Public Address

Vermont Public Radio, headed by president and general manager Mark Vogelzang, answers to the community it serves

by Julia Lynam

Mark Vogelzang, president and general manager of VPR in Colchester and Norwich is on air countless hours during fund-raising campaigns for the station, which is funded 52 percent by listeners, 35 percent by local businesses, 9 percent by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and 4 percent by other means.

When plans were being formed to bring public radio to Vermont in 1976, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting said it couldn't be done. Unlike many public radio and television stations, VPR was not affiliated with a university or college and did not receive funds from state government. The bulk of its funding had to come from its listeners' donations and from underwriting of its programming by local business and industry.

"It was pure Washington speak" declares VPR's president and general manager Mark Vogelzang. "I've looked at the correspondence, and they seemed to think that Vermont was full of mountains and very short of people."

Gearing up to celebrate their 25th anniversary in October 2002, the folks at VPR can afford to laugh at those predictions. Enthusiasm, vision, dedication and long-term commitment on the part of founders, board members and staff have paid dividends. VPR broadcasts 24 hours a day and is proportionately one of the most-listened-to public radio stations in the country.

One of those long-term VPR visionaries is Betty Smith. She's worn several hats at the station since she was hired in 1976 as one of the embryonic stations' two employees. Her initial colleague was Ray Dilley, previously director of the Discovery Museum in Essex Junction and one of the four original board directors who began the process of developing a public radio station in Vermont.

"VPR has created a network in the regional community that is very valuable," says Smith. "It's a resource for the community business as well as arts. In 1976 this wasn't as interconnected a community as it is now. VPR filled a niche that needed to be filled, and I feel very grateful for having been part of that."

Smith was working for a local radio station when she read in The Burlington Free Pressabout a public meeting being called to discuss the establishment of a public radio station in Vermont. "I thought it was an absolutely natural thing in this region," she says. "There was lots going on in the arts, but it was difficult to know what was happening statewide."

Smith joined the station as Dilley's assistant, going on air within days of the station's launch with the breakfast "Morning Glory" program, which aired before Robert J. Lurtsema's "Morning Pro Musica."

"I became assistant manager and then the station's first full-time program manager," she continued. "Then, after 11 years, I went back to my first love, producing, with the commentary series." This locally produced series of five-minute personal opinions on current subjects by people in Vermont was the station's way of dipping its toes into the limitless ocean of news reporting. Not yet financially secure to float a conventional news department, VPR wanted to broadcast news, information and comment from local people.

"We started with Janet Greene, a very sophisticated editor and writer, who was one-half of the Stephen Greene Press," Smith recalls. "For the first year, Greene did one commentary every weekday, and we learned together how to turn the written word intoeffective radio. After a year Janet stepped back, and we added more commentators, including Tom Slayton and Ron Rood. The news department began to get off the ground, but commentary continued as a part of that department, although it was always more than just news it includes story telling and cultural information, as well."

Commentary remains a major feature of VPR, and over the years its more than 60 contributors have included social commentators Olin Robison and John MacLaughry, story tellers Willem Lange and Joe Citro, novelist Philip Baruth, gardener Ron Krupp, Edith Hunter, David Moats, Peg Devlin, Cheryl Hannah, and Rebecca Coffey, whose recent commentary on how to speak to children about terrorism was much requested by listeners and widely disseminated.

Does Smith ever run out of subjects? "There's no end to it," she says. "Every time I think I've reached some sort of routine, it gets kicked right out from under me."

The same qualities of enthusiasm, vision, dedication and long-term commitment are evident when Mark Vogelzang speaks about the station he joined in 1993, just in time to steer VPR's first capital campaign. "We were aiming to raise $2 million to buy and renovate the old state police headquarters at Fort Ethan Allen," he explains.

Tammy West (left), corporate support manager; Robin Turnau, director of development; and Glenn Steinman, underwriting representative, are three of the station's 35 full-time employees. VPR had two full-time employees when it was founded in 1976.

The two-year capital campaign ended with a triumphant eight-day on-air fund-raiser that brought in $235,000 from listeners, bringing the total to $2.1 million. By the end of 1995 VPR had moved into its new home and held its first open house.

Vogelzang, tall and energetic, with a resonant radio presenter's voice, carved out a career for himself in public radio because he enjoyed working on his college radio station in Pennsylvania. "I didn't think anything like that existed in a way that I could earn a living from, but then I heard 'Morning Edition' and 'All Things Considered' and I realized that I wanted to work in public radio," he says.

"As a radio professional, it gave me the right combination of artistic freedom and the ability to do journalism as it should be done, with the resources, time and consideration it should be given."

First and foremost a broadcaster, Vogelzang has retained an on-air presence, presenting a new Sunday morning program of Bach's music, steering fund-raising drives and taking the hot seat in the tri-monthly "Dialogue" program to answer listeners' questions and concerns about the station and its programming.

"When I joined, we were distant from our listeners, and some people were unhappy about programming decisions. I went on the air to say if you have a problem with VPR, here's where you can direct your suggestions. As a membership organization it seemed important to have a real person they could go to.

"This is a state where things are on a manageable scale," he continues. "I love being part of VPR because it connects me into the community and what's going on here."

What's going on at VPR is a concerted effort to expand and improve the station's news service. "Over the past two years, we've devoted the most resources to the news department," says Vogelzang.

