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Media Culture in Delaware Shifting, Thanks to NPR-Member Radio

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Micheline Boudreau

For Micheline Boudreau, it started with a question.

A native of Boston, she had spent a few years, with her husband, living in other parts of the country and building their careers, hers in public broadcasting, when they landed in Delaware—the only state in the union without its own National Public Radio member station. WHYY of Philadelphia maintained a television studio in Wilmington, where it produced the “Delaware Tonight” newscast on Channel 12, and Boudreau worked happily there as the news director. But she couldn’t help asking why the state didn’t have an NPR station exclusively its own.

The need existed. Many of WHYY’s Delaware crew saw it clearly when the station cut coverage of the Democratic primary in 2008—the year gubernatorial candidates Jack Markell and John Carney faced off in one of the hottest contests in state history—for on-air fundraising. The implication: WHYY cared far more about Philadelphia and New Jersey than Delaware.

WHYY was not alone. Media everywhere were pulling out of Delaware. Television station WPVI of Philadelphia had  closed its Delaware bureau. WBOC in Salisbury, Md., had cut back coverage downstate. WILM, an institution on the local AM radio waves, had long since been sold to national giant Clear Channel, and its local news coverage had decreased. The papers were growing ever thinner.

By then Boudreau, expecting her second child, had lived here seven years. “Personally, I had become much more aware of Delaware as my state, my home. It’s a great place,” she says. “Professionally, it was alarming to be a journalist here. We could be victims of those cutbacks, or we could do something about it.”

In July 2009 Boudreau, with associates from WHYY and elsewhere, founded the online statewide news service, Delaware First Media, based at the University of Delaware. By June 2010 it was streaming live news from its base at UD, but from the beginning, the board members had intended to start a radio station.

It happened faster than anyone imagined.

Based in a double-wide modular home on the campus of Delaware State University in Dover,  91.1FM WDDE has broadcast state and national news since August 2012. The signal emanates from a tower in Felton, reaching from northern Sussex to the very southernmost part of New Castle County. Thanks to a recent agreement with the Brandywine School District, Delaware First has started transmitting from the student station at Mount Pleasant High School. That means the 10,000 upstaters who streamed WDDE on their computers every day are now able to tune in at 91.7FM.

In a little more than 18 months, Delaware’s first NPR member has gained an almost statewide reach. And it is still looking up.

“It’s been a fantastic experience,” says board chair Ann Ahl. “It’s really been a labor of love.”

WDDE and Delaware First are both part of the local community, and something distinctly apart. In a media landscape dominated by commercial news outlets, WDDE  and DFM claim the same duty to report local issues, but they have the latitude to go further on stories that can’t be encapsulated in a series of sound bites. WDDE listeners won’t hear local talk show hosts parsing the day’s headlines with any caller who cares to weigh in. Nor will they hear nationally syndicated hosts ranting for ratings. What listeners will find is thoughtful coverage of national and international issues and events related by some of the most trusted voices in radio, as well as Dela-centric programs such as “The Green”—an hour-long weekly news magazine—and a website that is constantly updated with the latest news.

Programming from NPR, Public Radio International and American Public Radio includes BBC World Service overnight, followed by NPR’s “Morning Edition.” The day continues with “BBC Newshour,” “Marketplace,” “Here and Now” and “Tell Me More.” Weekends are full of other great programs, including news like “Weekend Edition” and the BBC, as well as culture and entertainment such as “Mountain Stage,” “Sound Opinions” and  “Car Talk,” which now airs pre-recorded shows, but is still popular. In between is local news and weather.

It’s a wonderful thing—though it easily might not have happened. Step one was convincing donors that Delawareans should have an NPR station. “When you haven’t had something for a long time, you don’t see that you need it,” says Ahl, a former “Delaware Tonight” reporter. “Of course, you do.” DFM had a record of providing good news coverage via its website, and it had enough users to prove it. Current listeners have responded enthusiastically, sometimes delivering warm loaves of pumpkin bread to the station with their cash donations. 

Step two was getting the equipment up and running on schedule. In April 2011 DFM bought an FCC construction permit from a group that had been unable to finish building a new station in Kent County. DFM had 18 months to demonstrate it could broadcast, but an unexpected U.S. Circuit Court ruling in late July ended extensions for some construction permits. DFM found itself with a scant three weeks to prove itself or lose its shot until the FCC offered new construction applications. “It happens so infrequently, that it could have been another 10 years,” Boudreau says. And DFM didn’t have the funds or opportunity to buy an existing station.

“Everyone was telling us it was impossible,” Boudreau says. “Then I woke up one night wondering, Is it impossible, or just prohibitively difficult?” The founders scrambled to find engineers “crazy enough to help,” then got to work. 

“At 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, with a 5 p.m. deadline, I’m standing in the middle of a field, at the base of the [antenna] tower, feeding cable to the climbers,” Boudreau laughs. “It was insane. Who gets to do that?”

