The city's only National Public Radio affiliate is launching a local news department for the first time in its almost 20 years of operation, and has signed a deal that could gain it thousands of listeners south of the city's center.
WFYI-FM 90.1 hired veteran TV newscaster Scott Hoke in late November as local host of NPR's "Morning Edition" and will hire a reporter within six weeks.
The radio station plans to soon after launch a weekly sports show featuring Hoke and provide daily local news throughout the week to supplement its national lineup.
"This has been in the strategic plan for a while, and we finally have the resources to do it," said Richard Miles, WFYI-FM general manager. "Becoming a local content provider has been high on our list of priorities."
Funding for local news was built into the station's five-year plan starting this fiscal year. WFYI is supported mostly by donations, grants and corporate underwriting.
One thing pushing the move, Miles said, is the increasing number of ways listeners can get NPR fare, including the Internet and satellite radio.
"We have to be more than a passthrough for national programming to remain a valuable asset for the community," he said.
The local news initiative dovetails nicely with the station's broadening its southerly reach. This month, WFYI announced a deal with Franklin College to broadcast its signal from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday on the college's station, WFCI-FM 89.5. The deal allows WFYI programming to be heard in extreme southern Marion County, plus Johnson and Bartholomew counties.
"The deal with Franklin College was strictly serendipity," Miles said. "But it certainly fills some gaps in our listenership and broadens our audience."
With its tower on the city's north side, WFYI has difficulty reaching an audience far south of the city's center.
The idea for the Franklin College deal germinated when WFYI and college officials worked together to broadcast October's gubernatorial debate, which Franklin hosted. With the new deal, the college station gets content to fill what had been stretches of dead air, and students get educational exposure to NPR shows and local news, school officials said.
Though WFYI's moves could open doors to more donations and underwriters, Miles said money wasn't the motivation.
"The thought wasn't, 'Look at all the money in local news,'" Miles said. "This was driven out of wanting to be more of an asset in the community."
If WFYI can produce truly original content, it should have little trouble carving out a niche with local news, said Scott Uecker, instructor of communication at the University of Indianapolis and general manager of the school's WICR-FM 88.7.
"WIBC[-AM 1070] is really the only local station that has a news-gathering operation," Uecker said. "WFYI already has a good base of NPR listeners and I think if they do this right, it will enhance loyalty to their station and grow their audience."
WFYI's annual radio news budget, Miles said, will initially be less than $100,000. But broadcast industry analysts said the financial benefit, even for a not-for-profit station, can be far greater than that.
"All radio is one-to-one, and if you can deepen that connection, it significantly enhances your opportunities at getting support from the community," said Tom Taylor, editor of trade publication Inside Radio. "Most of the money these stations get is from underwriting and local members, and the initiatives WFYI is launching could really deepen their roots with those supporters."
Taylor said WFYI must be careful which niche it pursues.
Not to worry, Miles said, the station will not add "police-blotter news" to its current weather updates and light traffic reports.
"I'm sure we'll have a strong Statehouse presence and we'll look at larger topics and in-depth news," he said. "We have to be selective on the topics and cover them well."
Though WFYI's news staff may be small, Taylor said, it's important local news stories are done to NPR standards.
"Our ultimate goal would be to have no discernable drop-off in quality from our local stories and the national news," Miles said.
WFYI officials are hopeful some local stories will be picked up by NPR affiliates nationwide, giving the city and station greater exposure.
Hoke's weekly sports show will have a different flavor from those on commercial stations, Miles said.
"We're still defining what we want to do there," he said. "We know we don't want to do a scoreboard review show or fan call-in show. That show, too, will likely be done in an NPR style, covering fewer topics, but going in-depth."
Miles said Hoke's sports background will help drive the show. Hoke was formerly host of the Indiana Pacers' pre- and post-game TV shows and a sideline reporter. He also was sports anchor for WRTV-TV Channel 6.