You’d expect Frank Stasio, beloved longtime host of WUNC’s daily live program, The State of Things, to have a laundry list of pre-show rituals. After all, for 14 years, he’s been a midday habit for thousands of radio listeners across North Carolina who are familiar with his genial weekday preamble.
The clock strikes noon, and without any throat-clearing, he begins: “This is The State of Things, broadcasting from the historic American Tobacco District. I’m Frank Stasio.”
“Wake up, have a fifth of scotch, and wear the same shirt for 15 years,” Stasio quips dryly when asked about pre-show magic on a day in Mid-November. Quickly, he clarifies that this is a joke: “Wait, no. No, I don’t.”
No: Frank Stasio does not have a lucky shirt or drink coffee out of a certain mug or do special vocal exercises before he goes live every weekday at noon. He also doesn’t have Facebook or Twitter or other social media feedback loops. He just likes to listen to the people sitting across from him.
The State of Things, an idiosyncratic talk show devoted to the “issues, personalities, and places of North Carolina,” has been on the air since 1996; this month, just shy of its quarter-of-a-century birthday, WUNC announced that the show will air no more.
Stasio joined the program in 2006. By his telling, his was a meandering journey to public radio: He got his start in college radio, then, when he was 19, got a job as a newscaster in Buffalo, New York, before moving to Iowa to work as a station director. He then took on a role as an associate producer at All Things Considered. For awhile, his show was right before Diane Rehm’s, and hearing her theme song, he jokes, threw his stomach into anticipatory “knots” for years.
Eventually, he left the post, and public radio, to help start an alternative school in Washington D.C. Then he freelanced and meandered some more. Maybe that’s exactly what you want in a talk radio host: someone who has bounced around, someone who can carry on a conversation in any gas station in America.
Now in his late sixties, Stasio is a bespeckled, bearded figure—physical details you could almost discern just by listening to his radio voice. He has a slight flannel tenor, like the instructor of a high school woodworking class: wise, patient, compassionate, maybe a little droll. He sounds like someone you trust with the news, in other words, and, during his tenure, the show has become a statewide institution, leavening the airwaves with North Carolina firsts: emerging artists, emerging voices, emerging narratives.
Producers at the show say that they have worked hard to make sure that it reflects the diversity of the state, and this has long been clear in this broad-ranging buffet of topics and people. It would be impossible to switch on 91.5 for 10 minutes and not learn something.
The filmmaker Natalie Bullock Brown co-hosts #BackChannel, a State of Things segment, alongside Frank Stasio and Mark Anthony Neal. She lists a Juneteenth episode, taped during the heat of this June’s Black Lives Matter protests, as pivotal in her understanding of Stasio’s empathetic acumen as a host. He was, she says, aghast at fellow white people’s response to the protests.
“He named it square on its head,” Bullock Brown says. “He did not mince words. But one of the things that struck me and touched me was that he just seemed so sorry. There was something in his eyes that made me understand. It’s rare to see someone really reckon with the truth of the matter.”
Today, November 25, 2020, is the last day that Frank Stasio will host a live The State of Things show before retiring. Through the end of the year, Anita Rao—managing editor, part-time host, and a familiar presence that many assumed would take on the show upon Stasio’s retirement—will steer the program toward an end that, for listeners and contributors alike, is a bit of a shock.
“The cancellation of The State of Things leaves a serious gap that no other radio, print or digital media, or television program fills,” says Marsha Gordon, who has been doing the monthly “Movies on the Radio” segment of the show, alongside Stasio and Laura Boyes, for seven years. “Where else can we hear about the issues taking place in cities all over the state? Learn about artists, musicians, and writers who call North Carolina their home? Get information about statewide environmental or political issues, or what’s happening in our schools and universities?”
The noon hour is typically broken into three segments, meaning that, over the years, Stasio and his predecessors have interviewed upwards of 800 people each year: scientists, politicians, educators, filmmakers, musicians, writers, and everyone in between.
One longtime listener, Margareta Claesson, has been listening to WUNC and public radio since the late 1970s, when she moved from Europe to North Carolina.
“I have a much better grasp of what North Carolina is thanks to The State of Things,” Claesson says. “I so appreciate that. They bring in people that most of us would never come in contact with.”
Over the past decade, Claesson has also begun to lose her eyesight; in its absence, public radio has become a constant companion.
“I wake up with Eric Hodge in the morning and go to bed with whoever is on at 9:30,” she says. “I know their voices and understand their integrity and the way they figure things out.”
Devoted listeners like Claesson are the “bread and butter” of the station, according to WUNC president and general manager Connie Walker, who says that the station is the number one non-profit in the country for recurring donors. In the past few years, as many as 46,000 listeners have donated each year during the annual pledge drive; in the 2019-2020 fiscal year, 91 percent of the stations’ revenue came from contributors.
