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

Tag: public radio

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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Public radio and the local news crisis

Current, a publication that serves people in the public media system, has published Thomas Patterson’s important essay on how public radio can ease the local news crisis, as well as my response.

The pieces are behind a pretty high paywall, but you can read Patterson’s essay for free here and my response here.

How public radio can help solve the local news crisis: A response to Thomas Patterson

1946 photo by the Department of the Interior

Could public radio help solve the local news crisis? Perhaps. But first we have to determine what we mean by local news, and whether the folks who bring you national programs such as “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition” are suited to that mission.

In late January, Thomas Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at the Harvard Kennedy School, published a “discussion paper” exploring that very question. The purpose of discussion papers, according to the introduction, is “to elicit feedback and to encourage debate.” Consider this my small contribution. (Patterson, I should disclose, was acting director of Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center during my 2016 fellowship there and provided me with valuable advice for my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls.”)

At the outset, Patterson writes that he seeks to answer two questions:

  1. “Do local public radio stations have the capacity to provide reasonably comprehensive news coverage of the communities they serve? Do they have the news staff needed to meet that requirement? And if not, what level of investment could put them in that position?
  2. “Do local public radio stations have the capacity to reach enough members of their local community to make a substantial contribution to its information needs? And if not, what would be needed to substantially expand their audience reach?”

The answers to those questions come from 215 public radio stations that answered an online survey — a response rate of 89%. A majority of executives at the stations themselves saw their operations as a leading — or even the leading — source of news in their communities.

Read the rest at What Works.

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).

Keeping the “public” in public radio

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that NPR and public radio stations shouldn’t walk away from government funding, even if they don’t need it. For one thing, it would hand the right a victory in the culture wars. For another, it would set a dangerous precedent for public television, which is far more dependent on public money.

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.

WGBH acquires WCRB Radio

This press release literally just came in. I’ll be talking about it tonight at 7 p.m. on “Greater Boston” (WGBH-TV, Channel 2). The full text of the release follows.

Public service broadcaster WGBH today announced plans to acquire New England’s leading all-classical music station WCRB 99.5fm from Nassau Broadcasting Partners of New Jersey. The terms of the agreement have not been disclosed pending filing with the FCC.

WCRB is a 27,000-watt station, deeply rooted in the Boston region, serving audiences for more than 60 years with a broad reach in New England, drawing some 340,000 loyal listeners each week. WGBH is uniquely poised to operate WCRB, with its extensive classical music programming experience, its state-of-the-art Fraser Performance Studio, and its strong alliance with Boston’s premier classical performing organizations, artists and audiences. With WCRB added to WGBH’s radio services — 89.7FM in Boston, and WCAI and WNCK on the Cape and Islands — WGBH will serve listeners from Cape Cod to New Hampshire, adding renewed vigor to the cultural economy of the region.

“An opportunity like this comes along once in a lifetime. The acquisition of WCRB by WGBH signals a new era for the Boston broadcast landscape, and for our city’s renowned classical music tradition,” said WGBH Board Chair Amos Hostetter. “WGBH’s depth of experience, demonstrated leadership in radio, and commitment to excellence will bring a new level of service to this market.”

“From its very first broadcast, WGBH radio has provided audiences with the best in classical music and performance. Today we are excited to reinvest in this tradition for a new generation of listeners,” said WGBH President and CEO Jonathan Abbott. “The acquisition of WCRB will allow WGBH to sustain the vibrant classical music tradition of the Boston area.”

WGBH will finance the purchase with a special capital campaign, Keep Classical Alive, inviting both major donors and grassroots supporters to participate and become founding members of its all-classical service. Although WCRB is licensed as a commercial frequency, WGBH plans to operate the station as a non-commercial service in keeping with its mission to provide public media service for audiences in the greater Boston area. Over the coming months WGBH will fine-tune the formats of both WGBH 89.7 and WCRB 99.5 to create lineups that are complementary.

“Preserving WCRB’s heritage as one of the country’s premiere classical radio stations was an important objective for Nassau. We are extremely pleased that WGBH will be continuing this heritage and are confident in their future stewardship of such an important Boston tradition,” said Lou Mercatanti, Chairman and President of Nassau. “This is a win for everyone — most especially our loyal listeners.”

Since the 1950s WGBH has taken advantage of Boston’s vital classical music tradition. From its debut broadcast from Symphony Hall in 1951, classical music and performance have been a hallmark of WGBH’s service, featuring the region’s world-class orchestras, artists and conservatories. It has partnered with music organizations both large and small, from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Handel & Haydn Society, to the New England String Ensemble and the Boston Children’s Chorus. It has nurtured young musicians with school enrichment programs, and helped launch emerging artists.

“This is a truly exciting development. Classical music is part of our common world heritage, and as such it is in the public interest for an institution like WGBH to make sure our voices are sustained and celebrated,” said cellist Yo-Yo Ma. “As both a performer and a listener I applaud WGBH for making this significant investment in our community to ensure that the classical music genre will remain alive and well on Boston radio.”

“This is great news for music and arts education,” said Linda Nathan, co-headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy. “Keeping classical music vibrant is an extremely important resource to enhance learning. WGBH’s new service will further enrich the educational experience for students of all ages.”

“For more than 50 years WGBH and the Boston Symphony Orchestra have partnered to further the cause of classical music in Boston and beyond,” said BSO managing director Mark Volpe. “With facilities that provide unmatched technical excellence for recording and broadcasting live performance, WGBH is uniquely positioned to bring heightened awareness of the beauty and power of classical music. All of us at the BSO are excited by the possibilities resulting from WGBH’s acquisition of WCRB.”

In addition to live radio broadcasts, WGBH has been a pioneer in moving classical music onto new platforms, with live streaming, an all-classical HD channel, podcasts and mobile applications. The acquisition of WCRB will greatly enhance these efforts to serve new audiences on a broad array of distribution platforms in New England and beyond.

WGBH was represented in the transaction by Public Radio Capital.

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