Triangle NPR moves to downtown Greensboro

by Amy Kingsley

A radio station with real estate at the bottom of the FM spectrum recently cemented a deal to lease top-floor office space in downtown Greensboro.

WUNC, the Triangle-based National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate, finalized plans to build a Greensboro news bureau on the third floor of the Triad Stage building by the end of 2007. The move is part of an effort by WUNC to better serve its estimated 41,000 Greensboro listeners, according to a press release.

WUNC and Triad Stage plan to replace part of the wall on the third floor walkway that most of the theater’s 35,000 annual patrons use to reach the lobby with plate glass. That will allow visitors a glimpse into the radio news fishbowl.

WUNC’s entrance to the Greensboro market is big news, but it is not the first time an NPR affiliate has opened a news bureau downtown. WFDD, the Winston-Salem affiliate, has a studio a few blocks down the street from Triad Stage in the Self-Help Building. Jay Banks, the station manager for WFDD, said about half of the Winston-Salem station’s 98,800 listeners reside in Guilford County.

The move by WUNC will make Greensboro, a town without its own NPR station, home to two distinct public radio news bureaus.

“WFDD and WUNC split our market,” said Richard Whittington, Triad Stage’s managing director. “There are people who will only listen to WFDD and people who will only listen to WUNC.”

WUNC is not a complete stranger to Guilford County. The station has sent reporters from its Triangle offices to file stories about the Greensboro truth and reconciliation process and Western Guilford High School.

WUNC announced its intention to build a Greensboro bureau last January when they released the goals for a three-year capital campaign. The station has raised $65,000 of the $125,000 needed to build the state-of-the-art facility that will include the capacity to file stories with studios in Chapel Hill, Durham and with national NPR programs. WUNC is looking for a reporter who lives in Greensboro, said News Director Connie Walker.

“It just enhances your ability to cover an area,” she said.

The bureau will be the first WUNC has opened outside the Triangle. Station Manager Joan Siefert Rose said there is room for two bureaus in Greensboro because WFDD and WUNC approach Triad news differently.

“I give WFDD a lot of credit for the news reporting they do,” Rose said. “They would be more likely to cover a city council meeting and we would be more likely to cover a regional story that involves Greensboro.”

WFDD has had an office in Greensboro since 1998, Banks said. Three full-time staff members, including one reporter, work out of that bureau and several freelance journalists contribute pieces from Guilford County. Members of WFDD’s advisory board hail from the Gate City, and the station has attached its call letters to many of the city’s cultural events – including those produced at Triad Stage, Banks said.

“We’ve really had a long history and long involvement in the community,” Banks said.

Banks said he welcomed WUNC’s interest in Greensboro and had approached the station about collaboration.

“I don’t see why that can’t happen,” Rose said.

WUNC, which is chartered to UNC-Chapel Hill, has five transmitters in the Triangle and eastern North Carolina. The station and its subsidiaries split a $5.5 million annual budget.

WFDD, on the other hand, is chartered to the private Wake Forest University and has a relatively modest $1.7 million budget. WUNC, in the world of North Carolina public radio, is a veritable Goliath.

“It’s always a challenge when [WUNC has] the resources of the University system at [their] disposal,” Banks said, “and we’re still raising money from people a hundred dollars at a time.”

According to WUNC’s website, the station receives no direct funding from UNC but does use some of the institution’s staff for support.

The Winston-Salem station’s riches lie in its history. WFDD started in 1946 and became North Carolina’s sole charter public radio station in 1971 when it broadcast the first episode of “All Things Considered.”

Both stations have sponsored the Eastern Musical Festival, the Triad’s nationally renowned classical music festival, and WUNC recently partnered with Guilford College for the 2006-2007 Bryan Lecture Series.

Triad Stage is one of the beneficiaries of increasing interest in Greensboro by NPR stations in neighboring communities. WFDD spreads word of the theater’s performances in Forsyth County and parts west; WUNC broadcasts to more than 40 counties, and any segments produced in Greensboro will be announced as originating from their studios at Triad Stage, Whittington said.

Whittington said representatives from NPR approached Triad Stage after consulting with downtown boosters who encouraged the radio station to partner with an established institution. Rose first inquired about street-level space in the lobby, he said, but when that proved unfeasible the two groups settled on the unfinished third floor space.

WUNC will occupy between 800-1,100 feet and Triad Stage hopes to raise enough money to convert the rest into rehearsal space. The space has been vacant since the theater opened because founders could not raise enough money to complete renovations of the former department store. The highly visible studio will likely attract more visitors to downtown Greensboro – and might draw more listeners to WUNC.

As for Banks, he said he thinks his station’s Greensboro audience will be unswayed by WUNC’s incursion into the Triad.

“It is sometimes proposed that public radio is coming to the Triad for the first time,” he said. “But I think people are wise enough to know they’ve had public radio for a long time.”

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