Is WUNC (91.5 FM) finally taking local talk radio seriously?

Eyebrows were raised among media-watchers last week over news that WUNC–one of the most-listened-to public radio stations in the country, if you believe the hype–had suddenly dropped Mary Hartnett as host of The State of Things, a cultural affairs program about people and issues in North Carolina.

Why the sudden move? After all, the station could have kept Hartnett on while it conducts its “national search” for a new host. Instead, it immediately replaced her with NPR newsman Frank Stasio, who will himself be replaced at the end of next week by former WUNC staffer Melinda Penkava.

Without access to a year’s worth of Arbitron ratings, it’s difficult to judge whether Hartnett’s time as host of The State of Things was a radio success, but it’s worth noting that last summer WUNC received a $450,000 grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help with the show’s production. In August, it hired longtime NPR veteran Fred Wasser as its first-ever “executive producer of talk programming.”

And after getting the grant last summer, station General Manager Joan Siefert Rose told the University of North Carolina news service that the new funding will allow the station to “create some really special local programming.”

The latest change seems aimed at making the show attractive to public radio stations across the state.

“Our goal is to have a host with the breadth and depth and experience to make the show sound consistent with other NPR shows,” Rose said in an interview this week.

“We really wanted Mary to stay with the station,” she said. “We consider her a strong on-air presence, and wanted to go ahead with that transition.”

Well, it’s about time. For all the talk about how WUNC is one of the best (read: most profitable) public radio stations in the country, the station’s only syndication success to date is Joe and Terry Graedon’s People’s Pharmacy, a show that began in 1981, and that was probably boosted as much by the popularity of the Graedons’ newspaper column and bestselling books as by the station itself.

The Triangle waits with bated breath to see what WUNC will come up with next.

By the way, an N&O story about the change passed along some incorrect information, reporting that Hartnett “had been the show’s host since September 2001, when WUNC-FM changed its format from a classical music station.”

Er, no. Hartnett was hosting The State of Things long before the station switched from classical to talk.

Perhaps the confusion about Hartnett’s starting date has something to do with the fact that she wasn’t actually the show’s first host. Linda Belans, an award-winning radio producer and writer who’s covered the Triangle dance scene in both this paper and The N&O, gets that distinction. Belans says she was the one who first brought the idea of a local cultural affairs program to then-general manager Bill Davis back in 1996.

“I told him what’s missing at the station is talk radio that has to do with North Carolina,” she explains. “I invented the name The State of Things. The original concept was for the show to have a real statewide feel. I wanted call-in and call-out, so I could interview interesting characters who knew their communities. I wanted to help the Triangle really feel connected to the rest of the state.”

So what happened?

“They weren’t ready for it,” she replies. “They would have needed screeners, more staff… we were really working on a shoestring.”

After a few years, Belans says, Davis suddenly fired her. She declined to talk on the record about being let go, noting only that she believes the station “wanted more in-house control over the programming.” Her replacement was Hartnett.

While it’s understandable that WUNC’s press release might skip over an episode like that, it’s less clear why the N&O would go along for the ride. Until you try recalling the last time the paper ran a hard-hitting investigative piece about local TV or radio stations.