by Liz Daube
For Tom Patton, radio is more than background noise or a car trip companion. He’s been in love with broadcast sound all his life: as a child, as a disc jockey, as a radio reporter and – most recently – as station manager for 89.9 FM, Jacksonville’s public radio outlet.
“I love radio,” said Patton. “You can take it with you. It’s the most personal medium there is. People put their headphones on and they forget about the rest of the world ... That’s one of the things I love about public broadcasting: Everybody has had their driveway moment.”
The “driveway moment” is typical for public radio listeners who absorb stories on their way home, according to Patton. It happens when they arrive at their driveways or other destinations and find themselves sitting in their parked cars, unable to tear themselves away from an audio story.
Patton’s love of radio may come as a surprise to those who associate him with the television side of Jacksonville public broadcasting: Patton hosts WJCT-TV’s weekly news program, “Week in Review.” As radio station manager, Patton keeps himself busy with management tasks and assumes overall responsibility for the station’s direction. When he’s not planning and watching the budget, he works on the television show or meets with staff.
He joined 89.9 FM about six years ago to give the radio station a “stronger news emphasis” and build a bigger audience. Apparently, his work paid off.
Since he started, the radio station’s audience has doubled, along with the individual contributions public broadcasting depends on.
Patton admits he’s not the only factor responsible for the increase – Jacksonville’s sheer population growth may have something to do with it – but he is proud of several advances. Beyond getting more news-savvy staff, Patton’s gotten grants to update the station’s technology and add digital channels with more content.
Most of 89.9 FM’s audience isn’t using those new stations yet. Patton estimates “about three people can listen to” their extra digital channels right now. Still, he said radio needs to keep up with a rapidly changing media environment.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in this industry. I used to slice tape with a razor blade and a grease pencil,” said Patton. “(Now) I’ve got to be able to compete with satellite radio and podcasting. People have a lot of choices.”
He isn’t worried about the future of public radio, though. At this point, Patton knows his audience pretty well.
“The public radio audience is predominantly college-educated with household incomes over $75,000,” said Patton. “There is always going to be room for the Morning Zoo (FM-95.1’s morning talk/music show.) There are also going to be people who want to hear something that’s intelligent and challenging.
“It (our audience) is the ones who are involved and engaged ... God help us if we ever run out of those people.”