WTKK and the ongoing collapse of corporate radio

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This commentary was previously published by the Huffington Post.

Update: I’ll be on New England Cable News on Friday at 7:15 a.m. to talk about WTKK and the future of radio.

At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan signed off for the last time from the morning talk show they had hosted on Boston’s WTKK Radio (96.9 FM). A few minutes later, the station reemerged as Power 96.9, a faceless entity blasting out robo-music of some sort. And Boston found itself with just one full-time talk radio station. (The station was quickly redubbed Nova 96.9, apparently because of this.)

The demise of WTKK has been portrayed as another nail in the coffin of right-wing talk radio. The estimable D.R. Tucker calls it part of “a downward spiral for a key element of the conservative entertainment complex.” And, yes, that’s surely part of it.

But what we are really seeing is the demise of commercial radio in general, as corporate owners (Greater Media in WTKK’s case) attempt to squeeze the last few nickels of profit out of a medium that may be in its final stage of collapse.

By the end, WTKK wasn’t even a right-wing talk station. Braude, a liberal, and Eagan, a moderate, hosted a civil show that was more about entertainment than politics. Moderate politics and humor were the rule during midday. The only right-winger was afternoon host Michael Graham, whose idea of a good time was to make fun of people with dwarfism.

It was a far cry from the days when WTKK’s signature host, Jay Severin, would call Al Gore “Al Whore” and refer to Hillary Clinton as “a socialist” and “a pig.” Then again, Severin himself was long gone, having made the mistake of joking about sex with interns at a moment when his ratings were falling.

During the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, Boston was a terrific town for talk radio, the home of pioneers such as David Brudnoy, Jerry Williams and Gene Burns, among others. Yes, they leaned right, but their approach was intelligent and respectful (OK, Williams often wasn’t respectful), and they were immersed in the local scene in a way that few talk-show hosts are these days.

So now we are left with one full-time talk station, WRKO (AM 680), home to right-wingers Rush Limbaugh and Howie Carr, a local legend whose shtick descended into bitter self-parody years ago. (Limbaugh’s syndicated show recently moved back to WRKO from a weak AM station owned by Clear Channel.) It certainly hasn’t helped either WTKK or WRKO that their ratings pale in comparison to two full-time sports stations — a phenomenon that didn’t exist during the heyday of local talk.

The only bright light is Dan Rea, who helms a very conservative evening program on all-news station WBZ (AM 1030). Rea, a former television reporter, eschews the shouting and demeaning putdowns in favor of smart conversation.

What happened to talk radio in Boston? I would point to three factors. And I would suggest that none of these are unique to our part of the country. Boston may be on the leading edge, but these same trends could sweep away talk elsewhere, too.

Corporate consolidation. Since the passage of the lamentable Telecommunications Act of 1996, corporations have been buying up radio stations in market after market, transforming what was once a strictly local affair into a bottom-line-obsessed business.

As far back as 1997 I wrote in the Boston Phoenix that the rise of chain ownership would eventually kill local talk. We are now seeing that come to fruition. The automated music stations that are on the rise may not garner many listeners. But they are cheap, which means that their owners can bleed some profits out of them regardless.

“In our current media environment, corporate owners seem to have less tolerance for the station that is unusual, the station with the niche audience,” media scholar and radio consultant Donna Halper wrote for Media Nation earlier this year. “Part of what makes radio unique as a mass medium is its ability to befriend the listener. So losing a favorite station is much like losing a friend.”

The rise of public radio. Boston is home to an exceptionally vibrant public radio scene. Two stations with strong signals — WBUR (90.9 FM) and WGBH (89.7 FM) — broadcast news, public-affairs programming and (yes) talk all day and night, and enjoy some of the largest audiences in the Boston area. (Disclosure #1: I’m a paid contributor to WGBH’s television station, Channel 2.) Other, smaller public stations broadcast far more eclectic musical offerings than anything on commercial radio.

This trend is related to corporate consolidation, as it was the slide in quality on the for-profit side that sent many listeners fleeing to nonprofit radio. If anything, that trend will accelerate.

