A change in tune: The reasons behind APR’s switch in programming
Pings of incoming messages and digital notifications as two teens unpack the impacts of social media on their generation. Locals talking about why the HOV lane between Buttermilk and Basalt on Highway 82 is on the right side versus the left. Slides of skis over snow as two men explore what mining era reminders exist today on Aspen Mountain.
These are a few of the new sounds the KAJX Aspen Public Radio station staff debuted over the past three weeks online and on-air as part of its recent drive to be more news-focused.
But while the local public radio station and its leadership are gradually adding these new sounds in hopes of reportedly giving listeners what they want and better connecting with locals from Rifle to Aspen, they’ve also subtracted some local sounds and voices as part of this new focus: the sounds of music and shows hosted by the station’s longtime volunteer DJs.
On Jan. 20, Aspen Public Radio debuted a new 2020 weekly schedule featuring more news and less music. The scheduling change came three days after station officials told its roughly dozen volunteer DJs it was eliminating the bulk of its local and national music shows — except for the summer classical music programming hosted by Chris Mohr — in response to declining listenership.
“While our programming has changed, our mission has not,” the APR website states in response to the recent schedule changes. “Our goal is to have a balance of local reporting and cultural coverage that complements our NPR news programming, so that we can continue to be one of the most relied-upon news organizations in the valley.”
But over the past three weeks, The Aspen Times alone has published roughly a dozen “Letters to the Editor” commenting on the APR programming changes, lamenting the loss of the local music shows and speculating why they were taken off the KAJX on-air schedule, highlighting the fact that many locals still have questions.
DATA BEHIND THE CHANGES
To help locals better understand the more news-focused 2020 schedule, which features several additional renowned national and international journalism offerings, APR staff posted a list of questions listeners may have about the recent changes with staff answers on the station website.
Prompts like “Why are you changing Aspen Public Radio’s format?” and “Why is the music going away?” were answered with responses emphasizing that the station will have classical music programming in the summer and is following the direction its “extensive research of audience reports, ratings, surveys and listener testimonials” point, which is reportedly toward more news and information programming.
Since its initial story published Jan. 20, The Aspen Times has sought to learn more about the specific listener data and decision-making process behind APR’s recent programming changes, reaching out to the station’s executive director, Tammy Terwelp, directly and through her staff to schedule a follow up interview.
Terwelp spoke with The Times on Friday, when she answered more specific questions about the APR 2020 schedule and how it was created.
She emphasized the fact that the recent programming changes were based off years of data collected through APR listener and donors surveys, which mainly aligned with fundraising drives, dating back to 2010.
“Every membership drive, we ask a donor if they listen to music or news and then we also ask people to give us a few sentences as to why you listen to Aspen Public Radio, and the overwhelming majority of those responses show that people listen to us for news,” Terwelp said.
The Aspen Times could not access the surveys directly or in-full, as Terwelp said some of the information collected is confidential and may jeopardize listener and donor privacy, but did receive some of the data highlights from APR staff via email.
According to that provided data from one of the 2019 station surveys, when outright asked what listeners preferred, 80% of respondents said news, 2% said music and 17% said both.
In 2017, a station survey found 89.69% of respondents listened to local news on APR, 94.85% to national news, 27.84% to jazz programming and 29.9% to classical music programming. And in 2016, a survey asked listeners: “What prompts you to change the channel from Aspen Public Radio?” Four percent of respondents said news while 46% said music programs, according to the data emailed to The Aspen Times.
“With the availability of so many other ways to get content, trying to serve two audiences is a constant push-pull. … This was a decision that needed to happen,” Terwelp said.
“I know Aspen is a very different place, but these surveys here and the trends of the data is exactly what is trending everywhere else around the country.”
GIVING THE LISTENERS WHAT THEY WANT
Terwelp, who has more than 20 years of public media experience, joined APR as its executive director just over a year ago after serving as the general manager at Colorado College’s KRCC station in Colorado Springs for roughly four years.
There, Terwelp carried out similar news-focused programming changes, bringing on more mid-day journalism programming, expanding the KRCC newsroom and modernizing the station, which resulted in cutting an award-winning local series called “Wish You Were Here” in June 2016, as reported by the Colorado Springs Independent.
She said based on her public media tenure, and in looking at local data then in Colorado Springs and now in Aspen along with national listener trends, the country’s changing media landscape and multitude of ways people consume news and music is the driver of multi-format radio stations specializing their content in order to stay relevant.
“We definitely looked at other trends and other stations who are split-format … it definitely was a combination of looking at what’s happening locally and nationally,” Terwelp said.
“As Aspen changes, which it has pretty dramatically over the last few decades, I wanted to take both a macro-view and a micro-view of it, using all of that data to come to the decisions that we did. … I think any media trying to serve everyone, especially now because there are so many outlets, you end up serving no one.”
Through APR’s 2020 schedule changes specifically, which Terwelp said were “on the way there” when she got to the Aspen station and supported by the station’s board of directors, she feels station staff will be pushed to produce better local content and will ultimately better serve the valley community (see story page A6).
As part of its efforts to better understand why APR’s 2020 schedule is breaking from station tradition, The Aspen Times attempted to speak with APR’s Board of Directors and Community Advisory Committee, reaching out to 11 members from both groups via phone, email and Facebook.
The handful of members who responded, including Doug Carlston, chair of APR’s board of directors, declined interviews and pointed to Terwelp as the station’s spokesperson. Some members also suggested attending the upcoming community advisory committee meeting Tuesday and board of directors meeting Thursday.
Carlston declined to speak with Aspen Times reporters and pointed to his “Letter to the Editor” published in The Aspen Times as a reference for the board’s involvement with and thoughts on the recent changes.
“Although we are moving toward a single format content, as the rest of public radio has over the past 20 years, it remains critical that a large part of our content be local in nature,” Carlston wrote on behalf of the APR board in his January letter.
“This change was extraordinarily challenging, but years of data show that mixing music and information satisfies neither the music nor news-focused audience and that loses listeners over time as a result.”