In 2012, a Delmarva Public Radio consultant announced stations WSCL and WSDL were doomed to lose money and could no longer continue.
Just a year later the stations are set to move to new studios and new owner Salisbury University will invest in new, state of the art equipment.
The station’s new general manager Dana Whitehair, 55, is confidently optimistic about the future of the stations.
“I didn’t come here to fail. We’re looking at the long-term health of Delmarva Public Radio,” he told a small group of Lewes Friends of Delmarva Public Radio who met in October at Lewes Public Library.
He said moving from a situation a year ago when DPR appeared doomed, to now preparing to install new broadcast equipment is a significant turnaround.
About Dana Whitehair, Delmarva Public Radio general manager
“Over the next year or so it’s all going to be changed,” said Whitehair, a graduate of Ohio University’s Scripps College of Communications. Salisbury University's Caruthers Hall, the building that houses the stations, is slated for demolition to make room for a new library.
“We’re taking advantage of this and everything from our microphones to our consoles, to recording equipment, the satellite dish, the microwave system that sends the signal from the radio station out to the transmitter and the transmitters will be new," he said.
“This is a sea change for Delmarva Public Radio," he said, noting analog equipment will be replaced with new, digital equipment, today's broadcast standard.
Whitehair also said, "One of the things I have the most respect for is Bruce Blanchard, our engineer, and the fact that the equipment we’ve been using is ancient. By anybody’s standard it is ancient.
“I’m a former chief engineer, and when I came out for my first interview and saw that they were using equipment that was a little old, I was astonished not only that it was still working, but that it was working as well as it did. That’s a testament to Bruce’s talent,” Whitehair said.
He said listeners will be able to hear station improvements, and after equipment updates the university will have a world-class public media organization on campus.
“It’s going to make a huge change in quality and I guess I can say in quantity, too, because we’ll be on air more,” Whitehair said, jesting about occasional signal transmission glitches.
He said during last year's turmoil, Salisbury University President Janet Dudley-Eshbach asked questions that had to be asked.
If they had not been asked, he said, it would have resulted in sale of the stations.
There was a time when public radio didn’t need to compete for money because it was awash in federal dollars, Whitehair said, adding that today, public radio competes not only with commercial radio, but also with other public radio stations.
“We all try to be friendly and respectful with each other, but we’re all competing for dollars,” he said.
To save money that could be better used for other things, Whitehair said DPR is airing fewer NPR and BBC programs.
Programs that have been or will be cut from WSDL include "Car Talk," which will be dropped from NPR stations next year, and Garrison Keillor’s "A Prairie Home Companion."
“It came down to money; it wasn’t working. We had to make a hard decision, and I did not take that lightly,” he said.
New programming, Whitehair said, will attract new listeners, an audience they’ve never had.
“It’s programming that is high-quality, that you can’t get anywhere else and that outdoes anyone else,” he said about content originating from NPR and American Public Media.
DPR knows its audiences, Whitehair said, through listener services that provide numbers, and through pledge drive donors, direct listener-member feedback, and underwriter sponsorship.
“When we sit down with an underwriter who wants to work with us or has worked with us for a long time, we get feed back from them, and they tell us what programs really push their buttons and compel them to support public radio. That’s feedback as well,” he said.
“Those who have listened to the new programming hear and see a new approach. Keeping what has support, what is sustainable and what is important for us to provide.
“It’s like turning somebody on to a plate of food saying ‘Here, try this and see what you think,’” he said.
WSDL is maintaining its strong news and information presence, but with a new musical twist, a format branded as Rhythm and News.
The station is keeping popular NPR programs such as "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered."
“I challenge anyone to listen to ‘Morning Edition' or 'All Things Considered,' specifically those two programs, and not come away having your life affected in some way,” Whitehair said.
WSDL now features new information and news shows, such as the "TED Radio Hour," "Sound Medicine," "Living on Earth," and "eTown," featuring environmental news and top musical performers.
New music programs include "World Café," called the premier public radio showcase for contemporary music, the award-winning "Mountain Stage," a long-running program acclaimed for featuring many national acts before they became famous; "The Midnight Special," music, novelty acts and comedy; and "Saturday Night With Robin," a locally produced show featuring classic and new rock, indie, acoustic and alternative music.
