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

WBUR’s funding woes are part of a larger challenge facing public radio

WBUR’s CitySpace. Photo via

If any form of media were well-positioned to respond to the decline of large daily newspapers, it was — seemingly — public radio.

For one thing, the business model wasn’t broken. Many people were still commuting to work in their cars. For another, public radio stations, unlike nearly all newspapers, are nonprofits, meaning they can attract funding from a more diverse range of sources: tax-deductible listener donations, large grants and even (in some states, anyway) direct government funding. (Public radio also receives a small amount of funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which disburses federal money.)

When I was reporting on the Denver media environment for “What Works in Community News,” I learned that Colorado Public Radio was perhaps the largest news organization in the state — larger than any newspaper or digital source and on a par with the city’s TV news operations.

But things have changed. Post-pandemic, people are commuting fewer days each week. They also have more choices, and may be listening to a podcast while driving rather than public radio. Of course, public radio has a lot of podcasts, but they’re operating in a more competitive environment than they are on the radio dial. In Washington, WAMU Radio recently announced deep cuts and the closure of its DCist website. NPR itself is downsizing its workforce by about 10%, citing a drop in ad revenues.

And now that difficult environment has come to Boston, with WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) telling listeners that it may impose a hiring freeze or even cut jobs if listeners don’t increase their giving in order to offset a decline in advertising. The station’s chief executive, Margaret Low, told Aidan Ryan of The Boston Globe that income from on-air sponsorships has dropped by 40% over the past five years, even as its audience has continued to grow. (Here is a different version of that story from, the Globe’s free sister site.)

“The business has never been harder, full stop,” Low told Ryan.

Low laid out the challenges facing WBUR in some detail in a letter sent to members, which is online at CommonWealth Beacon. She says in part, “At WBUR we’ve seen a dramatic loss of sponsorship support. In the digital age, almost all that money now goes to the big platforms — like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Spotify,” adding: “Sponsorship dollars won’t return to previous levels. These are not temporary ups and downs. They’re long-term shifts.”

Boston is in the unusual position of having two large news-oriented public radio stations. In 2009, WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) switched to an all-news format and has competed head to head with WBUR ever since. WBUR has a larger news operation and has generally led in the ratings, but both operations have carved out their own niche, with WBUR focusing more on news and GBH, as it is now known, taking a lighter, more talk-oriented approach.

I haven’t heard anything about possible cuts at GBH News, as the outlet’s local operation is known and that comprises radio, television (Channels 2 and 44) and digital. Last month, though, the Globe’s Mark Shanahan reported on workplace tumult at the organization, which included a three-month investigation into allegations of bullying and intimidation. So all is not well at either of the city’s public radio outlets.

Together, WBUR and GBH News function as the city’s No. 2 news outlet after the Globe. The local television stations do a good job and outlets like the Boston Herald, Universal Hub, CommonWealth Beacon and neighborhood papers make a contribution as well. But the WBUR-GBH combine is vitally important to the civic health of the city, providing a free alternative to the Globe. Their continued viability is something that ought to concern all of us.

(Disclosures: I was a paid contributor at GBH News from 1998 to 2023, and I’m currently a member of CommonWealth Beacon’s unpaid Editorial Advisory Board.)

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  1. Jay Griffin

    Dan the market decides. WBUR’s product is not selling. It’s time for a change.

  2. Aaron Read

    (cross-posted and expanded upon from Facebook)

    There’s other factors in play that complicate trying to draw any conclusions here. Not necessary that Dan’s conclusions are right or wrong. Just that it’s complicated.

    First is that at least one prominent voice (Celeste Headlee) is saying the WAMU layoffs don’t add up. She’s intimated she’s got inside info that says the DCist destruction had nothing to do with audio pivots. I’m inclined to believe her, both on her reputation…but also because WAMU laid off Rob Bertrand, a high level engineer. That does not fit the narrative, at all. So what’s going on there? I don’t get it. WAMU is consistently a top three…usually #1…station in the Nielsen ratings in a top-ten market. If WAMU can’t make money hand over fist in that environment, I think that speaks a lot more to WAMU’s management than it does any wider trend.

    Second, NPR wildly overinvested in podcasts to fulfill their dream of leaving the member radio stations in the dust and surviving solely on web offerings. They convinced themselves what was a bubble was actually “the new way things are” and, of course, it never is. So when the podcast bubble burst they were especially vulnerable and it showed. Again, this wasn’t indicative of a wider trend. It was terrible management chasing an unrealistic dream at any cost.

    Third, WBUR also overinvested in podcasts under Charlie Kravetz, and it’s bit them on the ass, too. But really what’s killing them is a longstanding over-reliance on underwriting for revenue. Most stations believe in the third/third/third model of membership, underwriting, and major gifts. The balance can shift a little, but that’s roughly the goal. It goes a long way towards insuring that when one vector goes soft, the others provide enough of a cushion to soften the blow.

    WBUR has always been more like 50-60% underwriting. They’ve allowed themselves to chase the crack high of easy ad dollars and have – to be perfectly frank – neglected a lot of their membership efforts. So every time the economy tanks and advertising dries up? WBUR’s budget gets absolutely mauled. It’s happened at least four times just in the last 20 or 25 years.

    (note: WBUR also has Cityspace which looks real nice but is an economic albatross around their neck…but really it’s about over-reliance on underwriting.)

    Now I see Margaret Low is trying a tactic none of her predecessors was willing to do: a direct, public appeal. This is more to her credit than to her predecessors.

    I have my misgivings about this. I will say Low deserves praise for trying it. I’m just honestly not sure the numbers really support the narrative. She claims a 40% drop in ad revenue, and says that’s equal to $7 million. Which means they were taking in approximately $17.5mil before. She doesn’t say if that’s local underwriting sponsorships only, or a combination of both local and national. I think it’s a combination, based on offhand numbers I’ve heard that their annual budget is in the $30-35mil range. And I think the bulk of the drop in underwriting has been in national. Sponsorships sold on the national feeds of On Point and Here & Now, in other words. Things have been ugly in the national ad market for all of radio even before COVID19 hit, and I doubt they’re going to get better. It’s the same factors of social media killing local newspapers’ ad revenue.

    So if I’m correct, and WBUR has lost a lot of national ad money? Then Low’s letter is more truthful than many might expect. And she’s probably right that they need, desperately, to bulk up their membership revenue to compensate. In theory, WBUR probably needs to bulk up major giving as well but they’re probably already doing almost all they can on that front. And again, this is where the $25mil raised on CitySpace has become an albatross around their neck, too. That $25mil could’ve gone towards an endowment that would’ve been reeeeeeal handy right about now. But that’s water under the bridge. The bigger concern is that if national ad dollars really are gone, then so is the incentive to keep producing national-level programming like On Point and Here & Now. Especially the latter; newsmagazines need A LOT of VERY expensive staff to produce every day. AFAIK they’re not getting anywhere near enough money from member station program fees to cover that; they need the national ad dollars.

    If I’m incorrect, though, and WBUR has lost a lot of LOCAL underwriting dollars? Then Low’s letter is flirting with disingenuousness. That market will rebound eventually. It always does and WBUR is still at least a decade away from the inflection point where that’s not going to be true anymore. What really needs to happen is WBUR needs to stop chasing the crack high of ad dollars, and to trim a lot of useless fat they’ve accumulated in podcasting and start investing more in the fundamentals. And to their credit, they HAVE been doing the latter with Izzy Smith cracking the whip on their on-air product; WBUR’s live feed (both on stream and FM) has never sounded better. But that’s not enough, either.

    One wonders if Boston can truly support two high-level public radio news outlets anymore?

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