Technological change. Earlier this year The Phoenix sold the FM signal for its independent rock station, WFNX, to Clear Channel — but kept streaming online. The Boston Globe, meanwhile, hired a few of the people who were laid off when WFNX left the air and now streams its own indie rock station, RadioBDC. All of a sudden, we’ve got a war between two local music stations, neither one of which can be heard over the air. (Disclosure #2: I’m an occasional contributor to The Phoenix.)

These days it’s not difficult to stream Internet radio in your car, which is where most radio listening takes place. Pandora, Spotify and out-of-town music stations (WWOZ of New Orleans is a favorite of mine) are powerful draws, which gives the local flavor of online stations like RadioBDC and WFNX a considerable edge over computer-programmed corporate radio — or, for that matter, subscription-based satellite radio.

It is this last development that gives me reason for optimism. Radio has always been held back by the physical limits of the broadcast spectrum. In a world in which those limits don’t exist, “radio” stations must compete on the strength of their programming rather than their stranglehold on the AM and FM dials.

Seen in that light, the end of WTKK is just another step on the road toward what may be a brighter, more diverse radio future.

Poynter weighs in on the Globe’s lifted editorial

Craig Silverman of Poynter Online weighs in with a smart take on the Boston Globe’s decision not to release the name of the staff member who wrote an unsigned editorial that was lifted almost word for word from WBUR.org.

The original piece, which criticized Vice President Joe Biden’s “put y’all back in chains” comment, was written by Republican political consultant and WBUR contributor Todd Domke. The Globe editorial was the subject of a recent “editor’s note” (which you’ll find at the bottom) in which the paper expressed its “regrets.”

As I wrote on Aug. 24, the editor’s note raised as many questions as it answered, since it did not reveal the identity of the person who wrote it or whether he or she had been disciplined.

Last week, as you may have heard, Boston Herald columnist and WRKO Radio (AM 680) talk-show host Howie Carr sent a dispatch to subscribers to his email list claiming he had learned the culprit was Globe columnist Joan Vennochi, and that she had been suspended for two weeks. The email ended up being posted to the Free Republic, a right-wing website.

Oddly, though, that information has not appeared in the Herald, which instead ran a story on the Globe’s decision not to name names. The Herald also criticized Emerson College journalism professor Mark Leccese for not addressing the issue in the unpaid blog that he writes for the Globe’s Boston.com site.

Also writing about this have been Jim Romenesko and iMediaEthics.

Silverman’s piece is the fullest treatment so far. He quotes editorial-page editor Peter Canellos as saying:

Our policy is not to discuss internal disciplinary actions. But our editor’s note should speak for itself. There were similarities in structure and phrasing that shouldn’t have been used without attribution. We take these matters very seriously.

Silverman also expresses frustration at the Globe’s response, writing that “the paper won’t name the writer, won’t detail any related discipline, won’t say if they’re reviewing previous work, and won’t call it plagiarism.”

It strikes me that this would have been a one-day story if the Globe had simply announced who did it, whether that person had been disciplined and, if so, what the punishment was. The borrowing from Domke’s piece looks to me more like extreme sloppiness than classic plagiarism.

And yes, I understand that such matters are confidential at most companies. But if this had been a signed column rather than an anonymous editorial, naming the person would have been unavoidable. I don’t see why it should be handled differently simply because the piece did not carry a byline.

Globe acknowledges lifting material from WBUR

The Boston Globe today admitted to “the use of material without attribution” in a recent editorial criticizing Vice President Joe Biden. The Aug. 17 editorial, which took Biden to task for his “put y’all back in chains” comment, tracks closely — very closely — with a commentary by Republican political consultant Todd Domke that was published two days earlier on the website of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM).

An editor’s note published by the Globe reads as follows:

An Aug. 17 editorial on Vice President Joe Biden’s comments on bank regulations contained some similarities in phrasing and structure to an opinion piece by Todd Domke on WBUR.org. The use of the material without attribution was inconsistent with Globe policies, and the Globe regrets the error.

WBUR reports on the editor’s note here.

Domke’s commentary is longer and better written than the Globe editorial. The problem is that the editorial tracks with Domke virtually paragraph by paragraph, with similar and at times identical language, while offering nothing that Domke didn’t come up with first. Even if it’s not actual plagiarism, Globe editors obviously believed it was close enough to warrant a mea culpa.

