News | Crunchy Numbers: KRCL sees a spike in listeners, but donations to community radio lag. 

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The kids dig KRCL 90.9. That’s if you really stretch the definition of “kids” to radio listeners in their mid-30s. n

Still, the average listener age that shows up in recent ratings for KRCL is a substantial drop from the 45-plus audience the community radio station had before a spring shakeup of the station that sent shockwaves through Utah’s progressive community.

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Results from the first listener survey since KRCL replaced many of its daytime volunteer hosts with paid DJs are in—and numbers are up significantly. While the station is still just a blip in Utah’s crowded radio market, the summer 2008 ratings from the Arbitron rating service show KRCL reaching 43,700 people weekly. According to station managers, that’s the most ever since the music station began measuring its audience in the early ’90s.

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Listeners increased 15,600 from last year’s average, and a greater percentage of them now have KRCL topping their list of favorites. Overall, KRCL this past summer reached slightly less than 1 percent of the Salt Lake Valley radio audience.

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Station managers are pleased but aren’t declaring victory yet. They note the summer 2008 measurement could turn out to be blip. And donations on which the station depends for survival haven’t seen a corresponding increase.

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“Everybody’s really psyched, but we also realize it’s one book [seasonal measurement],” says KRCL General Manager Donna Land Maldonado. “It will take a year to see if it stays up.”

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She puts the uptick down to “consistency.” KRCL’s 6-month-old format change moved KRCL daytimes away from traditional community “freeform” radio—blocks individually programmed by volunteer DJs—to a daylong music mash-up selected to sound similar no matter what time listeners tuned in. Evenings and weekends on KRCL continue to be programmed by individual volunteers.

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Circus Brown, a six-year KRCL volunteer, says the new format has broadened the station’s appeal; he even finds himself tuning in more. (Brown also writes occasionally for City Weekly). Reaction from listeners has varied. “I get so many young people coming up saying, ‘You guys are so cool,’ and so many old hippies saying, ‘I can’t believe you sold out,’” Brown says. “I’m like, ‘Have you even given it a chance?’”

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The stakes are high for the station. The reworking began, in part, at the behest of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which threatened to take away KRCL’s annual grant if the station didn’t increase its market share. KRCL was awarded a special two-year grant—including consultants—to see if it could improve.

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The summer ratings, if they hold up, are more than enough to satisfy the benchmark set by federal granting agencies for increasing listeners. But the granters also measure success of public stations by the amount of money listeners donate. On that score, KRCL is still behind the 8-ball.

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KRCL’s just-completed fall Radiothon failed to meet its target, raising $175,000 of a $225,000 goal.

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When KRCL announced its format shift last spring, critics—chanting “sell out”—questioned whether listeners attracted to a changed KRCL would be sufficiently dedicated to the ideals of community radio to donate. Meeting KRCL’s goal of having about 4,300 listeners contribute to the station will require more than doubling the number of current donors.

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But station managers see some light. Anecdotal evidence from fall’s Radiothon suggests many of today’s listeners are new to KRCL—more than 40 percent of donors were first-time “members.” They contributed little. But if the station can hold on to the new listeners, history suggests the amount of annual giving will increase over time, Maldonado says.

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KRCL program director Ryan Tronier says he wasn’t specifically aiming at a younger audience with the format switch, but he notes many public radio stations are looking to attract a new generation. “The traditional public-radio audience is graying,” he says. “Who is going to step in?”

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Breaking down the numbers, KRCL’s summer ratings show listeners tuning in more consistently throughout the day. Earlier years’ graphs of listeners-by-the-hour showed wild swings as one volunteer-hosted program replaced the next and, presumably, different groups of listeners tuned out or in.

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KRCL’s summer ratings showed one downside: a drop in the hours people listened to the station. KRCL listeners traditionally spent many hours with the station, even when ratings numbers bottomed out. But summer statistics show a drop of nearly an hour in the “time spent listening” category, to an average of 4.6 hours per week.

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Love for the new KRCL format is not universal. Spring’s change prompted a group of listeners to create a scathing blog critiquing the “new, safe KRCL” full of anonymous potshots like, “Congratulations, KRCL: You’ve become a mainstream radio station just like you wanted.”

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The changeover also led to creation of Internet radio station Utah Free Media, staffed with many former KRCL volunteers. Begun in May, UtahFM now streams 12 hours each day of live-hosted shows programmed by individual volunteers. UtahFM estimates about 500 listen each week to the live broadcast, half from Utah. About 700 visit the Website daily to listen to archived programs.

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But KRCL’s new ratings suggest there is life left in community-broadcast radio. “They aren’t necessarily proof positive [that] everything we’ve done has worked,” says Tronier, KRCL program director. “But if we continue to get good measurements, then we can sit back and say we were on target.”

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Some worry the signs of success may prompt station management to do away with remaining volunteer DJs; Tronier says not to worry. “I am completely dedicated to the idea of freeform radio where it works,” he says. “We were doing it in daytime and it didn’t work. I love having it in evenings and weekends.”

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His personal audience goal is to eventually reach 80,000 listeners, nearly double today’s total. It’s a tall order, but Tronier reasons that there have to be at least that many left-of-center radio listeners in increasingly progressive Salt Lake City.

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