National Public Radio is generally known for two things: classical music and news. Public Radio 89.5 FM Tulsa, call letters KWGS, has not had a news department in more than a decade. While it may seem strange for a news-heavy radio station to not have a local news operation, the reason behind it is even stranger.
"Ironically, we lost our news department in the early 1990s when we restructured the station to become all-news. Our audience grew greatly, but we lost quite a few donors for several years who were disenchanted by the changes," said station general manager Rich Fisher.
Prior to 1992, KWGS was a mix of drive-time news shows: "Morning Edition" in the morning and "All Things Considered" in the afternoon, with classical music filling midday programming and jazz rounding out the pm hours. When the station dropped its musical programming in favor of news talk shows, many of the station's faithful donors stopped supporting KWGS and instead tuned in to the commercial classical station operating at the time. As a result, the station could no longer afford to keep a local news staff.
That is beginning to change with a grant from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the hiring of local veteran broadcaster John Durkee.
Durkee is best known by Tulsans as the former voice of News Talk 740 AM KRMG's local news segments. Durkee spent nearly 20 years with KRMG, the majority of which as the news director, before quitting in June of 2008 to take a job with the Mayor's office as Communications Director.
"It was really time for me to move on. I'd spent 17 years as the news director and I just couldn't get excited about doing another election," Durkee said with a chuckle.
While working for the city, dealing with the media was the easy part for Durkee. It was other communications department matters, however, that led Durkee to realize just how much he missed being behind the microphone; everything from making sure the city logo on dump trucks was correct, to the design of utility bill inserts reminded him of the career he left behind.
"I longed to tell stories, longed to take a piece of sound and some words and mold it together into a creative, compelling final product, and I couldn't do that at the city and I really, really missed that," Durkee said. "This opportunity came along and boy, I jumped on it."
The opportunity for Durkee to work at KWGS didn't just pop up overnight. Since taking over as manager of the station 10 years ago, Rich Fisher made it his goal to bring local news back to the station. Of course, he never expected it would take so long.
"I thought [reviving local news on KWGS] would be the most important way to expand our local public service mission. I thought it would take two to three years tops," Fisher said. Yet other issues arose that consumed his attention and took quite some time to resolve.
Early goals for Fisher included replacing the station's very out-of-date 1962 transmitter and creating backup facilities for the audio transmission in order to quell listener complaints about the station's reliability. Fisher also worked to implement a stronger presence on the web including the option for listeners to stream KWGS' radio programming from the site.
These were just a couple of the hurdles Fisher and company would have to face.
The University of Tulsa is the licensee for KWGS, and in 1995 the university applied to the FCC for a construction permit to build what is now KWTU; KWGS's classical music sister station. After years of cutting through red tape, the license was granted in 2002 with the caveat that the station must be up and running in three years.
KWTU officially signed on in 2004.
In addition to getting an entire station on its feet, another challenge was adopting digital technology. The expenses for this endeavor were partially offset through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Digital Conversion Grants.
"We had no guarantees on how long that [grant] program would last, so we struck while the iron was hot," Fisher explained.
With many of the obstacles hindering Fisher's goal to revive KWGS's news department behind him, the station was able to hire John Durkee this year to create local news content in a format that NPR listeners are accustomed to hearing.
"At KRMG or any other news operation your average story is about 35 seconds--my stories here are running four minutes. You have really time to tell the story and not have to rush," Durkee said, explaining how the new segments would be formatted. "We're going to go more in-depth. We're going to focus more on issue reporting, less on the vacant house fires and the police standoffs."
Since April 20, the station has run Durkee's four-minute segments weekday mornings at 7:35am. His first story focused on the ever-present issue of methamphetamine proliferation in the region.
"There've been a lot of stories lately about meth labs, meth fires, people being killed. Rather than focus on 'here's today's meth lab' we're going to focus on the meth epidemic. What is the attraction to meth? What has brought this on us?" Durkee explained that this type of reporting is key for citizens of the community to be fully informed on a given topic. "We're going to focus more on the actual causes; the issue rather than the breaking news."
Currently the 7:35am slot is the only time given to the fledgling news operation but more is promised for the future.
"Everything right now is on the table. We're starting from scratch," Durkee said.
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