Which raises a few questions:

If this were a signed column rather than an unsigned editorial, wouldn’t this be a bigger deal? Wouldn’t we be wondering whether the writer had been or should be disciplined? Does the anonymity of editorial-writing mean less scrutiny than this would otherwise warrant?

And, more important, what are we to make of a partisan political argument written by a Republican contributor to WBUR becoming the official position of the region’s paper of record? The Globe editorial accepted the view that Biden’s comment was somehow racial in nature, even though Biden’s reference to “chains” was arguably a response to House Speaker John Boehner’s promise to “unshackle Wall Street.”*

As former conservative Charles Johnson wrote: “The right wing media are still shrieking about Joe Biden’s ‘chains’ comment, even though not a single one of these demagogues honestly believes there was a racial intent to it.”

Not to beat a dead horse. The Globe acknowledged its misstep. But really.

*Note: What Biden actually said was, “Romney wants to let the — he said in the first hundred days, he’s going to let the big banks once again write their own rules, unchain Wall Street. They’re going to put ya’ll back in chains.” It was Obama campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs who later cited Boehner’s remarks.

Prosecutors, defenders seek to muzzle OpenCourt

Despite a ruling by the state Supreme Judicial Court in its favor, OpenCourt continues to run into legal roadblocks in its quest to cover proceedings in Quincy District Court.

In the latest move, the office of Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey and the Committee for Public Counsel Services — that is, public defenders — are seeking to block OpenCourt from expanding its livestreaming operations to a second courtroom known as Jury Room A.

The request will be heard by a single justice of the SJC.

According to OpenCourt:

As of this writing, OpenCourt is the only news organization currently prohibited from covering trials in Courtroom A, also known as Jury Room A.  Rule 1:19, the Massachusetts Camera in the Court statute, presumes that courtrooms are open to media….

Members of OpenCourt have for months openly planned to begin coverage of Jury Room A, and were set to begin livestreaming proceedings on Monday, July 16. Those plans are currently in a temporary state of limbo as we await  single justice review.

Morrissey recently received a Boston Phoenix Muzzle Award for attempting to block OpenCourt, which is affiliated with WBUR Radio (90.9 FM),  from posting archives of its livestreamed footage, a move that was shot down by the SJC.

Update, Aug. 15: SJC Associate Justice Margot Botsford ruled on Tuesday in favor of OpenCourt. The Boston Globe covers her decision here. The full text of her ruling is available here.

Shuffling the deck at WGBH Radio

WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) has announced some changes to its schedule that suggest station executives are planning to up the ante in their competition with WBUR (90.9 FM) for the news-and-information audience on public radio.

Disclosure for those who don’t know: I’m a paid contributor to WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press,” and appear occasionally on the radio station as well.

The most significant move is that “Eric in the Evening,” the daily jazz program hosted by Eric Jackson, is being cut back and moved to Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 9 p.m. to midnight. It’s a shame, but I suspect not many people listen to terrestrial jazz radio in the age of Pandora.

The individual one-hour local talk shows hosted by Emily Rooney and Callie Crossley will be melded into a two-hour block called “Boston Public Radio” that will be hosted by Crossley on weekdays from noon to 2 p.m. Crossley will be joined by Rooney, Kara Miller, Adam Reilly, Jared Bowen and others. “Boston Public Radio” will be rebroadcast Monday through Thursday from 9 to 11 p.m.

Two NPR staples are notably absent from the line-up: “Fresh Air” and “The Diane Rehm SEO Services Show.” (Update: The original schedule sent by WGBH had nothing listed for 10 to 11 a.m. Turns out that’s when “Diane Rehm” will be broadcast.)

The full text of the WGBH press release appears after the jump, supplemented by a few additions emailed in response to an inquiry. Continue reading “Shuffling the deck at WGBH Radio”

“NPR” is not a synonym for public radio

This is a mistake that comes up over and over, and today’s offender is the Boston Globe. The headline on an editorial about the Mike Daisey/“This American Life” debacle reads “NPR: Exposing Apple’s worm, and its own.”

