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Q&A: Ideastream President And CEO Kevin Martin On The Merger With WKSU

Ideastream Public Media will take over operations of 89.7 WKSU starting Oct. 1 [Annie Wu / Ideastream Public Media]
The Idea Center at Playhouse Square in Cleveland, Ohio

Last week’s announcement that Ideastream Public Media will be taking over the operations of Kent State University’s public radio station, 89.7 WKSU, has listeners wondering what’s going to happen to their favorite shows and how they’re going to find those programs. Ideastream Public Media's Amy Eddings spoke with Ideastream’s President and CEO Kevin Martin about the merger.

Ideastream and WKSU got a Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant last summer to study coordinating editorial efforts, among other things, and expanding coverage. What did you learn from that, and why do you think a merger was the right thing to do?

Well, we learned a lot and it was more than just the editorial. It was really the cost effectiveness as well, in terms of running both stations and running them apart. We looked at about seven different scenarios through, I would guess, maybe a six-month period. We left the door open. We said, “You know, whatever scenario points to the very best way to collaborate and to come together, that’s what we’re going to look toward. Well, the analysis pointed to a clear, clear direction for us to go.

Now, we reported last summer about this CPB funded study but we didn’t talk about the merger until the actual vote that Kent State University’s board of trustees made to enter into this operating agreement. The Portager , which broke the story last week, characterized the arrangement as one "brokered in secrecy."

Yeah. Well, I think that’s a bit unfair and really doesn’t characterize kind of the steps we took to be transparent. When you look at so many different scenarios in terms of operating models and business models, I think you have to be careful about what you share with the public because you don’t really know what direction you’re going to go. So, if we were to share everything that we were learning along the way, I think that would just add a lot of confusion and distraction. But what we tried to do is really reach out to the stakeholders. So, certainly, our board, the KSU administration, the KSU community advisory council, our community advisory board, they were all updated with progress along the way.

I’m seeing concern on social media and in online stories about the merger leading to a loss of local news, local flavor, from WKSU listeners. They’re afraid it’s going to be Cleveland-centric.

Yeah, we knew that that would be the concern, and I think the concern is fair in terms of speculating on what might happen. But I think, what I would like to encourage audiences to do, is to look beyond terrestrial broadcasting. When I listen to NPR One, there’s no limit to the local news and content that I can receive. I can receive an hour worth of local content without being disrupted. And so, I think it’s important that we think about, beyond terrestrial broadcasts where you’re really kinda regulated by a clock. And there’s only so much time. We can’t expand that time. In my conversations with our content providers, we’re looking at creative ways of really expanding our news coverage.

[Andrew Meyer / WKSU]

Could you walk me through the dial position changes for terrestrial radio listeners? Because that is going to shift, beginning next year.

Yeah, and I want to be careful because I don’t want our listeners to think that this happens, like, overnight. Like you said, this is going to happen sometime next year. So, 89.7 will be the NPR station. And we’ll also have a repeater station of 104.9, which you now know as WCLV. And the reason we’re going to do that is because one of our guiding principles when we were doing the analysis is that we did not want to take any chances on disenfranchising any WCPN listeners. And so, we know that with 104.9, we’re gonna cover any of those low-reception gaps that may exist…

Right, ‘cuz I would have been one of those listeners, right? While I get the 90.3 WCPN signal loud and clear in Rocky River, it’s hard for me to get 89.7 WKSU.

Right, so there are technical fixes for that. It will require some capital investment. And we’re gonna give ourselves some time to do really do an analysis to see how we can fix some of those low-reception areas. And we won’t move 104.9 until we know that we’ve taken care of that.

And what happens to classical music? Where can people find that?

So, this is one of the really big, wonderful stories that I think is not talked as much about. But the classical news service is going to be huge, I think, for a lot of listeners to the south. I think it was back in 2001 when the signal for classical music really changed and shrunk rather dramatically. And so, I’m really proud that we’re able to, again, expand a full classical music service to Northeast Ohio with 90.3, because I think it’s going to be about a million more listeners.

So, the classical music you hear on WCLV will switch to WCPN’s frequency.

That’s correct. Right.

Will Ideastream retain the internship programs that WKSU has with Kent State’s journalism school?

Yes, that was one of the things – and I read a lot about, there’s some speculation where, “Oh this is not going to continue.” This was one of the driving forces for us, was the internship program, ‘cause we know KSU has a great mass communications and journalism school. And we’re looking at that to say, you know, what’s important for not only Northeast Ohio but all of Ohio, with the decline in print journalism, is to really build up the next generation of journalists and to take on, kind of, that priority. And we can do it, I think, as public media.

Anything else that I didn’t mention that you wanna be sure gets communicated to our listeners and to WKSU’s listeners?

Sure. I think there’s one thing it’s important for us to clear up, and I’ve only seen it in a couple of articles. There’s this sense that there’s a 12-month contract for WKSU employees. That is not our mindset. We’re hoping that if WKSU employees love what we’re doing, like what they’re doing, and see a good fit for themselves, that they’ll be with us for years to come.

Expertise: Hosting live radio, writing and producing newscasts, Downtown Cleveland, reporting on abortion, fibersheds, New York City subway system, coffee