The character of WSCL has been expanded to reflect a broader spectrum, encompassing arts, culture and the spoken word, Whitehair said.
The station airs chamber music from Lincoln Center; works from the Great American Songbook, Broadway classics, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, "The Record Shelf," "Song Travels with Feinstein," and "A Night on the Town" with George Harter, all offering music and more to appeal to a variety listeners.
“A goal for the future is to record regional live performances for later broadcast on DPR,” Whitehair said. “There’s a place for local musicians on these airwaves.”
“Many here at the station have been carefully considering ways to better engage listeners. I’m grateful for their work," he said.
Whitehair said he admires and appreciates DPR’s staff, who he calls talented professionals who have persevered throughout the turmoil.
“We realize the full repositioning of both WSCL and WSDL will not be accomplished with one reformatting. It will be an ongoing process, and adjustments will be considered based on credible audience response and membership levels,” Whitehair said.
With the exception of time put into making programming changes, Whitehair said, “It’s pretty clear that development is one of the highest priorities.”
“I think we have the right people in the right positions; we just need to start unleashing some ideas, getting some things to work,” he said.
DPR has never had a development director, Whitehair said, and as a result has missed opportunities.
There was no development director at the North Carolina station where he was general manager, so he wore that hat, too, and learned a few things, he said.
He wants DPR to record live music at venues throughout the peninsula and produce the material for later broadcasts.
“That’s another way to work out relationships with possible business supporters, membership supporters, and people in the arts community. All of these things are focused on development,” he said.
Whitehair said he knows firsthand, that NPR wants to see Delmarva Public Radio succeed, despite the fact that there are other public radio stations in the area that it also supports and respects.
“I think NPR sees Delmarva Public Radio as the base for their programming in this area. They have been very generous, understanding and supportive, and I’m fortunate that I’ve had long relationships with people at NPR.
“They have told me firsthand they’re happy that I’m here, and they’ll do anything they can to support us. I’m really happy with my relationship with NPR,” Whitehair said.
For additional information about Delmarva Public Radio and to listen to live streaming of WSCL-89.5 FM and WSDL-90.7 FM, go to www.delmarvapublicradio.net.
Filling the top spot expected to change bottom-line
Early last year, the future of Delmarva Public Radio was in doubt. A radio consultant hired by then license-owner Salisbury University Foundation analyzed WSCL-89.5 FM and WSDL-90.7 FM and concluded the stations were then – and would continue to – lose money.
The consultant recommended selling news-talk station WSDL or dropping news-talk and changing to a less expensive adult-oriented music format.
The consultant also recommended doing away with locally hosted classical music programming on WSCL, switching to a classical music satellite feed to save money because it requires fewer employees.
Listener reactions to the recommendations were furious and widespread. In October, the university held a public forum at which the consultant presented findings to about 200 nonbelievers.
When it was the public’s turn to speak, every speaker was in favor of keeping the stations and their existing formats.
Friends of Delmarva Public Radio, a grassroots organization that first formed in Salisbury and spawned a splinter group in Lewes, spearheaded organized efforts to keep the stations. The Friends alleged the university had mismanaged the stations through neglect. The group also said it could raise enough money to buy the stations and operate them.
They sent a proposal to Salisbury University President Janet Dudley-Eshbach, but she already had been developing her own revitalization plan.
Unveiled in November, the plan called for transferring ownership of station licenses from Salisbury University Foundation to Salisbury University.
The plan called for the university to pay DPR’s estimated $250,000 a year in operating expenses and invest up to $500,000 for new equipment.
The plan asked the Friends group to raise $250,000 a year and to assist with other fundraising efforts. After three years, the plan states, both stations would be evaluated, and if the Friends organization has not raised enough money, the university may consider selling the stations.
The plan also called for the university to hire a general manger with public radio experience who would partner with Salisbury University’s Communication Arts Department and other academic departments.
“This will allow more of our students to learn the radio business and programming, allow local broadcast of a variety of cultural arts events, lectures, etc., directly from SU, and better align the station with the mission of the university,” Dudley-Eshbach wrote in her plan.
In March, Salisbury University Foundation approved Dudley-Eshbach’s plan and started the FCC license transfer process.
Hiring a general manager who has experience in public radio was one of the key components of the plan.
In August, the university hired Dana E. Whitehair to fill the general manager’s position, which had been vacant for more than year.