Within hours of October’s Tree of Life synagogue shooting, editors and producers for WESA’s The Confluence daily news program came into the office to rip up the next entire week’s worth of shows and start over.
It was a Saturday afternoon, and as they looked ahead they realized that their hour-long program, running weekday mornings, could give Pittsburghers a place to talk and grieve that would be unique to the radio dial and unlike anything other news outlets could attempt.
“I wouldn’t presume to say that we were the home for anyone’s healing,” Megan Harris, the show’s editor and producer, told me recently. “But if we could be even a small portion of that, to not just disseminate the information, but to allow people to hear perspective for a voice that felt in some way the way they did, to find empathy, to find comfort, to find information. We strive to do that.”
She quickly added that the people behind the show realized they would be just one small part of the telling of that story – and so they invited other reporters and other media outlets to be part of the shows the following week.
“‘We want to share good work no matter where it’s coming from, and invite other voices to join them,” Harris says, “because you may get your news from KDKA, you may get it from the Trib, you may get it from the Post-Gazette, and you may get it from us and that’s wonderful. But together we’re informing our community. It’s not WESA on its own.”
The Confluence has existed in its daily format on Pittsburgh’s NPR station just since Aug, 27, when it expanded from being a Friday-only noontime show that most often featured news reporters. In that short time, the show has started to carve out its own niche by giving more time to topics that might get only a brief mention, if that, on other stations – and to do it with a Pittsburgh voice.
As Kiley Koscinski, the show’s producer and engineer, put it this way: “We’re the French fries on top of the newsroom salad.”
When it started, the show featured Catholic Bishop David Zubik for his first interview after the release of a state grand jury report into alleged sexual abuses by priests. Around the mid-term elections, The Confluence focused heavily on conversations with the candidates.
But just as often as it features well-known guests, the show presents stories about and conversations with local people who otherwise wouldn’t necessarily get much attention. One episode featured a conversation with Riley Baker, director of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, which helps older people engage in charity, and another introduced listeners to Michael Penn, a Shaler Area elementary school teacher who headed to Antartica.
“You’re going to hear the voices of familiar names,” says host Kevin Gavin. “We’re not going to ignore them. But one of our goals is truly to identify people who are doing fascinating, important things in this community, and let people learn about them, let us learn about them. They are probably known to a small or smaller group, but maybe citywide they’re not known, and we feel they’re worth getting to know.”
It’s too early to say the show has generated positive results for WESA, general manager John Sutton says. But he likes the program’s early indicators.
The average radio audience for the station’s 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. slot increased 11 percent over the previous year for October and November, according to Nielsen’s rating services, Sutton says. The Confluence has 32,400 weekly listeners, and the average audience of people listening at any given moment is 5,100.
Overall, Nielsen ranked WESA 11th in the market for October and 13th for November. Stations featuring music dominate the market, followed by sports talk and then news.
Even though the show lasts only an hour, Harris, Gavin and Koscinski said they spend about another eight to 10 hours each day prepping and planning. The show’s format can be flexible but most often it features an interview with a newsmaker, a feature story or short interview, a national business technology story and then a conversation with two or three people about a topic of local interest.
Variety within the show helps the station avoid what Sutton calls the “fatal first hour,” when listeners get turned off to an hour-long program on one topic and then do not come back for the rest of the day.
Before starting The Confluence, WESA had first filled that block with an extra hour of NPR’s Morning Edition, and then the station plugged a BBC news program into that slot. Pittsburghers started tuning out.
“We’re not chasing ratings,” Sutton says. “We’re just looking at what audience preferences are.”
Sutton also listens to what NPR stations in other cities are doing, joking that he starts out with an AFC North air check for Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati stations. Yes, those cities are football rivals. But they also stack up well for public radio, along with stations in cities such as Kansas City and St. Louis.
It’s a bigger challenge to compare WESA with major stations such as WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. But Sutton says he keeps tabs on them too, to understand what’s possible.
While it might seem like listener fund drives come too often, Sutton said WESA actually has those on just 18-and-a-half days per year – compared to 28 at most NPR stations. The station has put an emphasis on sustaining members because those people are more likely to keep giving: Among first-time, one-time donors, about 35 percent are likely to come back and give again the next year. Among sustaining members, more than 85 percent are likely to keep giving in the second year.
“You don’t have to remember to give,” Sutton said. “Most donors who were lapsed donors didn’t know they were lapsed.”
Because of that listener support, along with foundation grants, WESA can afford to spend more time on issues such as the Tree of Life shooting, Koscinski said. Unlike commercial radio, producers don’t have to make space for something like three minutes of commercials among every 10 minutes of programming.
“We could blow out everything and make sure that, in the hour, we had time with our reporters to inform people going to work, people at work, wherever they’re listening from, this is what happened, this is everything we know, and this is why it matters,” Koscinski says. “That’s what the show is trying to do, and I would like to say, that is what we have accomplished so far.”
Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You may find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com.