By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Boston public radio rivalry heats up

As WGBH is one of my employers, I offer without comment a story by the Boston Globe’s Johnny Diaz on the radio rivalry between public stations WBUR (90.9 FM) and WGBH (89.7 FM).

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  1. Laurence Glavin

    I love the fact that the Globe and the Herald can’t write even a moderately long story about radio without getting some facts wrong. “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” is NOT broadcast at noon on Saturdays; it’s on both stations at 10:00 am. And WTOP in Washington, DC did NOT just “boost its signal”; it switched from AM to FM, something that news/talk stations in other cities have done recently. If any of the CBS-owned FM stations that play mass-marketed recorded material, like WZLX, WODS or WBMX, should falter, it’s been suggested that the same thing could be done with WBZ-AM 1030.

  2. Is it just me, or does the Globe have most of it ratings bar graphs baxckwards? Check it out:

  3. Update: Globe fixed graphs after I commented on paper’s website. No idea whether one had anything to do with the other.

  4. Laurence Glavin

    I can’t see the graphs on unless I’m doing something wrong here. Maybe the Campaign Outsider’s hahd-working staff could put the right graphs up. Maybe after the hockey playoffs are over.

  5. Aaron Read

    There was a similar battle in Washington, D.C., six years ago. Like WGBH, WETA changed its music-and-news format to all-news to compete against public station WAMU and commercial news station WTOP. After WTOP fought back, boosting its signal, WETA gave up the fight and restored its music programming.

    I have no inside knowledge or anything, but this description does not square with the facts as I have been told them:

    WETA went all-news in 2005 partly because classical was a “declining” format overall, and news/talk was more lucrative, but also because they were trying to compete with all-classical commercial station WGMS. Their jump was a very logical one; WAMU already aired a lot of local shows in place of national ones, so WETA took the national shows.

    However, in 2007 WGMS was sold and changed formats. WETA was making slow headway against WAMU, but now suddenly could re-gain all their original classical audience PLUS all the audience of WGMS.

    I wouldn’t exactly call it a “no-brainer” decision, but it was quite logical to go back to all-classical. Certainly in the short term. Long-term is tougher to say, as classical audiences trend older and older.

    But nevertheless, I don’t think WTOP played all that much of a role.

    Again, though – I was never privy to any inside information; just informed speculation amongst fellow public radio professionals.

  6. Hey, Laurence, ever think maybe the problem’s with you?

  7. L.K. Collins

    GBH Radio lost me when they canned the always interesting programming done by Robert Knisely and Cathy Fuller. While they couldn’t reach the uniqueness of Robert J, they did awfully well at keeping a loyal audience.

    GBH in it’s current incarnation has only Calley Crossley going for it. It is clear that Crossely was hired to shepherd the reporting of the black community, and it is something that she clearly enjoys, but her talents are would be successful on a much broader range of subjects.

    I’ve switched to WCPE until GBH comes to its senses.

  8. Laurence Glavin

    That’s EXACTLY what I said: I am NOT seeing any graph at the website no matter what I do. I’ve been able to view graphs at when the story, article or column references one. I can understand why you’re so snarky after a big loss by the Broonz. That’s what you get for investing so much time and interest in an accidental conglomeration of guys who play a game for a living (and most of the time aren’t from here and go back home after the season’s over).

  9. Stephen Stein

    I like the fact that ‘GBH gives me more local options (with Rooney and Crossley), but I think it’s ridiculous there’s so much outright duplication with the morning and evening drive-time news shows and with things like Wait Wait and This American Life. At least they could time-shift them so that we’d get 2 shots at catching them!

    (I’m devastated that I no longer hear Wait Wait coming home from synagogue on Saturdays in the noon hour – serves me right for driving and listening to the radio on Shabbat – Bad Jew!)

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Stephen: As you know, the overlap with “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” has been going on for years — long before WGBH’s format change.

  10. L.K. Collins

    Move into WCAI range or catch them off the internet. They offset the broadcast of some of the major day-time offerings.

    They also are host to Jay Allison’s fine productions from Atlantic Public Media.

  11. Stephen Stein

    @Dan, yes. And it has always annoyed me. But somehow the new duplication of the Saturday shows is just a step too far.

    I find the little differences fascinating though. The WBUR promos seem polished and professional, but occasionally the WGBH promos seem like the product of college radio. Probably just younger voices I’m less accustomed to. But it’s such a reversal from the memories I have of ‘BUR in the mid 70s, back when it was a real college station.

