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Her father raised Bennett and her three sisters and eventually remarried. Bennett associates him with phrases like "Put your best foot forward. Throw your shoulders back. Throw your head in the air. Be proud." Bennett describes him as "a World War II guy. He got a Purple Heart."
At 19, she entered the University of Illinois, then transferred to Sangamon State University now the University of Illinois-Springfield where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees. Her first job out of school was managing a low-watt station in Wichita, Kan., where she supervised the reading of literature for elderly people losing their vision.
Bennett then managed the University of Oklahoma's station in Norman for two years. That landed her a job with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) in Washington, D.C., in which she ensured that new radio stations met the requirements for federal funding.
After two years, she was ready to move on. "I made a limit for myself," Bennett says. "I didn't want to get Potomac fever." Besides, she had married, borne a child and divorced; then a single mother, Bennett found that the grind of cross-country travel with her 2-year old daughter, Jesse, often in tow, was taking its toll.
St. Louis offered the general-manager position at KWMU, and along with it a chance to return to her Midwestern roots. It would also offer Ray Bennett, whom she met in 1993 while country-and-western dancing and subsequently married.
Plugging into the NPR feedThere's no question that the KWMU Bennett came to in 1989 is dramatically different from the KWMU she continues to shape today. Under her 10-year tenure, the station has racked up whopping increases in both listeners and funds raised, public radio's primary indicators of success. The question is: How much of the credit for that success is due to Bennett, and how much is due to NPR?
In 1989, KWMU was an underperforming classical-music and news station with a deficit of more than $100,000. "There were four or six classrooms that they operated out of and a studio," Bennett remembers. "And it was smoke-filled, and it was ... I don't even know words to describe it," she says, trying to be diplomatic. "There was a lot of potential." The station's programming was eclectic, with national news, classical music, jazz and local shows like Baby Face Leroy's Blues Show.
At the time, public-radio stations, especially those in major markets like St. Louis, were finding that they had to specialize their programming in order to compete, says David Giovannoni of the radio research firm Audience Research Analysis. "On a very crowded AM/FM dial, you've got to focus on one thing and do it extremely well," Giovannoni says. "Otherwise you will never rise above the noise of the medium."
In 1996, NPR facilitated specialization toward news by selling a package of shows that enabled managers like Bennett to establish a consistent schedule of news/talk throughout the day.
Having traveled the country with CPB and served on the NPR board, Bennett was familiar with the trends toward news and specialization. More important, KWMU's research and focus groups showed that the St. Louis market was ripe for both. "KMOX was floundering," Bennett says. "I don't think that's the case right now.... The Post-Dispatch I think there was some uncertainty there and ... they're trying to rebuild something there. And so there is a real void in people's lives right now. People really want news; they want their fix. So the niche was there."
The real shakeup came with the threat of a federal funding cut, Bennett says. "(It) made us think, "Oh my God, we've got to position ourselves for a glide path to zero dependency.'"
And so in 1996, Bennett switched KWMU to an all-news format. Largely as a result, the station has increased both the number of listeners and the amount of funds raised. Since 1987, the number of people listening to KWMU during each 15 minutes of the day has almost tripled, to 8,600. KWMU's share of the St. Louis audience has increased to a high of 2.4 that is, 2.4 percent of the listening audience. Moreover, the number of people listening each week is also at a record high of 121,900, according to Arbitron's winter 1999 survey. Those listeners often become members, and as a result, KWMU's individual membership has grown by 150 percent, from 4,000 to more than 10,000. Similarly, corporate support has nearly tripled, from $127,660 to $375,000.
But how much of that success is thanks to NPR? During roughly the same 10-year period, NPR's audience overall has almost doubled. In 1990, NPR had 395 member stations, says NPR spokesman Michael Abrahms, whereas today it has 608.
And like Bennett, managers in other major markets such as Ann Arbor, Mich.; Charlotte, N.C.; Phoenix, Dallas and Seattle have seen similar increases in fundraising and listeners after switching to all-news or partial-news formats. KJZZ in Phoenix switched in August 1995 from contemporary jazz during the day to news, says general manager Carl Matthusen. "The last drive that we had the music block in there, we did $17,000 across the week in those six hours," he says. "A year after the change, we did $54,000."
So what else has KWMU done besides plug into the NPR feed and ride the wave? For one thing, Bennett has squeezed extra mileage out of NPR's popularity by instituting outreach events, such as live broadcasts of Science Friday, Whad'Ya Know and Talk of the Nation,that connect national shows to the St. Louis market, says Ray Suarez. "I mean, I wish there were 20 more stations like KWMU that saw that as part of the way that you cement the role of the program into the daily lineup."