Little Rock Public Radio: A Digital Rebranding for a New Era

Daniel Breen, news director at Little Rock Public Radio, had big shoes to fill. He succeeded Michael Hibblen, who now reports for Arkansas PBS.
Daniel Breen, news director at Little Rock Public Radio, had big shoes to fill. He succeeded Michael Hibblen, who now reports for Arkansas PBS. (Steve Lewis)

Don’t touch that dial, mouse or touchscreen, but KUAR-FM, 89.1, and classical KLRE-FM, 90.5, have a sleek new name: Little Rock Public Radio.

The call letters still exist, of course, but General Manager Jonathan Seaborn told Arkansas Business that the new brand is more in line with these digital times.

Even the new logo expresses it. The lowercase “o” in Little Rock forms the dot at the bottom of the familiar Wi-Fi symbol.

Seaborn took on the challenge of rebranding immediately after hiring on at KUAR/KLRE in January.

“There was a need to freshen up the aesthetic appearance of the station, which was pretty dated,” said Seaborn. “As we move into a world of digital consumption, more of our audiences are consuming from the screen of the website, or off the NPR One app.”

Fewer listeners associate the broadcasts with the call letters, but the link with public radio is a strength, he said. “The letters don’t carry the same weight or meaning with younger audiences, so we wanted to find a brand that made the point directly. We are public radio, in Little Rock and serving central Arkansas.”

It wasn’t a massive change, said Seaborn, who came to the station on the fringe of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock campus after eight years with Texas Tech Public Radio. “We pretty much called ourselves Little Rock Public Radio anyway.”

The rebranding should also clear up a little confusion. “We are a service of [UA Little Rock], and they hold our license, but a lot of times people would assume that we were a college radio station, like a student-run radio station.”

The new branding keeps UA Little Rock in its identity, but signals that it is a public media institution. “It’s a service, and it’s a news organization. There’s a long answer.”

Seaborn announced the rebranding last month. He tackled other big chores, too, naming a news director, program director and hiring a local host, fellow Texan Maggie Ryan, for “All Things Considered,” the venerated daily National Public Radio program.

Ryan has solid Arkansas connections. She graduated with a degree in English literary studies and the classics from Hendrix College in Conway, and was a writer and editor for the campus magazine, the Profile. She’s a native of San Antonio.

In June, Seaborn named “Morning Edition” host Daniel Breen as news director, succeeding longtime public radio veteran Michael Hibblen. Operations Coordinator Ryan Gregory became the new program director.

Both Breen and Gregory are native Arkansans, and Breen is a graduate of UA Little Rock.

Hibblen, whose unusual voice was a KUAR mainstay for years, departed last year to work for Arkansas PBS, which underwent its own rebranding in 2020. Previously it was AETN, the Arkansas Educational Television Network.

‘The Same Type of Thing’

Back then, Arkansas PBS Executive Director Courtney Pledger said, the network was taking advantage of the Public Broadcasting Service’s reputation as one of America’s most trusted sources of information.

“PBS has been side-by-side with us as a partner, and in our branding, ever since the beginning,” Pledger told Arkansas Business at the time.

“It’s exactly the same type of thing,” Seaborn said, referring to public TV stations’ rebranding. “In Austin, it’s now Austin PBS. And this is another move in the direction of acknowledging a more digital consumption-first audience that is attracted to a simpler branding that tells people exactly what this is.” 

Jonathan Seaborn, general manager at Little Rock Public Radio
Jonathan Seaborn, general manager at Little Rock Public Radio (Steve Lewis)

To some degree, Seaborn said, call letters are a byproduct of the Federal Communications Commission’s requirements “dealing with identification and spectrum and everything else.”

To be sure, he said, broadcasting over the airways isn’t going away.

“But our audience within the digital space is growing, and we need to make sure that we’re thinking about what that means for the future versus trying to always retrofit everything we’re doing to that existing platform.”

He described the rebranding trend as nationwide. “You have Nevada Public Radio, Wyoming Public Radio, Michigan Public Radio, and all of these institutions are a part of the NPR network. If they don’t have this big national call letter brand, like WGBH [in Boston] or WNYC [in New York] you see this move toward branding across the system.”

Along with bigger audiences, Seaborn foresees good things in fundraising as Little Rock Public Radio adjusts its program schedule.

‘Positive Momentum’

“The No. 1 complaint I’ve heard is hey, we love “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me!” the popular hourlong humorous news quiz show produced weekly by NPR and WBEZ in Chicago. “But do you have to play it four times [each weekend]?” In the new program schedule, the show will repeat only once.

“All the decisions that Ryan [Gregory], our program director, and I made in scheduling are direct reflections of what the audience was asking for” in response to listener surveys and audience phone calls. “So I think that increasing the type of programming that people were looking for, updating the brand, making it feel a little fresh will help” with audience building and fundraising.

“This kind of positive momentum generally has a positive impact on fundraising. You know, our fiscal year, we’re only a couple of months in, but it’s already ahead of last year. And so we’re hoping that that trend continues.”

Public radio and TV do not rely on traditional advertising, but they accept underwriting by companies, foundations and individuals.

“If you were to underwrite with us you don’t necessarily get a tax benefit, but if a company or an individual makes a donation to the station, whether that’s in-kind or monetary, your direct tax benefit is the same thing as if you give to Save the Children or to any other charity or nonprofit.”

That’s not a major consideration to $5 donors, even though those small gifts can be just as meaningful to donors and recipients, Seaborn said. “But when you have those larger donors, being able to tell them that this is a write-off, this is something you can deduct on your taxes — it is a benefit that we have that I’m thankful for.”