WGBH gets radio active

wgbhlogo_20090921Now that the dust is beginning to settle, it’s clear that something very interesting is afoot with WGBH’s acquisition of WCRB Radio (99.5 FM): WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) is going to be repositioned as primarily a news and public-affairs station, with its classical-music programming shifting to WCRB.

The move puts WGBH in direct competition with WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), long the city’s public radio powerhouse when it comes to news. And it’s not like ‘BUR has showed any signs of weakness recently. By all appearances, the station is doing well, both on air and on the Web.

But WGBH has a more powerful signal than WBUR, which means that many listeners in Boston’s exurbs have always been stuck with ‘GBH’s limited news line-up rather than ‘BUR. That gives ‘GBH an opportunity to make a real impact. (Disclosure: I am a paid contributor to WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press.”)

I do have one piece of advice for WGBH: add a daily, two-hour local interview and talk show to the mix — something WBUR, good as it is, lacks. Yes, “Radio Boston” is excellent, but one hour a week? Local talk shows are a staple of public radio, from small stations all the way up to WNYC in New York. Boston should have one, too.

Over at WGBH’s “Beat the Press” blog, Ralph Ranalli has more, including a quote from WBUR general manager Paul La Camera. “In terms of competing on the news front, I have every confidence WBUR is going to maintain its position as the dominant NPR news station in the market,” La Camera says.

On WGBH’s “Greater Boston” this evening, WGBH Educational Foundation executive vice president Ben Godley, veteran radio and advertising executive Bruce Mittman and I talked about the acquisition with host Emily Rooney.

The Boston Globe covers the story here, and the Boston Herald here.

Advertisements

24 thoughts on “WGBH gets radio active

  1. George Williams

    ‘GBH has a lot of hours to fill and there is only so much NPR programming. Why would I, or anyone else, give up ‘BUR for ‘GBH to listen to the same programming? That’s where you are right about strong local programming (want to bet that they end up with the usual out of office poltical hacks?). The othe advantage to 90.9 is tat it is some NPR station all of the way to D.C. so I never have to reset my radio. Maybe I’m wrong but I think ‘GBH would have been better just becoming the primary classical radio station for Boston (I still meet Robert J. Lurtsima (sp?) in the A.M.).

  2. Michael Pahre

    It seems to me that there are more options for WGBH in expanding their news channel (89.7).

    You’re right that a local news talk show would be good, although it can challenging to keep interesting for two hours a day every day.

    Seems to me that the real scoop would be if WGBH could bring Christopher Lyndon back to the airwaves. Shouldn’t any non-compete clause have expired by now?

    And the BBC has lots of international coverage, but WBUR only does two hours a day, right?

    As for the classical side, 24-hour classical programming opens up the schedule for 2-hour+ syndicated programs of various national orchestras. WHRB has been picking up a bit of that of late (see Met), but there is lots more programming to choose from.

    My big question: where does jazz go? They are talking about expanding news on 89.7, and 24-hour classical on 99.5, but does jazz stay on at night on 89.7?

    @George Williams: Are you experiencing dream sequences? How could you still be meeting Robert… J…. Lurtsema in the morning? He died nine years ago.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Michael: I don’t think every one of those two daily hours needs to offer edge-of-your-seat excitement. Besides, some of that local programming can consist of national and international figures who are passing through town. I realize that would conflict somewhat with “On Point” and “Here and Now,” but there are ways of working that out.

      WBZ Radio has been doing hours of local talk every evening for years, from David Brudnoy to Paul Sullivan to Dan Rea. It’s not boring.

  3. Ben

    In some markets WGBH news will be competing with the Cape and Islands NPR station. But since the hottest topic on the C+I local call-in show is bird watching (bet you thought it was windmills?), I suspect the audiences will sort themselves out.

    And I will be in the WGBH camp, as long as they don’t put Christopher Lyndon back on the air. His late WBUR show Open Source mostly consisted of Lyndon attempting to goad intellectuals into throwing bombs at the bush administration. He had some great show concepts, but it just seemed to degenerate into highbrow Michael Moore half the time. I remember in particular a psychologist Lydon had on who expounded his theory that conservatives are mentally ill. Did Lydon point out that the Soviets labeled political dissent as mental illness? No, he ate it up – it was a highbrow political slur, and he loved it.