Walker says that WUNC—which reaches more than half of the state’s 100 counties with its seven radio stations, though it does not receive state funding—is faring better than most other public radio stations in the country.
“It is not the best time for us, but we have healthy reserves,” Walker says. “Listeners are coming through for us. Our underwriting is at 81 percent. Admittedly, it’s a lower fiscal year, but we had to be reasonable about what business is like and what listeners can do. But we’re tracking pretty good for this fiscal year.”
At large, though, public radio—both financially and as a social phenomenon—has been treading water for some time. The podcast revolution is here, and niche, on-demand streaming has begun to edge out terrestrial radio. Local news is also in a crisis, as the short-circuited appetites of consumers turn distrustful of the media and wary of long-form programming.
NPR, after all, was founded in 1971 (WUNC, founded in 1976, has been around almost as long). A generation of Baby Boomers came of age with NPR, enjoying several decades of prosperity and pledge drives before they began to retire and be replaced by millennials—a workforce saddled with student loan debt, 10 times less wealthy than the Boomers before them.
COVID-19 has accelerated these difficulties. Half of AM/FM listening takes place in a car, according to research from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. During the pandemic, as the magic commuting hour has collapsed into work-from-couch life, NPR has suffered a decline in listeners: A quarter of its listenership disappeared between the second quarter of 2019 and the same months in 2020. It is hard not to wonder if the cancellation of The State of Things signals not just the end of a program, but the beginning of the end of an era for local public radio.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit to dialing into a Zoom call with Frank Stasio hoping for reassurance as to the future of public radio—or maybe even the future writ large. I am a WUNC listener and also interned, almost a decade ago, at The State of Things. I was not a particularly standout intern and barely interacted with Frank; still, he has played an omnipresent moral role in my understanding of public discourse.
I wanted some indication that it was still possible to listen to each other, and to have the funding to make that public listening possible. I wanted to know, basically, that everything would be okay.
Frank Stasio did not give me this assurance. Not exactly.
“We have shut down and our central nervous systems have closed us off to each other as protection from the pain,” Stasio said, in reference to public discourse. “If that’s been our response, there is no radio station in the world, no newspaper in the world, that is going to crack that. We’re gonna be talking to our own constituencies. And those constituencies are going to get small.”
On November 10, WUNC abruptly announced the show’s end.
“This was not an easy call,” Walker said in a station statement. “The State of Things is deeply held in our hearts, and the hearts of many WUNC listeners. Frank’s wit and intellectual astuteness will certainly be missed. His retirement has opened a door for WUNC to re-think and re-imagine the station’s efforts, particularly when it comes to our coverage of North Carolina issues.”
In the statement, Walker cited Stasio’s retirement alongside shifting audience analytics as reasons for the decision, and stated that the national WNYC program The Takeaway would replace the show in the weekday noon slot. The program’s staff—four full-time producers, and one temp—would find new roles within WUNC. Over the phone with the INDY, the day of the announcement, Walker stated that local content would continue on in some form, though it was unclear what form that content might take.
National shows—All Things Considered, Planet Money, Here & Now, and several hours of Celtic music—now round out the WUNC schedule, but aside from the Back Porch local music show and consumer-health informational program The People’s Pharmacy, there will no longer be any local public affairs programming.
When the station posted the statement on Twitter, the news was met with pushback from listeners. Many said they might curb their station donations.
“At a time when we really need a deeper understanding of the diversity of our state, I find this to be a shocking decision,” listener Heidi Walker wrote, while Michael McCullough argued that “abandoning local programming is abandoning their mission.”
WUNC’s institutional proceedings have seemed muddy before. As State of Things founding host Linda Belans tells it, the show was her idea when she was a contract employee in the 1990s. When it began airing as a once-a-week program in 1996, she says, it was the first “locally produced talk radio public affairs program that the station offered.” On it, during her weekday hour, she interviewed the likes of Bill Friday, Joan Baez, Seamus Heaney, and Mister Rogers, though you won’t find much of that archive online.
Belans—who is now a leadership coach (and occasional culture writer for the INDY)—says that she was summarily fired in 1999 for, as she recalls being told, “having too much power.” That chapter of the program’s history is patchwork online; multiple outlets, including the INDY, have mistakenly reported that the show began in 1999. Belans herself had to go onto the show’s Wikipedia page and edit it to reflect her work on the show. (When asked about Belans’ account of her departure, Walker says that she believes Belans was the original host, but that it was before her time at WUNC.)
“This is the story of women,” Belans says. “You get erased.”