  12. Aaron Read

    @Stephen: Actually there’s LESS duplication in morning/afternoon drive time since WGBH added “The Takeaway” from 6-7 and 9-10am. Used to be they ran “Morning Edition” the whole time.

    I’m not positive, but didn’t both WGBH and WBUR run “All Things Considered” and “Marketplace” in the 6-7pm hour as well? These days that’s a repeat of “The World” on WGBH.

    However, one thing the article didn’t touch on very much was that the TOTAL listeners in those bar graphs shows an overall LOWER total of listeners between the two stations. Granted, that’s an armchair analysis taken to the extreme, but if the micro follows the macro there, it’s not a good sign…it means WGBH really is cannibalizing WBUR’s audience.

    I wouldn’t take that to the bank though; supposedly multiple outlets for the flagship NPR shows has, historically, garnered MORE overall listeners between the two stations. So I’d want to see the actual Arbitron results before drawing too many conclusions.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Aaron and @Stephen: Although it would be so subtle that only a few of us would notice, I’ve long thought WGBH and WBUR should flip-flop the hours for “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” For instance, WGBH runs “The World” from 4 to 5 p.m., so it could run the first hour of “ATC” while WBUR runs the second hour. That way, you get to choose which “ATC” stories you want to listen to.

  13. Stephen Stein

    @Aaron – I thought ‘BUR used to run BBC at 9 when ‘GBH went to music. And I don’t think ‘BUR ran Marketplace – I thought that was only ‘GBH. I could easily be wrong on both – 9-10 and 6-7 hasn’t been in my drive time for years now.

    @Dan – *GREAT* suggestion.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Stephen and @Aaron: Yes, ‘BUR ran the BBC from 9 to 10 a.m. — still does, right?

  14. Aaron Read

    @Dan – yes, AFAIK, BUR runs BBC 9-10am.

    As for tape-delaying the first hour of ATC? AFAIK they can’t. The NPR contracts don’t allow for tape-delaying of the major newsmagazines (or the TOH newscasts) like that. The idea is that the news on ME and ATC can be (and is) updated at any moment so to delay things by an hour could make the news seriously “dated”.

    BTW, there was a time…admittedly several years back…where WBUR did not run Marketplace specifically because WGBH did. I don’t remember when that flipflopped, though…at least 10 years ago, possibly more.

  15. Dan Kennedy

    @Aaron: Are you sure? Stations are allowed to repeat hours. For instance, WBUR rebroadcasts the first half-hour of “ATC” from 6 to 6:30 p.m.

  16. Laurence Glavin

    It’s possible that some programming that “appears” to be tape-delayed by WBUR may just simply be partially-repeated segments for markets in midwestern, mountain and Pacific time zones. Thus a piece on the Gulf-oil-spill-a-year-later may run intact, while a breaking story that occurs in that time period would be covered live (!”””@ It…I’ll do it LIVE).

  17. Aaron Read

    @Aaron: Are you sure? Stations are allowed to repeat hours. For instance, WBUR rebroadcasts the first half-hour of “ATC” from 6 to 6:30 p.m.

    Not exactly. ATC repeats three times for the four CONUS time zones. Like such:

    4-6pm ATC main / Eastern
    6-8pm ATC rollover1 / Central
    8-10pm ATC rollover2 / Mountain
    10-12mid ATC rollover3 / Pacific

    In each case, a lot of the “main” show from 4-6pm is live. Then they tape it and re-use it for the three rollovers. But if news happens as the evening progresses, they’ll edit/change things to update them. And more updating happens than you might think; there’s an entire separate ATC producer crew devoted just to doing the rollovers.

    So what WBUR is doing is airing the 4-6pm ATC live, and then airing the 6-6:30pm part of ATC rollover1, also aired live. Well, it’s “live” as far as the station is concerned, even if a lot of what you’re hearing was originally recorded back during the 4-4:30pm hour. Or even earlier (i.e. recording interviews earlier in the day) as is not uncommon.

    What I believe you were proposing was to tape-record (at WBUR’s studios) the 4-5pm ATC Hr1 and air it from 5-6pm, thus providing something different than what’s live on the satellite. That is technically possible but contractually prohibited by NPR…because it means now WBUR is airing content that could, at any moment, be out-of-date.

    It seems a little silly but in breaking-news situations…which happen quite a bit…it can make a difference.

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