  4. Dan, contrary to my earlier post, this link on WGBH’s website, while somewhat buried, does fairly explicitly say that 99.5FM will become an all-classical outlet. That would strongly imply that 89.7FM will have more news-talk, and possibly a little more jazz.

    George, as a General Manager of an NPR affiliate myself (WEOS, I can assure you that there is no shortage of NPR programming that WGBH could air and duplicate very little of WBUR’s lineup in the process. Here’s one example plucked solely off the top of my head of a perfectly viable lineup that’s an alternative to WBUR:

    *WGBH 89.7 ALTERNATE SCHEDULE*
    12mid – 5am Jazz
    5am – 6am BBC World Service
    6am – 8am The Takeaway
    8am – 10am Morning Edition
    10am – 12n Diane Rehm
    12n – 1pm Fresh Air
    1pm – 2pm Tell Me More (or, if really ballsy: Democracy Now)
    2pm – 3pm New WGBH Local Talk Show
    3pm – 4pm The Story with Dick Gordon
    4pm – 6pm PRI’s The World
    6pm – 6:30pm Marketplace
    6:30 – 7pm four options: first, Free Speech Radio News. Second, a melange of 30 minute shows like Latino USA, The Treatment, Making Contact, etc. Third, go to BBC World Service for a while. Or fourth, just go to Jazz.

    7 – 12mid at some point go from BBC to jazz. Or just go straight to jazz.

    (note to WGBH’s PD: I’ll be expecting a modest consulting fee. 🙂 Alternatively, would you consider picking up WEOS’s “Out of Bounds“?)

    Notice how very, very little of this schedule overlaps with WBUR’s schedule. Even when it’s a show that airs on both stations – it’s at a different time, thus aiming for a different audience.

    Diane Rehm would be something of a coup as well…WBUR currently has a reciprocation deal with WAMU for OnPoint.

    @Michael: Lydon’s not coming back. I’ve been all but begging him to let me air his podcasts on WEOS and so far no luck. I think he feels he’s been at this for too long to go down that same road a third time…he likes the freedom of podcasting better.

    Now here’s the $64,000 question: if WGBH dumps classical on 89.7 and moves it all to 99.5…won’t that infuriate their classical fans in downtown and the South Shore? I mean, 99.5 is a decent signal but it’s strictly North Shore to Cambridge. It doesn’t penetrate downtown well (and neither does that pipsqueak repeater on 96.3 aimed at Beacon Hill) and it doesn’t get into the South Shore at all, really.

    Of course, WGBH could surprise us all by chucking news-talk and going all-jazz. I personally think it’d be a huge mistake (Boston has tried jazz multiple times and it’s always failed)

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Aaron: I think you’re being overtaken by events. Watch the “Greater Boston” segment I linked to. WGBH’s Ben Godley says specifically that all of his station’s classical music will migrate to WCRB (though maybe not immediately). He also says that ‘GBH is going to keep its jazz programming. So it sounds like the news and talk will stop at 8 p.m.

  5. BTW Dan, I don’t think the signal difference between WGBH and WBUR really matters. By the time you get far enough out that WBUR disappears…you’re already into lands where other outlets have better signals anyways. Like WFCR to the west, NHPR to the north, WCAI/WZAI and WBUR AM towards the Cape, and WRNI in Rhode Island.

    Besides WBUR has never cared about the world outside Rt.128 except when it’s commuters heading into, or out of, metro Boston; the Cape is the sole exception that rule. I don’t think WGBH will necessarily pick up any WBUR listeners out there because there aren’t many WBUR listeners out there to begin with.

    Ironically, WBUR’s “weaker” signal (12,000 vs. 98,000 watts) typically penetrates downtown Boston much better than WGBH does. The relatively lower height of Blue Hill really hurts WGBH’s reach into Cambridge and downtown Boston as it can’t get past/over the tall buildings the same way WBUR’s 350ft-taller antenna does out in Needham.

  6. Bob

    I remember in particular a psychologist Lydon had on who expounded his theory that conservatives are mentally ill.

    This sounds more anecdotal than reality.

    Lydon is a good man, a smart man…and people respond well to him.