Between 1999 and 2006, several different hosts shuffled through WUNC’s doors, including Melinda Penkava and Mary Hartnett. None lasted as long as Stasio.
In the wake of the announcement about the show’s end, many listeners expressed surprise that Anita Rao—who has been with the station since 2014, and who has come to embody the fresh, progressive next generation of public radio—had not been given a chance to take the program in a new direction.
“I wish that The State of Things was going to continue,” Bullock Brown says. “I do understand that Frank is so much the voice of The State of Things, and it might be difficult for listeners to accept a new voice, but I was really confident in and looking forward to Anita Rao taking over the reins, because that’s what I was expecting to happen. To see the whole thing end is disappointing.”
Rao, 31, was born in a small coal-mining town in England and was raised for much of her life in Iowa. A streak of poised, clear-eyed Midwestern pragmatism comes through when she talks about the job.
“I grew up listening to public radio,” Rao says. “What drew me into it was that at the time that I was getting really into storytelling in journalism, it felt like radio was the place where longer-form conversations were still really happening and thriving.”
Over the year, outside of producing the State of Things—a complicated balancing act of research, intuition, and alacrity—she’s carved out a role as a host with She & Her, a podcast about Southern feminism that she’s made with a friend since 2015. This interest in pursuing intimate, envelope-pushing subjects led Rao to start Embodied, a NPR radio-show-turned-podcast, in the summer of 2019.
Embodied centers topics you don’t often hear discussed on public radio: The science of orgasms and female pleasure get a close look in one episode; fertility and aging on others.
Rao has garnered a loyal following (on Facebook, listener Matthew Haskett wrote of Stasio’s retirement news, “I love Frank but I’m not upset because Anita is just as—if not more—hardcore”), but says that breaking into public radio—and breaking the mold of public radio—has had its challenges.
“They were never going to like my voice,” Rao wrote in a recent Huffington Post article about her experience hosting Embodied. “I knew that from the moment I agreed to fill-in host a live, midday talk show on North Carolina Public Radio in 2017. While I do have a college degree, I am neither white nor over the age of 55—the main defining characteristics of our station’s core audience.”
Still, not being white and over the age of 55 may win over a new generation of listeners. Challenging the norms of public radio may be the only thing to save it. And when asked about WUNC’s decision, Rao expressed careful, candid surprise.
“The decision-making process about ending the show was not very transparent,” Rao says. “The team and I were not involved in the decision-making process, which was hard and made the decision even more difficult. There’s a lot I don’t totally understand and haven’t yet been able to make sense of. I’ve really loved growing as a host and growing with the show, and I was open to talking about what it would be like to host the show moving forward, though I never thought it would be a given.”
All skepticism about the future of public radio aside, Frank Stasio expresses similar surprise at WUNC’s decision to pull the plug on the show, adding that he had expected a “softer landing” for staff and listeners.
He had also expected the program to continue on after his retirement.
“I thought, Well, yeah, let’s just keep this thing rolling,” Stasio says. “You got Anita and a great staff. It surprised me—when they first made noise like that was not the obvious thing.”
Connie Walker says that staff are not typically included in decisions about programming, but acknowledges that employees—who have asked for a written statement assuring them that they will be included in future programming conversations like this—have felt left behind. Walker says that she hopes WUNC will be able to “get to the place” where they can provide that.
Meanwhile, while she can’t offer any guarantees about future local programming, she says that another show like The State of Things is not out of the question.
“Movies on the Radio” co-host Gordon adds that she hopes the station will rethink the decision entirely.
“I have relied on the show since moving to North Carolina 20 years ago, and I know my knowledge about the state will be impoverished without it,” Gordon says. “I still have a glimmer of hope that WUNC might rethink the decision at some point—or that some other savvy media outlet with a statewide reach will recognize the gap and try to fill it.”
After 14 years behind the mic, Stasio, for his part, says that he is looking forward to spending more time with his grandchildren and exploring new ways of community building outside of hosting. The future of terrestrial public radio, as he has it, isn’t long—at least not with the way things have been going.
But then again, The State of Things—this broad marriage of journalism, public affairs, and North Carolina—has always been bigger than one person.
“It’s irrefutable that radio as a platform, broadcast radio as a platform, does not have a long future,” Stasio says. “I can’t imagine any scenario that could change that. But public radio, as an institution, does.”
Claesson, the listener who wakes up and goes to bed with public radio, says that she’s sad to see The State of Things go. But she expressed faith in the future of the station.
“I think that when one door closes, there are other doors,” Claesson says. “And I think that the people who are in charge at WUNC will figure this out. They are very brave and insightful and intelligent young people. I’m not worried about them. We are so many listeners who are so adamant about the station.”
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