AMARILLO, TX (KFDA) - High Plains Public Radio once expanded its presence throughout the High Plains region.
Then, because of government budget reductions, it reduced that presence.
Now, though, HPPR – based in Garden City, Kan. – is about to re-emerge as an even more significant purveyor of news and entertainment to the region, according to HPPR's executive director, Deborah Oyler.
Perhaps as early as late this summer or early fall, HPPR is going to start presenting 24-hour news on 94.9 FM, which currently broadcasts simultaneously with 105.7 FM. Programming on 105.7 will remain the same, Oyler said, with news presented in the morning and then in the afternoon; HPPR will broadcast music during the day and into the evening and the wee hours, she said, on that station. She added that on 94.9 FM, the news will be broadcast 24/7, with programming picked up from public radio affiliates, such as KUT in Austin.
Oyler said 94.9 FM was the "original (public radio) station in Amarillo," and she added that "It's always been our dream to have a second news service in Amarillo." She called it "expensive," but said through some "technical and rules changes, we were able to make it a reality."
Oyler estimated the annual cost of operating 94.9 FM to be "around $20,000."
Amarillo is by far the largest community served by HPPR, which covers the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, eastern Colorado, western Kansas and a small slice of Nebraska, Oyler said.
"For years, people in Amarillo have asked when can we get 'Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me'?" Oyler said. The second news service, she explained, will be able to bring that program to Amarillo listeners.
A good chunk of HPPR's public funding comes from the Kansas Legislature, Oyler said. Kansas lawmakers were faced with serious budget constraints in 2012 and 2013, she said, and then cut funding for HPPR. "In 2014, we lost 78 percent of what we got from the state of Kansas," Oyler said.
She said, though, that the staff reductions and relocation of its broadcast center in Amarillo "allowed us to build our reserves and weather the storm."
HPPR's Amarillo office is now located in a basement suite of offices at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Polk Street downtown.
"We've hired back two positions, one in marketing and one in operations," Oyler said.
She said HPPR currently has nine full-time staff members: seven in Garden City and two in Amarillo.
"We have cut as much as we can," she said, "and now we're looking to grow our audience."
Wayne Hughes, recently retired from the Panhandle Producers and Royalty Owners Association, is president of the HPPR board. He lives in Amarillo and still does the daily oil-and-gas report during NPR's "Morning Edition" broadcasts.
He said HPPR sought to "expand to the metro area (in Amarillo) that wasn't previously being served" by public radio.
He recalled how "we developed a nice studio operation" when HPPR became operational in Amarillo in the late 1990s, "but we had to downsize when the economy was going through its burps."
Hughes said HPPR "cut corners and devoted our energy to seeking underwriters. We just cannot compete with commercial outlets." He claims "success" in "boosting our underwriting, but we had been getting pressure to develop a more information-oriented news operation."
Hughes also noted that the stations serving the Amarillo area are what he called "free-standing" outlets that are not affiliated with a college or university. He said he hopes one day to get some kind of affiliation with either Amarillo College or West Texas A&M University.
Jay O'Brien was one of a handful of Amarillo residents who was instrumental in bringing HPPR to the Texas Panhandle. O'Brien, a businessman who manages ranches throughout the region, recalled "talking to Texas Tech, UT and Eastern New Mexico University. We wanted to do something with Amarillo College, as they had (public television). We thought it would be a good fit."
O'Brien said he was serving on the AC Board of Regents at that time, "but the deal kept falling through."
He remembered, too, how the late Levi Bivins "kept gigging us" about our lack of public radio in
his hometown. "Levi lived in D.C. and he wanted to bring public radio here. We ended up putting an antenna on a bank building downtown." O'Brien said he worked alongside Levi Bivins' brother, Mark, and other local business and civic leaders to make public radio a reality.
O'Brien said the "entire HPPR coverage region has tremendous economic similarity." He noted how many local communities are agriculture- or energy-dependent. "The economies of these places are pretty consistent," he said.
"Our new service is going to be designed to retain listenership," Oyler said. She explained that listener audience drops off after "Morning Edition" and listeners then turn to "other news stations" during the day. Oyler's intent, she said, is to keep listeners dialed in to public radio on the new news station.
"It's exciting for us that a city the size of Amarillo can have two (public radio) news stations," Oyler said, comparing Amarillo to places such as Denver, Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston, all of which have more than one public radio news service.
"From a quality of life or economic development perspective," Oyler said, "this gives Amarillo a great marketing tool."