  7. amused

    One of the few really positive developments in media in recent history!

    Anything that gives depth to broadcast news benefits the community. Broadcast journalism has been in a free-fall in Boston since the convergence of multi-station ownership on radio and the arrival of Ansin and dumbed down television on Ch. 7 and its competitors on television. Twenty years ago, Boston had three FM (WMJX, the old WROR and WBUR) and four AM (all news WEEI, WRKO, WBZ and WHDH) radio stations with serious news operations; now it has only the ponderous WBUR and the frightfully trivial WBZ. There is little of substance to local talk radio, when the unrestrained silliness (not wit, silliness) of Braude and Egan is the best daily local talk program on radio, the alternatives are indeed limited.

    Let them squirm at WBUR, or more correctly, pontificate; for all of its significant contributions to local journalism it has never mastered the immediacy that is radio’s best contribution to journalism (and I don’t mean dexterity in responding to fires and run of the mill police news, a steady diet of which helped to kill off radio news on the commercial band. It seems that WBUR needs considerable lead time to do much more than do a quick interview about that morning’s Globe hedlines)

    While some may hail this as preserving a classical station in Boston, it may do more than that. WCRB has, for the past 15 years, been something of a Top 40 classical station, with frequent use of a core of pieces which are mere portions of longer works. Hosts are fairly obviously pre-recorded in many dayparts, with the result being a decided lack of enthusiasm about the music that has been played; it’s difficult for an announcer reading a card about a piece he or she probably knows well but did not just hear to convey the regard for a particular recording that a Dave MacNeil, Dave Tucker or Richard Kaye brought to us daily. WCRB decided that The Girl With the Flaxen Hair needed to be heard constantly and that a stoic introduction of the piece by someone who wasn’t listening, merely sitting in a room reading notes, somehow conveyed respect for the music.

    Oh, and don’t believe purchase prices from industry “consultants” or “analysts” whose consulting consists of shooting the breeze and whose analysis consist of spitting back previously reported news.

  8. Boston Venerable Bede

    Boston has an opportunity to finally get quality in classical music as WFMT-FM Chicago provides. It has announcer read spots and quality classical music. If it happened here; people will notice and ratings will be up.

  9. An interesting move all around actually. I would agree with you Dan on the need for more local news/talk programming. As we both stated in a thread months ago, it really isn’t that hard or expensive to do if you move beyond the NPR mentality of having 12 people produce a show.

  10. murf

    This is a great move for WGBH and classical music in Boston. As a casual classical fan who has been listening to WCRB on and off for nearly 20 years, I have grown tired of their limited playlist. ‘GBH does a far better job of programming their classical slots.
    As to NPR programming WBUR does not offer, I LOVE To The Best of Our Knowledge – it is one of my two favorite podcasts. I’m sure it would do well in this market.
    I’m also glad ‘GBH will keep jazz – I’m still recovering from the death of WERS’s Jazz Oasis.
    I look forward to the change.

  11. Patricia

    It’s interesting to compare this move with the NPR/classical musical chairs that Our Nation’s Capital has seen over the past few years.

    Earlier in this decade, the two major public radio stations in DC were WETA, with a mix of classical and newsmagazine shows, and WAMU, which was public affairs. Then in February 2005, WETA decided to drop all music programming and go head-to-head with WAMU in public affairs (NPR and BBC). In the meantime, a longtime commercial classical music station, WGMS (for “Washington’s Good Music Station”), kept chugging away, although it got shifted to a couple of really rotten frequencies that were not heard in parts of our sprawling metropolis. Then in 2007, WETA made an agreement with the WGMS owner, and WETA flipped to all classical all the time (with the WGMS library). WGMS is now the call sign for one of WETA’s repeater stations. WAMU is still plugging away with public affairs (although it took over one folk-music show from WETA).

    Ratings? Well, all-news WTOP is still the top of the heap (you’d listen to it too if your road traffic was as bad as ours). WAMU is third among all stations, and WETA is seventh. (The rock station is 16th.)

    Sources: Wikipedia and dcrtv.com.

  12. Joseph

    WGBH will fail if they try to take WBUR head-on with a all-day or 24/7 NPR news/info format.

