Wally Smith

Posted on 14 August 2009

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The general manager and director of WLIU, the Southampton-based public radio station, talks about the future of radio on the East End in the wake of the announcement that WLIU may be changing hands.

Given the recent announcement about possible changes to the station, what does the future hold for WLIU?

That is fully dependent on our ability to create a new non-profit corporation that if successful intends to re-employ the current staff at WLIU and continue to broadcast our local programming. If we are not able to do that for whatever reason, or are not successful in purchasing the license agreement then by October 3 it is all over.

What roles does WLIU play in the East End community?

Well, it is the only National Public Radio stationed licensed to a Long Island organization and the majority of our programming is locally produced. We are providing programming we would not be able to get from any other source. An operator from outside the area would probably not engage the staff to do local programming, so we play a pivotal role on the East End and are the flagship for any public radio that is Long Island based.

What kind of local programming does WLIU offer?

We provide something that as far as I know, is not done anywhere else in the nation. We do a two-hour arts and culture magazine show five days a week, which covers all the arts and cultural happenings. We have community forums on issues that affect the African American community on the East End. We have forums on the environment and we look at it from the perspective of the arts. We are in touch with and promoting art events across Long Island with an emphasis on the East End, dealing with conversations with hundreds of artists a week. We produce the only half-hour local daily news program on radio on Long Island, the Evening Report with Connie Conway, our news director. That program has won almost every major award from The Associated Press and the Long Island Press Association. So we have received professional endorsements, as well as public endorsements for the work we do. In the morning we take one hour of [National Public Radio’s] Morning Edition and insert local news programming. These are just a few examples. We also have afternoon music programming with Brian Cosgrove, who is really presenting a new music mix based in jazz that reaches out into other genres like blues to see if we can find new listeners. We have the Urban Jazz Experience with Ed German, which I call the Urban Home Companion. We have the irresistible Tracey Hotchner, who produces Dog Talk, which has become a sensation in the local community – we have been getting national exposure from her. Another local program being distributed nationally is Bonnie Grice’s The Song Is You, which gives people an opportunity to describe their life stories through music. That is currently being distributed in 90 communities. We also provide a lot of classical music programming. These are all local people and they are the ones we will lose if we don’t try and keep this alive.

What first drew you to public radio?

It was an accident. I was completing my graduate studies at the University of Southern California in 1971, 1972, which was the year NPR was founded. They were scouring the country to find college radio stations to agree to support NPR and came to the campus, talking the students into operating the station as the Los Angeles anchor for NPR. The university, under pressure from the students, decided they would do that and began to search for someone to run the station. The students said, we want you to hire Wally Smith … I literally fell into it, and it has been such an exciting life to be a part of the architecture of public radio.

Is there a way to revise the public radio business model to make it more economically viable?

Public radio, including ourselves, has been doing what all businesses have in this economy, scaling back and finding a way to reduce the cost of making what we make without losing the quality. It is difficult because the quality of NPR is based on the most expensive thing you can have in this business – talent. Commercial broadcasters long ago stopped doing this kind of programming because they could not afford it. We have really filled the gap – NPR and community radio – that the commercial radio industry could not afford to continue. As we rethink the model for public broadcasting, we have to be very careful we do not follow that same path or we will end up like the commercial stations …

We are looking at new technologies. NPR has launched a new website and hopes to generate new revenues, but is also looking at how to use more of our product in a second market to get more mileage out of what we are creating.

What, if any, changes would you make to programming at WLIU?

The only thing we would do is try and add to it with the resources we already have. We are a small staff – 13 people at most. I think when someone did a productivity report on our office, they found we were producing 230 percent. So we would try to do 250 percent. We would do more local events. Recently we were broadcasting live at the East Hampton Library’s Author’s Night. In fact, Congressman Tim Bishop has asked us if we would do a live telephone call-in show on healthcare at the end of August. That is the kind of direction I would like the station to keep moving in.

What would be your ideal radio station as a listener?

Well, since I am the program director at WLIU as well as the general manager, I think I am creating it. I am one of the few managers that believes radio should offer an eclectic offering of programming, various kinds of music, talk and news. I think it is abnormal to listen to one kind of radio – people never get a chance to discover something new … To me, that is what public radio should be doing, not providing one kind of thing.

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