Volume 76, Number 27 | November 22 - 28, 2006

A rendering of the glass-enclosed auditorium planned for WNYC’s Varick St. space. Pedestrians and drivers will be able to see inside the street-level auditorium as discussions are occurring.

WNYC gets with the program; Will move to Hudson Square

By Roslyn Kramer

A mini, if not microscopic cultural center is emerging in the unpromising precincts of Varick St. The venerable Film Forum, the rare surviving revival house in Manhattan, is ensconced on W. Houston St. near Varick St. Not far are two small theaters, the Cherry Lane and the Vandam, venerable in their own right. Nearby on Sixth Ave. The Villager’s office can be found.

And now yet another venerable institution will be settling in — transformed, modernized and flourishing: WNYC New York Public Radio. Born in 1924 and city-owned until early 1997, WNYC will move down from the top eight floors of the Municipal Building near City Hall to the ground floor at 160 Varick St. between Charlton and Vandam Sts. in the Hudson Square neighborhood west of Soho.

A listener tuning into WNYC’s frequency at 93.9 FM can expect to hear stimulating news reporting on issues unnerving (that would be Iraq), soothing interludes (hip world music on ancient instruments) and occasional (and successful) fundraising drives featuring pitches by everyone from station President and C.E.O. Laura Walker to idiosyncratic storyteller-reporter Ira Glass.

Since going independent and shedding its city-owned status a decade ago — when Walker first joined the station — WNYC has thrived. Today, the number of listeners per week is 1.1 million, a 32 percent increase since 2002. Fundraising drives have raised millions for necessary licenses since the station first became independent, and to sustain staffing and program expenses as well. The best fundraising drive was after 9/11, when the station, not far from ground zero, lost its antenna, and one had to be borrowed. But in the end improvising sharpened the station’s broadcasting edge.

One can be forgiven for thinking that WNYC is affiliated with National Public Radio, whose name crops up in a lot of programming. But, it’s not. WNYC itself produces about 100 hours of programming, buying the rest from different sources, including N.P.R. and the British Broadcasting Corporation, which supplies news for early-morning and late-night hours.

While WNYC was expanding, news broadcasting in general was shrinking, becoming increasingly superficial, ideological and limited by economic concentration. WNYC went its own way by and large, analyzing issues in depth and using the latest technology — podcasting, for one — to give listeners flexible access to hear and record programming. WNYC stuck to its mission: covering actual issues affecting real New Yorkers, much of it presided over by 20-year WNYC veteran Brian Lehrer. An unusually touching and award-winning innovation has been Radio Rookies, a workshop in which high school students from mostly underserved neighborhoods learn to produce their own short radio pieces. What the audience gets is on-the-ground reality from unheard city voices and the very personal ways kids are affected.

WNYC will be going back to some of these struggling neighborhoods as well as changing areas early next year in one of three new programs now in the planning stages. This will also be WNYC’s first new talk show in 16 years.

“We want to represent the voices and viewpoints of all of New York City’s racial and ethnic communities more effectively,” said Jennifer Houlihan, WNYC’s publicity manager. More specific information was not available, but all will be revealed closer to the program’s debut.

No information on the other two programs is available yet; they will be broadcast nationally, which requires more planning time.

WNYC already has plunged in where more ratings-obsessed broadcasters fear to tread: covering important hearings, speeches and press conferences — now virtually extinct except for C-SPAN.

WNYC has more listeners than any other public radio station in the United States, yet its present cramped office space hardly reflects its prominence. Right now, the station is ensconced behind the Renaissance-style turrets of the Municipal Building tower, its offices a warren of desks and sound booths in varying shades of gray, uncomfortably jammed together. Some of the station’s interiors are visible in the new film “Night Listener,” starring Toni Colette and Robin Williams.

The new offices will provide a more fitting and efficient environment. Instead of elevator-hopping — on deadline yet — between eight floors and 51,400 square feet of rent-free space the station now inhabits, in its new home WNYC will spread out over 71,900 square feet compactly divided between two-and-a-half floors. It’s a perfect retrofit for the lower floors of the 12-story, high-ceilinged former printing building in the former hub of the city’s printing industry. The number of recording studios will double from 15 to 31; the news staff will grow from 18 to 44.

“It will be nice to have more than one reporter on a given beat,” said Walker. Forty hours of new programming will be added. The cost: a total of $57.2 million, which adds up to uncounted fundraising marathons. However, WNYC has a head start: The city is contributing $10 million to the move and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation is giving $1.5 million.

Cost aside, the move will “enable us for the first time to put out roots down in the community,” said Walker. The most visible evidence will be a ground-floor, glass-enclosed auditorium allowing pedestrians and drivers to glimpse what’s going on inside. The station will be able to hold its own discussion events. To jazz up the view even more, WNYC is even thinking of a news zipper along the front of the building.

In fact, the station already had developed solid community roots by the time then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani wanted to sell it off as part of his privatization drive. Listeners revolted; a deal was negotiated enabling the station’s board to buy back the licenses. The board raised $20 million over six years in addition to the annual budget; no small feat, but nothing compared to the fundraising job that lies ahead to raise three-and-one-half times more money in a shorter period.

“It’s a huge challenge,” a broadcasting-savvy executive said.

Will this mean control over content by advertisers? No, the anonymous source believes: “The board wouldn’t allow it; regs wouldn’t allow it.”

What will remain unchanged in the new location is a “different kind of talk radio,” said Walker. “We have live performances from Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. We’re in the cultural capital of the world, with a listenership that’s incredibly active. It’s not just about news; we’re bringing people together. We’re dialogue, not diatribe.”

Walker is already contemplating dialoguing opportunities with WNYC’s new neighbors. For instance, she already has in mind film-buff haven Film Forum. If just some of Walker’s enthusiasm for inventive projects materializes, WNYC will restore some of the cultural sheen the Village has lost to Duane Reade and Soho has lost to name-brand retailers. And it will put the Village on the cutting edge of broadcasting technology.

Construction on the new facility begins in January. WNYC plans to move into the space in July.

The ground floor and mezzanine of the space are currently occupied by Digital Ink, a graphics company. On Monday, boxes could be seen inside piled by the windows, apparently in preparation for moving.

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