On a recent Saturday morning driving through Ohio City with the 89.7 FM dialed up on the radio, the signal went grainy and then out for two blocks around Dave's Supermarket.
I was far from alone in encountering that problem with WKSU around town.
Ever since the newly merged WCPN and WKSU public radio operations switched NPR/Ideastream programming from 90.3 to 89.7, complaints have cascaded across Cleveland from longtime WCPN listeners dismayed that the signal for 89.7, to put it simply, sucks in ways that 90.3 never did.
@WKSU Wow the signal at 89.7 is horrible. I live in the flats on fifth floor and with antenna fully extended it's still almost unlistenable. Anyone else having reception issues?— Dan Rice (@DanRice26) March 28, 2022
@WKSU (former @WCPN) is intolerably staticky on both 89.7 and 104.9, although 104.9 is slightly better. The "scan" function on my car radio doesn't even recognize either of these as legit channels. I wished they had waited to boost the signal before abandoning 90.3.— Robert K S (@RobertKS) March 28, 2022
Has someone who has lived in Lakewood, and also Akron area, the the 89.7 signal is not strong in both areas, especially if you drive in the valley.— C. Robin Wade (@ChrisOfCleve) April 1, 2022
Ideastream Public Media is aware of the issue, which is very much a Cleveland problem.
@WCPN so bummed today trying to listen to 89.7 from home as we so love to do on weekends. Just not able to get a clear signal here in Cleveland Hts on either station.— Adrienne Krol (@imadriennekrol) April 3, 2022
In order to best serve the 22-county listener audience resulting from the merger, Ideastream chose 89.7 FM for all news programming. It has a stronger signal, already had a system of repeater stations, and reaches as far south as Mansfield. WCPN's old home at 90.3, meanwhile, has a weaker signal and half of its coverage area is over Lake Erie.
"We wanted to make sure that places that have fewer options, that we don't reduce news and information services in those areas," Ideastream Public Media's Chief Marketing Officer Todd Mesek told Scene. "When you look at the signal area overall [for 89.7], 98 percent of the listening audience is not affected. We know it's important and we have every intention and motivation to reach as many people as possible.
Mesek said there was never going to be a perfect choice as the stations sorted out the merger, and radio frequencies have never been the perfect solution, but Ideastream knows many Cleveland listeners aren't getting the same service and are working on solutions.
"There's boosting technology that we're piloting and testing now," he said. "The more significant boost though will happen later and requires FCC approval. We are moving aggressively for that 2 percent of the listening area — low areas and by the lake — to have interim solutions but the long-term solution requires approval and to get it we needed to effectively move everything to 89.7, remove news from 90.3, so we can demonstrate to the FCC that there's a real need to restore this coverage area and there's demand in the community. That's the long-term solution, where we'll employ boosting technology on existing towers and use additional repeater equipment."
He's also happy to remind everyone that Ideastream has leaned into smart speakers and livestreaming and programming is available on Smart TVs and on Ideastream's app.
In the meantime, "We want to hear from people," he said. "I'm not eager to hear complaints, but when we have those responses from people that helps us go back to the FCC and say there's a real need, you have to fast track this."