Arts & Culture

Don't Touch That Dial

WYPR looks good at 15.

Early this spring, when President Trump proposed the elimination of federal funding for public broadcasting, WYPR kept its cool. “Every few years there is a threat,” says the station’s program director, Andy Bienstock. 

“What it does is remind listeners how important their support is. In this current news cycle, people need sources they really trust.” To wit, in six short days in March, audience members pledged more than $370,000 in the station’s most successful fundraising drive to date.

But this wasn’t the first time 88.1 FM had to overcome a period of uncertainty. Like in 2002, when its predecessor, WJHU, was sold. Or in 2007, when the station—now WYPR—weathered the financial crisis without laying off a single employee. And then there was the Marc Steiner debacle of 2008, when the host’s dismissal launched an outpouring of audience protest. The station stood its ground and hired Dan Rodricks, who became a hit. 

“We look to the future a lot in this business,” says president Anthony Brandon. “We don’t speculate too much on what we did yesterday.” 

The station has had to evolve in other ways, too, like investing in digital and social media, but even that didn’t go quite as expected. “As we’ve looked at all these new ways of reaching listeners, be it podcasts or Facebook Live, the idea was that regular radio listening was going away,” says Bienstock. “But our numbers are as good as they’ve ever been in our history.” 

Over the past 15 years, the NPR affiliate has grown from a 14- to 41-person staff, with 220,000 weekly listeners and an annual budget of $5.8 million, up from $1.4 million in the final days of WJHU. Programming has remained fluid, with familiar faces like Tom Hall and Sheilah Kast moving time slots, beloved old-timers walking the plank (RIP Car Talk), and new shows joining the lineup, like the Out of the Blocks docu-series and Future City with Wes Moore. 

“The fact that we’re even here talking about this is an incredible success,” says Bienstock. “We never lose sight of the miracle that is public radio.”