What’s more, after hustling to find all the parts needed to connect the used equipment shipped from around the country, the engineers weren’t sure how or what they were going to broadcast once the antenna was connected. With Verizon workers on strike, there was no Internet to provide information as planned, and with a phenomenon known as swamping—a powerful surge of energy that would cancel all radio signals in the area when the antenna was turned on—re-broadcasting an FM signal from a radio connected to the transmitter was certain to fail. “But we tried it,” Boudreau says. “We put bunny ears on top of the transmitter—and it worked.” Impatient FCC regulators in Washington, D.C., started their summer weekend on time, and WDDE was born.

If anyone could have pulled it off, it was Boudreau, Ahl says. “The founding members recognized that she has a tenacity and a passion,” Ahl says. “She makes things happen that you never thought could happen.”

An ancient-languages major at Wellesley College, Boudreau had just finished her master’s when, looking for something to do back home in Boston, she presented herself at NPR flagship WBUR, volunteering to help. The moment she stepped into the studio, she says, “I knew this was what I had to do.” She went on to help create NPR’s “On Point” news program, racking up national awards.

At WHYY, she met Ahl, an award-wining public broadcasting vet who had worked in the Boston and Washington markets, and longtime “Delaware Tonight” anchor Nancy Karibjanian. Together they and others incorporated Delaware First Media in July 2009, on the kitchen table in Boudreau’s North Wilmington home. The board even managed to woo Liane Hansen, a legend at NPR who hosted “Weekend Edition Sunday” for 22 years before retiring and moving to Bethany Beach in 2011. 

 

Station Manager Casey Houtz (from left), Tom Byrne and Ann Ahl huddle  at the small broadcast desk in Dover.

“We knew we wanted to make an impact immediately, no matter what form it took,” Boudreau says. The Internet was an obvious channel. As a digital news service, DFM didn’t need hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of broadcast equipment. With the University of Delaware’s help, it started streaming news less than a year later. Then CNN came to UD to televise DFM’s debate between U.S. Senate candidates Chris Coons and Christine O’Donnell in October 2010, moderated by Karibjanian and the network’s Wolf Blitzer, solidly putting DFM on the map.

The attention proved to prospective donors and underwriters that having an NPR station in Delaware was viable. It turns out NPR was hungry for news from here. When Boudreau told an NPR vice president that DFM was starting a station, her response was, “At last, we’re finally going to get news out of Delaware?” For the first time, someone from Delaware could supply good coverage of big stories like Joe Biden’s nomination and election as vice president in 2008, the awarding of Race to the Top education funding to Delaware, and the infamous 2010 U.S. Senate race.

“We’re mindful that we’re covering Delaware for the country,” Boudreau says. “We are creating an accurate picture of Delaware for the nation. We’re not just comedy and talk show fodder. If we’re not doing this, who is?”

“That kind of coverage is now expected,” Ahl says. “We’ve made it part of our mission. This is who we are and this is what we do.”

That mission appealed to news director Tom Byrne. A 20-year veteran of WILM, he survived the cutbacks in commercial radio. He signed on with DFM News in 2010 and helped launch WDDE. 

“Public radio feels a little different,” says Byrne, voice of “The Green.” “The pacing and style is a little different.” But it’s also different philosophically, he says. WDDE can leave police and fire reporting to the commercial stations, so reporters can  delve deeper into issues. Education, government, environmental issues such as sea level rise—one of WDDE’s big franchises—business, the arts and entertainment all get deeper coverage. WDDE has even had local bands play live, emulating NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts.

“Micheline has a great vision and a plan, but hasn’t been married to it,” Byrne says. “As things have become available, we’ve been able to pivot. If you had asked me in June 2010 if we’d have a radio operation, I’m not sure I could have predicted that.”

Public broadcasting is supported by donations, which ebb and flow. WDDE’s $800,000 operating budget is supported by corporate underwriting, some state grants-in-aid funding, help from the universities and personal donations. Its attitude that reporters and coverage are more important than gear has kept a sharp focus on producing top-notch content. 

“That makes things challenging. Donors want to fund capital improvements, not staff,” Boudreau says. “We started with one mike, then started adding bit by bit as we could afford it. We never had that magic check, like many others. We never had this glamorous moment of tah-dah.”

Still in start-up mode, the staff has dug in to make sure WDDE succeeds. Everyone wears many hats, from reporting and editing stories for air to writing for wdde.org. Reporter Ben Szmidt, a former intern and a musician, composed and recorded the music WDDE used in its launch video.

At the heart of it is a depth of feeling for the state. “Everyone here really cares about this community,” says digital media producer Karl Malgiero, another former WHYY staffer and the only Delaware native on the four-person news staff. 

The team looks forward to deepening its coverage. That includes making “The Green” a daily show. It takes money, so even as the board looks to expand and shift focus from starting the business to sustaining it, the members will continue to convince Delawareans that NPR is a valuable service. 

“I’m so excited about the future,” says Ahl. “I see everyone being able to tune us in in all parts of the state in a couple years. I hope that in five years we’ll say, ‘Can you believe WDDE didn’t exist before?’”   

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