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Less news is no news at KPLU

While the slogan for KPLU 88.5 FM has for many years been “NPR News and All That Jazz,” a more accurate branding statement might nowadays be “Less and Less NPR News and All That Jazz.”

As of Valentine’s Day, the listener-supported Pacific Lutheran University station is broadcasting six fewer hourly newscasts each day.  They’ve dropped the NPR “hourlies” from the Midday Jazz program, heard 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day on the station’s terrestrial signal and via the web.

This latest reduction in newscasts comes two years after the station dropped the hourlies from Evening Jazz, heard each night from 7:30 p.m. to midnight, and the overnight program Jazz on the Grooveyard, broadcast from midnight to 4 a.m.  Hourly news from NPR is now heard on KPLU only during Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

Joey Cohn, KPLU’s director of content and assistant general manager, says the change is about giving listeners what they want to hear from a predominantly jazz station. “The reason I decided to drop the NPR Newscasts from Midday Jazz is to focus our time on better serving the needs of our jazz listeners. People who tune in to listen to KPLU during this time want to hear music, and most of them desire a respite from the news.”

And though Cohn says KPLU has received 19 complaints and just one positive reaction since the switch, he also says, “The ratings show that during Midday Jazz, the newscasts create more of a tune-out than a tune-in.” 

That Cohn can assess the effect of an hourly newscast on listener numbers comes from the introduction of “Portable People Meter” (or PPM) ratings in the Seattle area in 2009.  Cohn and his counterparts at radio stations around the region now have much quicker access to far more data about listening habits than was ever available before.

When asked about how this move away from news jives with how one might think a typical NPR listener (educated, informed) might like to have his or her jazz and news, especially during a situation like what was happening in Egypt in the past few weeks, Cohn says that KPLU will remain flexible.  “If big news breaks, KPLU will carry as many newscasts as we feel necessary to convey the latest information to our audience,” Cohn says.

Jeff Hansen, program director at Seattle’s KUOW 94.9 (the region’s other major NPR affiliate) is supportive of KPLU’s move and echoes Cohn’s reasoning.  “This seems logical to me based on research I’ve seen on the subject of music listener preferences,” Hansen says.

Asked about whether KUOW might benefit by getting some news-hungry “jazz defectors” at the top of the hour, Hansen said that if they did, it would be a small number, except perhaps during significant events.  “We have found in the past that some percentage of folks who tune in to hear live rolling coverage of major breaking news will come back to listen more after the breaking news coverage is over,” Hansen says. “We saw this happen after the Iraq War coverage in 2003.  We would of course welcome with open arms anyone who chooses to tune in to KUOW for any reason at all and for any duration.”

Back at KPLU, Cohn is grateful for the timing of last Friday’s resignation of President Hosni Murbarak, before Monday’s switch to all jazz.  “I’m glad the most dramatic news from Egypt ended last week,” Cohn says.

And while Midday Jazz offers a respite from dramatic news this week, stay tuned.  Other potential dramas are already unfolding in Bahrain, Iran, and Yemen.

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