    What WGBH should do is drop NPR news/info programs from 89.7 (as well as classical) when it acquires WCRB, move the WGBH/BBC co-production “The World” to 7-8 P.M. (repeat 4-5 A.M.), and go jazz from 5 A.M. to 7 P.M. and 8 P.M.-4 A.M.

    I think a 22-hour-a-day jazz format can succeed in Boston, and ‘GBH already has a good head start, what with their successful evening/overnight jazz block.

  13. Ben

    Aaron Read, I think WGBH’s signal strength will be an asset that makes it very competitive. My experience is that WGBH is the only NPR station that is consistently strong in Southeastern MA. You’re right, there are other competing stations, but driving just 15 highway miles on I-195, I need to change between three of them to stay with NPR.

  14. Aaron Read

    Joseph – jazz formats have been tried, several times, in Boston…and they never last. The city just won’t support it. (shrugs)

    WGBH can do just fine as a news/talk alternative to WBUR so long as they don’t try to be EXACTLY like WBUR. That is, they don’t try to compete on the local news front and they don’t try to duplicate WBUR’s schedule too much. There’s plenty of listeners who would rather hear the national feed than the local inserts from WBUR, and plenty of fans of alternate programming like The Takeaway or The World, etc.

    Ben: Again, out in the boonies, WBUR doesn’t care if you can’t get them. All the lucrative donors are closer in to the city, as are all the listeners that underwriters are willing to pay to reach. WBUR has become as successful as they are precisely because they’re not trying to reach EVERY listener they possibly can; they’re trying to specifically serve the listeners that provide the best ROI.

  15. Bob Gardner

    As I remember, WCRB was set up with an endowment to allow it to broadcast in a classical format. What happened to that money?
    If GBH wanted another station to go all classical, why was WCRB the only choice? It sounds to me like they are more interested in eliminating competition than in saving classical music.
    This is bad news for GBH’s jazz department, which unfortuately will go the way of James Issacs and the WBUR jazz department.
    In the last couple months GBH has eliminated the local overnight jazz dj’s. And just last month they were crying poor on one of their endless fundraisers. All the time they had an extra $14 million sitting around to expand their empire.

  16. Laurence Glavin

    Apparently, WGBH-FM doesn’t have an unused pool of capital lying around to disburse as they wish. If I read the veritable blizzrd of press releases correctly, WGBH plans to have a fund-raiser specifically dedicated to raising the amount need to buy WCRB. Hmmm…what happens if they fall short of this goal? Will they back off from the deal? Will they then return donations that wre made for this purpose? Charles pierce just might get his, um, perverse wish. And why isn’t busy trying to get Stephanie Miller on “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” instead of focussing on the WGBH/WCRB deal?

  17. @Charlie – put up or shut up! Either get in the studio and make a 24/7/365 edition of Only a Game or be quiet! 😉

    @Bob: Capital campaigns are a totally different ball of wax than regular fundraisers. It’s a lot easier to attract a few BIG donors to large, easy-to-explain projects (like adding a new station) than it is to get lots of little donors to chip in towards paying the electric bill. Virtually every non-profit faces this issue every year. I know colleges that are freezing salaries and slashing expenses but are sitting on millions donated by someone who demanded it be used towards a new football stadium. Yeah, that goes down real well with the staff, I’m sure…but logically football teams often contribute insane revenue from happy alumni donations (witness the aforementioned multi-million-dollar donation!) and contribute towards other important metrics, too. Yet the $5 or $10 million that can pay for a renovation that’ll last for a decade might not cover your payroll costs for even just one year.

    @Laurence (and others): what happens if they don’t make the goal is indeed the $14 million dollar question. I suspect they’ve got the means to pull an angel investor out of their pocket for a capital project like this if they absolutely have to. But if not, it could be reeeeeeeally bad; there’s been examples of other institutions (some at colleges, some not) that have tried and failed to purchase major signals, both radio and TV, over the last year or two…in every case it was a P.R. debacle and in some cases it led to the downfall and sale of the entire organization.

  18. raccoonradio

    >>I mean, 99.5 is a decent signal but it’s strictly North Shore to Cambridge.

    Some Boston listeners have a tough enough time getting 99.5 but some pirate on 99.7 could be making things worse (noticed them on I-93 the other day)

Comments are closed.