The deed is done: On June 30, independent public radio station KFAI-FM will debut “The Takeaway” as the 5-8 a.m. competitor for MPR’s “Morning Edition.” Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!” will move to 8-9 a.m., from its noon-1 p.m. slot.
Those are only the highest-profile changes for KFAI, whose ratings have plummeted in recent years. (The station literally got a 0.0 share in March and April for the broadest all-day listenership category.) KFAI is eclectic by design — providing hours of non-English-language programming, for example —and lefty by choice, but at some point the numbers become so absurdly low that 100 grand in Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding could vanish.
“The Takeaway,” from Minneapolis-based Public Radio International (syndicators of “This American Life,” and “The Tavis Smiley Show”) might be KFAI’s most conventional show. Hosted by ex-NPR correspondent John Hockenberry and Celeste Headlee, “The Takeaway” is like “Morning Edition” in a hoodie: more casual, younger-skewing, and international, but hardly the rush to the barricades Goodman provides.
To KFAI program director Adam Mehl, “The Takeaway” is a “welcome mat” for new listeners — let’s be honest, bourgeoisie listeners like me and, perhaps, you. To incumbent local tune-spinners like “Fubar Omniverse’s” Barbara (Blanche) Sibley, being moved from morning drive to 10-noon, it’s “evicting morning music.”
While KFAI will dapple its own award-winning news reports into morning drive, Sibley says, “You take 15 hours away from community listenership. PRI has been pushing ‘The Takeaway’ for two and a half years. Why should we whore ourselves out like that? We should have a pledge drive to dump the CPB.”
Giving morning drive over to national is a legit flashpoint, but KFAI is axing six weekly hours of non-local news shows, including the nearly day-old 5-6 a.m. “Democracy Now” rebroadcast. And few seem to be complaining about the persistence of Pacifica’s “Free Speech Radio News” Monday-Thursday 6:30-7 p.m. — though again, that show is literally a radical departure from news found elsewhere on the dial.
Another big change is that KFAI’s foreign-language bloc — in Hmong and East African languages such as Somali, among others — is being moved to Sunday, which some long-timers feel is a ghettoization.
Shoua Xiong, who hosts “Hmong-American Reachout Radio,” calls the Sunday shift a “shock” and argues long blocks of Southeast Asian or East African programming will result in smaller audiences because stacked shows will have “the same feeling.”
Mehl responds that two foreign-language hosts were on KFAI’s program committee. “Sunday mornings and early afternoon are good times for specialty programming,” he says. “People generally have more free time than on work days, and more people are free to do appointment listening.”
Since I first wrote about KFAI’s grid in April, there have been changes. The station pushed the start of its weekday-long music block to 10 a.m., inserting locally hosted news and discussion programs into the 9-10 a.m. hour.
Mehl notes that KFAI got rid of no local information programs, and KFAI’s news department will actually air more local reports (including traffic) throughout the day — up to 15 minutes per hour.
However, the Monday-Thursday 6-6:30 p.m. “KFAI Evening News” will be dropped in favor of a Friday 9-10 a.m. news roundup.
Armed with that research opponents call inadequate, Mehl says younger listeners skew toward news in the morning. Although KFAI is ramming the programming ship right into MPR’s dominant public-radio news brand, Mehl notes that no other non-commercial station (KBEM, KMOJ, The Current, etc.) goes exclusively news in the a.m.
The hope among KFAI’s leadership is that longer blocks of news and music programming will hold more listeners. Speaking for the fat-and-happy crowd, I wonder how many “Takeaway” fans will hang through Goodman, whom Mehl acknowledges can turn off the opiated masses with “doom and gloom.”
Sibley, who like other KFAI hosts is unpaid, calls the year-long debate a “horrible, horrible process” that pitted news against music and managers against a segment of dedicated volunteers. But the change is done, a new welcome mat is out and now everyone waits to see if more folks walk in than out.