This week's return of a live local afternoon talk show to WOWO's airwaves was more than just the latest programming change. It also represented an olive branch of sorts – and an effort to reconnect with listeners alienated by recent efforts to broaden the appeal a station acknowledged as one of Fort Wayne's leading voices since 1925.
“When you have a certain brand, you're expected to deliver on it,” said Mark DePrez, chief executive officer for Federated Media, WOWO's parent company. “When we changed from Pat Miller to Gregg Henson, maybe we overcorrected. So we are trying to rebuild bridges (with listeners).”
Whether this week's audition by 2011 Republican city clerk candidate Zach Bonahoom or the coming stint by 2007 GOP mayoral hopeful Matt Kelty can broker a truce with conservatives who openly declared war on WOWO following Miller's departure last month remains to be seen. But whatever the response, DePrez is certain of one thing:
Even though WOWO's conservative core will remain, its approach must change.
“Eighty percent of the (radio) audience never goes to AM,” DePrez said, explaining why the company in March began to simulcast WOWO's AM signal on a sister FM station. DePrez and Henson, who is also WOWO's programming director, said they wanted Miller to change his format – which was heavy on conservative politics, religion and social causes – in order to attract a broader, younger audience. When that didn't happen, the more moderate Henson stepped in.
And conservative listeners started tuning out and contacting advertisers – especially after Henson responded to what DePrez called “vicious and relentless” criticism by lashing out on the air at individuals he considered responsible for the backlash.
“(Henson) crossed the line and used poor judgment. I could see what a toll it was taking on him,” DePrez said, explaining his decision to remove Henson from the air June 8, replacing him with conservative Sean Hannity's syndicated program.
Miller, whose show had been relegated to Saturday mornings, was also out. “I felt he could have put a stop to a lot of what was happening had he spoken up,” DePrez said.
And that's where things stayed until this week, when DePrez' realization that WOWO has an “overriding responsibility to offer live, unique local programming” produced an on-air competition for Miller's old job between two men of unquestioned conservative pedigree but vastly different styles.
For Kelty, whose audition will begin July 5 and conclude the following week, it will mark his first major foray into the public eye since his unsuccessfully campaign against Mayor Tom Henry and his subsequent decision to plead guilty to three charges linked to campaign-finance violations.
Both DePrez and Kelty, an architect who suggested himself as a possible replacement for Miller, know the incident is likely to come up. In fact, it'll probably make for good radio.
“I made a mistake, but it's all about what I can accomplish moving forward. I'm 47 and been through interesting experiences, and that will serve me well (on radio),” Kelty said. “My show will be high-energy, very informative and a lot of fun.”
But while the devoutly Catholic Kelty would in some ways seem to duplicate the very “evangelical” approach DePrez and Henson wanted Miller to downplay, Bonahoom – who was approached by Deprez – epitomizes WOWO's desire to modernize its traditional conservative message.
“They're trying to find a younger demographic,” said the 23-year-old Bonahoom, whose show has focused on politics but next week will expand into business, popular culture and a philosophically diverse lineup of guests.
“And Zach has really been generating awareness (about the show) using social media,” said DePrez, noting that public reaction and his own “gut feeling” will help determine which man gets the job and which is used as a fill-in.
DePrez said Henson may return to the air in some capacity as well, since his departure was also criticized by listeners, some of whom complained he had been driven out by “evangelical nut jobs.”
DePrez knows that change should have come more slowly than it did and knows he must do what he can to repair the damage. That's because, icon or not, WOWO is first and foremost a business. Miller's show wasn't generating the desired revenue, DePrez said, so a change was made. That change didn't work, so another is underway.
And if neither Bonahoom nor Kelty work out, something else will be tried. In the end, the market will decide. Conservatives, of all people, should want it that way.
Just as DePrez and Henson, despite the unfortunate comments on both sides, should be thankful so many people care enough about WOWO to get passionate about what it does.