[JPL] WGBH FM in the News

Steve Schwartz steve_schwartz at wgbh.org
Thu Sep 24 15:41:26 EDT 2009

Although the word "jazz" is not used once in this lengthy article, we, Eric Jackson and myself, have been assured that jazz programming will still be heard Monday-Friday, 8p-midnight with Bob Palocha on the overnights. Keep your fingers crossed,

Steve Schwartz

from The Boston Globe September 22nd:

WGBH bids for broader presence in public radio

By Megan Woolhouse, Globe Staff  |  September 22, 2009

Boston public broadcaster WGBH made a bid yesterday to buy classical radio station WCRB, a move that could directly challenge rival Boston public radio station WBUR.

Boston public TV and radio giant WGBH already broadcasts classical music on its flagship radio station, 89.7 FM. But with the acquisition of 99.5 FM, the region’s only 24-hour classical music station, WGBH plans to convert 89.7 FM to an all-news and talk format. That would make the station more like WBUR, at 90.9 FM, the city’s only other public radio station and one of the nation’s most successful noncommercial stations.

“This lets us save classical music and look at opportunities to expand our journalism and give folks in Boston more of the public radio journalism that they love,’’ said WGBH chief executive Jona than C. Abbott. “This will lead us to build out and continue to enhance news’’ offerings.

WBUR general manager Paul La Camera said yesterday he had not heard about WGBH’s plans to expand its news programming, but the station would face a “steep climb’’ stepping into the local news radio market. Noting WBUR’s dominance in the ratings, La Camera said, “Trust me, we’re not going to surrender any of that ground.’’

WGBH officials would not disclose the purchase price, but one industry analyst pegged the sale at about $14 million. The deal still needs to be approved by the Federal Communications Commission.

The move is a bold one for WGBH. For years, WGBH radio has offered a mix of music and news programs like “The World’’ in the afternoon, but it consistently lags far behind WBUR in the ratings. According to Arbitron, an audience rating service, WBUR had a 4 percent share of the listener population in August, compared to WGBH’s 0.9 percent.

Abbott said he thinks a news format will create a more predictable format for the station and bring in more listeners.

Both stations are currently National Public Radio affiliates, paying dues to carry its programming, but the stations remain independent and in charge of creating their own programming schedules. Anna Christopher, a spokeswoman for NPR, said some cities, like Seattle and San Francisco, have two NPR affiliates with strong news formats and they often compete fiercely for listeners.

“There’s an argument to be made that they can coexist because in some communities there’s such a strong appetite’’ for news, Christopher said.

Scott Fybush, a radio industry consultant who publishes the newsletter Northeast Radio Watch, said WGBH can re-package news from its television operation, which offers a wide body of material. Fybush said the WCRB deal is valued at about $14 million and such acquisitions have become more common recently.

New York City public radio station WNYC recently bought WQXR, an all-classical radio station, from The New York Times Co. Fybush added that WNYC bought the station call letters and retained the classical format, but it did not hire the station’s staff.

“What it sounds like to me is [WGBH is] going in the direction of a lot of other public broadcasters, saying, ‘We have all this content and we’ll add an additional delivery mechanism for it,’ ’’ Fybush said. “It sets up a stronger competition with WBUR, which enjoys some of the best ratings of any public radio station in the country.’’

Both WGBH and WBUR raise money by asking for donations from their viewers, listeners, corporations, and foundations. Unlike WGBH, which is known for producing television programs nationwide, WBUR solely operates a radio station with a focus on local programming. It runs on a $20 million budget annually, La Camera said, and the model has been a successful one. In an interview last month, La Camera said the station has been able to hire additional reporters and start an endowment.

When WBUR launched a new NPR news site earlier this year, the station declared its mission was to be “a premier destination for the most timely news of the day from Boston, the nation, and the world.’’

Mark R. Fratrik, vice president of the radio consulting firm BIA Advisory Services LLC, said competition between the two radio stations could be good for listeners. “You have to distinguish yourself,’’ he said. “Maybe ’BUR will respond with something else, an investment in its news operation. Public broadcasting is different and the returns just can’t be measured in dollars.’’

But banking on news and classical stations also poses a risk for WGBH. The station has laid off employees in recent months as a result of a projected 2010 budget shortfall. Abbott said acquiring WCRB would not lead to additional layoffs of WGBH employees, but he did not rule out the possibility of layoffs at WCRB, which has 15 full- and part-time employees.

“We will look to bring over people from WCRB as it fits into our plans,’’ Abbott said.

WGBH officials said they would finance the purchase of WCRB with a dedicated capital campaign for donations called “Keep Classical Alive.’’

Abbott said WBGH will submit its proposal to buy WCRB from Nassau Broadcasting Partners LP to the FCC Monday. Nassau bought WCRB in 2006 from Greater Media. Nassau could not be reached for comment.

Federal approval would likely take three months, Abbott said, and would include a public comment period. If approved, the station will move WCRB’s Waltham offices into WGBH’s Allston headquarters. The station will also become a nonprofit entity instead of a commercial one.

“We see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,’’ Abbott said. “The station was up for sale at a price we could afford. We had the chance to preserve classical music for Boston. It feels like a very wonderful time for us.’’

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse at globe.com.  

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