It's going to be a slow evolution until they start putting HD radio in cars," says Corriveau. "It's a chicken-or-egg kind of thing. But I think that HD radio is going to be really important, especially for public radio, because we can provide 24-hour classical, 24-hour jazz."

The best news is that listener support is helping to carry WPR's underwriting deficit.

"For some reason, listener membership in Wisconsin has bucked the trend so far," says Corriveau. "We've been able to be pretty strong."

He says that Wisconsin Public Radio ended the last fiscal year with over $6 million in contributions, "a record number for us."

WPR's physical network has grown under Corriveau, and more growth is pending. In 2007, following transmission digitization, there was a window of opportunity to apply to the Federal Communications Commission for new frequencies. Wisconsin Public Radio wanted to add eight other stations. "As did a million other people," sighs Corriveau.

The network so far has picked up a station in Ashland, and Rhinelander seems likely. "We applied for one the closest we could get to Milwaukee, in one of the northern suburbs," he says. Right now, the closest WPR gets is Delafield; Milwaukee has its own independent public radio service. "That's where we really need [a station], but I don't know what our chances will be. That would be a real coup."

Another station in Iron Mountain may be possible. "Of course, it's very sparsely populated, but our goal is to serve all the people of Wisconsin," Corriveau says.

The network continues to syndicate much of its programming, such as Zorba Paster on Your Health. Whad'Ya Know? is on around 320 stations. Another big success story is To the Best of Our Knowledge, on 174 stations and the fastest-growing show on Public Radio International, thanks in part to innovative marketing. Listeners will also soon be able to search past episodes of the series by subject and individual interview in online archives.

"That's been a sleeping giant," Corriveau says of To the Best of Our Knowledge. "People are finally discovering it after 20 years of being on the air. In my opinion, it's one of the best shows on radio."

Adding listeners adds dollars, but some of those dollars go right back out when Wisconsin Public Radio purchases programming itself. Besides vendors such as National Public Radio and Public Radio International, there's breakaway American Public Media, which distributes the powerhouse A Prairie Home Companion.

"Now we have three networks we have to pay for," says Corriveau. "And they've increased their costs."

"It...breaks my heart to see Phil step down as director," says Joy Cardin, one of WPR's talk hosts. It's a sentiment echoed by many at the network.

"He had an approach that was unique among WPR directors," says Larry Meiller, WPR's most popular and populist talk host. He credits Corriveau with having "a remarkable and positive effect on staff morale."

"It's been great having Phil at the helm because he's been involved with WPR long enough to appreciate what a treasure it is and how important its traditions are to its listeners," says classical music host Norman Gilliland.

Corriveau is part of those traditions himself. He joined WHA-AM, the network's flagship station, in 1971, before there even was a Wisconsin Public Radio. The roots of WHA go back to 1917, but WPR wasn't formally created until 1979. Corriveau worked on the very first pledge drive.

A Milwaukee native, he came to Madison to attend the University of Wisconsin, where he received an undergraduate degree in communication arts and a master's in arts administration. This was where he also discovered his passion. The summer after his freshman year he began work at WHA as a student board operator. "I liked playing around with tape recorders, so I was in heaven," he recalls.

Corriveau worked his way up to become WPR program director before departing Madison in 1980 for Sacramento, Calif., and its fledgling public radio station. In 1997 he moved to Austin, Texas, where he was director of KUT and the Longhorn Radio Network.

In 2000, he came back to Madison to join the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board as its deputy director. In 2004, he became director of Wisconsin Public Radio.

WPR has pastoral roots. Among WHA's first "programs" in the 1910s were Morse-code weather reports for farmers. For decades its School of the Air reached out to rural communities with educational programming, providing instruction in music, reading, history and even art to the public and to schools that couldn't afford teachers.

Corriveau brought a somewhat similar but modern vision: "Programming by and for the people of Wisconsin," he says. "Nobody else is doing that. Programming that is unique to us, that only we can provide. You can get All Things Considered anywhere. You can get all the national shows. But we can provide shows that are by and for the people of Wisconsin."

Wisconsin Public Radio has seen staffing cuts, at least temporarily. Michael Crane will serve as acting director, likely through the fall, doing double duty as WPR's chief operating officer. The network is short a regional manager in Green Bay and two reporters, in La Crosse and Eau Claire. "Those may or may not be filled," says Corriveau, but other positions are being added, including a marketing director and major gift officer, to cultivate donors.

And there's one more new position: Corriveau's. It's a bittersweet change for the first-ever emeritus director. "There will be some ambiguity at first," he says. "But people have been great. I've had a lot of support from the staff and my bosses."

His new role offers new opportunities. Freed from day-to-day operations, Corriveau is now able to take a larger view.

"I'm going to be in a consultative role, so I'll be able to do some of the things I never had time for before: research and looking at the big picture," he says. "It could be a good thing. It could even be a better thing. I'm retaining a very positive attitude."

As for the network, despite challenges, Corriveau foresees success. Whether it's webcasting, sideband or other new media, he says, "As long as we really provide something that nobody else can, I see a bright future for WPR."

"WPR is in an exceptionally strong position," says Greg Schnirring, vice president of radio at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and a former director of Wisconsin Public Radio. One reason, he says, is that WPR's two services, the Ideas Network (970 AM in Madison) and the News and Classical Network (88.7 in Madison), are broadcast "to virtually every corner of the state. WPR is also unique in public radio in that it owns most of the content that airs on the Ideas Network, and that gives WPR a distinct advantage as it works to develop new distribution platforms through the Internet and HD radio."

"Radio is such a personal medium," says Corriveau. "I think that's not going to go away. The way people get it might change, but radio as a medium will always be strong. There will always be a need for that sense of companionship that radio can provide."

Note: The printed version of this article should have stated that WPR is short a reporter in Eau Claire, not Wausau. This version of the article has been corrected.

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