With the aim of presenting deeper and more substantial news reporting, VPR has recruited John Van Hoesen, former managing editor of the Rutland Herald, to head the news department, while veteran Montpelier news reporter Bob Kinzel has come on staff full-time. Reporters are stationed throughout the state and across the lake in Essex, N.Y. VPR news staff are being trained by NPR on delivering stories to fit their style and requirements and they have stepped up the number of stories they feed to National Public Radio, covering subjects such as Sen. James Jeffords' activities and gubernatorial announcements.

"In the pressure to be first, news media sometimes get away from facts and tend to generate stories that aren't fully formed," says Vogelzang. "I believe that VPR should be a trustworthy source of reliable information. The hallmark with VPR, and NPR, should be to get the facts straight.

"During the days following September 11, we weren't necessarily first, but we consistently provided information for those who couldn't or didn't want to watch television news. We were a place to get away from the images, yet remain informed."

During that time, Vogelzang chose to clear the channel of local programming. "We turned to NPR," he recalls, "to let people hear for themselves.

"Gradually, we began to add in other voices, perhaps an hour or two of the British Broadcasting channel or Canadian Broadcasting channel, and then we began to bring back local programming, starting with reports from the local airports, when appropriate. We ran a full week of special programming."

An additional source of news is VPR's World Channel, which supplements regular news broadcasts with several hours each day of news from the BBC World Service and other European English-language programs. St. Michael's College in Colchester provides the channel WWPV, and VPR, as it says in its trailers, provides the world.

The World Channel is a collaboration between the two organizations, but also between the two presidents: Mark Vogelzang of VPR and Marc vanderHeyden of St. Michael's. "I realized that college station was not broadcasting all the time," says Vogelzang, "so I approached St. Michael's' new president to suggest some international programming that would reflect the college's profile. We provide programming from the BBC when the students aren't using the channel, in regular morning and late afternoon slots. It reaches most of Chittenden County. It's very nice to have the BBC World Service available for those who want a second source of news."

Reactions from the local community helped convince vanderHeyden that the World Channel would be appreciated. "It offers another point of view," he says, "which is very important in an academic community, and, especially in recent months, has been highly desirable.

"Students manage the radio station so the World Channel broadcast times depend on student-use of the radio station and a student-made agreement. Mark Vogelzang has a very good way of approaching the students," vanderHeyden continues, "and many students become involved with VPR itself where they can experience professional radio studios and up-to-date technology."

As VPR celebrates its 25th anniversary, listeners can expect to hear treats from the archives. "Because radio is very much in the here and now, this anniversary gives us a welcome opportunity to look back," says Vogelzang, "We plan to broadcast pieces like a recording of Aaron Copland conducting the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, and a half-hour 1979 documentary about maple sugaring, which aired nationally."

Cindy Shuman, vice president and chief financial officer of VPR, is in charge of finances and personnel. VPR's operations include the World Channel, which supplements regular news broadcasts

Another place listeners can look back for VPR programs is on the Web. VPR is streamed live on-line 24 hours a day, allowing listeners throughout the country and overseas to listen in real time. A wealth of archived material is also available on-line so listeners can, for instance, re-live 80-year-old Bob Northrop's recent end-to-end traverse of the Long Trail, which was religiously followed and recorded in detail by VPR.

Talking about the Long Trail brings up another recent VPR innovation: Camel's Hump Radio, a weekly half-hour children's program focusing on children's literature with the intention of encouraging children to discover the joys of reading.

The program was introduced in direct response to listener suggestions. "We've spent a lot of time and energy on it," says Vogelzang, "and now we're trying to envision it a little more broadly and spread out in dealing with issues like literacy." Part of that time and energy has been spent working with school librarians and bookstores to make sure the featured books are available to youngsters throughout the state.

Among those who contributed to the development of the program was Bill Biddle. A teacher at St. Johnsbury Academy, Biddle is also chairman of the VPR Community Advisory Board (CAB).

"Federal regulations mandate a CAB for every public radio station," Biddle explains. "Our job is to examine programming and report back to the VPR board of directors what is successful and what it lacks. VPR's mission is to entertain, educate and inform its listeners, and we take that seriously and look at programming in that context.

"The original idea for Camel's Hump Radio had a different name and different format. The CAB influenced the change of name to give it a local flavor, and the manner in which the stories are presented, to make the program attractive to a wide age range by including some intellectual background and context."

The 15-member volunteer board holds open monthly meetings at various locations around the state, inviting members of the listening public to express their views.

Community advisory boards take many different forms. The one at VPR is independent of the station, draws members from a range of listeners and maintains, according to Biddle, a very "harmonious" relationship with the station.

Fund-raising has to be an integral part of life for a radio station funded 52 percent by listeners and 35 percent by local businesses. Recently appointed on-air fund-raising producer Leah Hollenberger says, "All public radio stations fund-raise. It's a part of our lives. Only a small amount of federal money is available in order to prompt local initiatives."

Hollenberger is trying to change the face of VPR fund-raising drives by making them "more sound-rich" with interesting snippets from local business people like Ben Cohen and National Public Radio voices like newscaster Bob Edwards.

At the VPR studio in Norwich, Betty Smith steers the commentary series with her antenna tuned into events and opinions throughout the region, ready to convert them into those neat five-minute talks by familiar voices that pepper VPR's programming. After 25 years with the station, she couldn't think of anything she'd rather be doing: "Working with VPR has been an unbelievable opportunity for me," Smith says, "working with very bright people, thinking creatively, and with a nice sense of entrepreneurship.

"I still pinch myself from time to time to think that I've found my way into something I like so much."

Originally published in December 2001 Business People-Vermont