WEMU courts younger listeners with less Coltrane, more Trombone Shorty.

The best of times for WEMU, then and now the jazz and local news public radio station of Eastern Michigan University, was during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when weekly listenership peaked at 54,000. The worst of times came four years later, when Michigan Radio’s WUOM dropped classical music for a news-and-information format. Its audience took off–and WEMU’s plunged to 26,000.

Making matters worse, says station manager Molly Motherwell, “the average age of WEMU listeners is sixty and they have aged with the station. That’s not unusual for a stable format and long-term staff. But it’s not sustainable in the long term.”

So five years ago, the station did a survey of its listeners. They discovered, Motherwell says, that the casual listeners “would tune in and out depending on what they heard. And they said they wanted us to talk less in the music shows.”

“We had to take long, hard, painful looks at ourselves and really listen to ourselves,” says music director Linda Yohn. “We’ve been known for presenting high-quality music forever, but the professionalism of the hosts, we really worked on that. For example, an announcer might repeat himself three or four times, and we worked hard on getting him to say it once. Less talk, same information.”

And while the station still plays jazz, it’s been updated to attract a younger audience. Instead of twenty-minute sets by Miles Davis or John Coltrane, its hosts now mix artists and play more young jazz musicians like Trombone Shorty and Marcus Miller.

“When we started to change, it took a while to convince old-time jazz fans,” says program director Clark Smith. “But jazz changes. It’s not just music of the thirties, forties, and fifties.” This doesn’t mean the station has turned to the avant-garde. “Nothing dissonant,” Smith says. “Nothing jarring. Nobody strangling a saxophone.”

WEMU’s numbers began “reviving five years ago,” says Smith. “The changes we made broadened the night and the day audiences.” The most recent Arbitron survey, last winter, put listenership at 47,000, and Motherwell says they should be at 55,000 by next June.

More listeners mean more money. Yohn says a typical fund drive raised $35,000 when she started at the station twenty-five years ago. That grew to $142,000 in the spring 2011 drive but was still not enough in the face of a decade of cuts in state support to education–cuts EMU passed on to its radio station.

As Motherwell explains in an email: “Beyond free rent plus custodial, accounting, and human services, our cash budget is approximately $1.3 million and EMU supplies about 35 percent of that. Our goal is to reduce their support by $250,000 over a three-year period, making it about 25 percent of our cash budget. We cut our budget by $50,000 in FY12 and offset that with $51,000 in increased fundraising and corporate commitments. Our cuts this year and next are $100,000 which we also hope to offset through increased fundraising and corporate support.”

To meet those goals, the station needs to raise more money during its on-air fund drives. So far, they’ve succeeded, hitting $178,000 last fall, an all-time fall record, and $167,000 this past spring, an all-time spring record. They’re aiming at $200,000 for this fall’s drive from October 11 to 18, and then at $185,000 for next spring’s.

Smith is confident they’ll make it. “The public radio audience has been growing over the past thirty years. Ninety-two million people listen to public radio now. Morning Edition has more listeners than Rush Limbaugh. And radio listening is increasingly locally focused. No one else is doing it [playing jazz and blues] in Washtenaw County, and we’ve been doing it since the get-go.”