The editorial itself refers to “This American Life” as an “NPR show.” It goes on to note that Daisey’s fabrications about his trip to China were unearthed by “another NPR reporter.” (“Another”? Daisey is not a reporter.)

If you haven’t figured out where I’m going by now, “This American Life” is not an NPR program. It’s produced by Chicago’s WBEZ Radio, a public station, and distributed by Public Radio International, a competitor of NPR’s.

Daisey’s assault on the truth was exposed by a reporter for “Marketplace,” which is produced by American Public Media, yet another NPR competitor.

But wait. Doesn’t “This American Life” appear on NPR stations? No. And here’s where it gets confusing. Plenty of public radio stations market themselves as NPR stations because it’s a name brand they can use to attract listeners and advertisers — oops, sorry. Underwriters. NPR itself does not own stations.

Both of Boston’s large public stations, WBUR (90.9 FM) and WGBH (89.7 FM) call themselves NPR stations. But WBUR’s license is held by Boston University, and WGBH is an independent nonprofit organization that includes radio and television stations. (Disclosure: I’m a paid contributor to WGBH.) NPR is just one of several services (albeit the best-known) from which public radio stations buy programming.

“In a just world,” Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer recently tweeted, “we could say ‘NPR’ to describe all public radio, just as saying ‘Kleenex’ covers Scott Tissues and generic brands.”

Shafer was kidding, of course. And it does get confusing. But NPR takes enough grief from its critics without having to get blamed for programming on rival networks.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to send an email to CNN complaining about Sean Hannity.

Afternoon update: The headline and editorial have been rewritten, and a correction has been appended.

Photo (cc) by Raul654 and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

OpenCourt wins a crucial First Amendment case

John Davidow of WBUR and OpenCourt

Please pardon the near-silence I’ve been maintaining here. I’m co-chairing a faculty search committee, and this week and next leave me with little time for anything other than that and teaching. (And picking arguments on Twitter.)

But I do want to call your attention to an important decision by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. On Wednesday, the court ruled that OpenCourt, the WBUR-affiliated project that offers gavel-to-gavel coverage of proceedings in Quincy District Court, cannot be ordered by the government to redact any of its coverage.

Essentially, what happened was this. The lawyer for the defendant in a horrific child-rape case blurted out the name of the victim during public court proceedings. District Attorney Michael Morrissey sought to impose an order prohibiting OpenCourt from including the girl’s name in its video archives.

OpenCourt argued, rightly in my view, that as a matter of standard journalistic practice, no news organization present would use the girl’s name — but that it would violate the First Amendment to order such discretion. Underscoring OpenCourt’s argument is that several news organizations were present that day, yet Morrissey sought an order only against OpenCourt.

The SJC’s decision says in part:

We conclude that any order restricting OpenCourt’s ability to publish — by “streaming live” over the Internet, publicly archiving on the Web site or otherwise — existing audio and video recordings of court room proceedings represents a form of prior restraint on the freedoms of the press and speech protected by the First Amendment and art.

OpenCourt and the DA’s office have been at loggerheads from the beginning. The SJC’s ruling should provide some clarity to what had been a murky situation.

John Davidow, executive editor of new media at WBUR and the force behind OpenCourt, recently spoke about the project and the SJC case with my media-law students. Joe Spurr, OpenCourt’s director, was a student in my media-law class a few years ago.

What they’re doing is an important experiment in opening up what has traditionally been the most closed part of government.

Norfolk DA, OpenCourt battle over video archives

John Davidow

A suspect’s lawyer blurts out the name of a 15-year-old girl whom prosecutors say was forced into prostitution. Several newspaper reporters hear the name. Even though they have the right to use it under the First Amendment, it’s understood that they won’t — it would be unethical journalistically, it would compromise the criminal case and it would traumatize the alleged victim.

Despite all that, the district attorney’s office goes to court to prevent a news organization’s video from being posted online, even though the folks who run that organization say they have no intention of uploading it until the identifying information has been removed.

In essence, that’s how OpenCourt characterizes a lawsuit brought by Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey, which will be heard before Supreme Judicial Court Justice Margaret Botsford later today. The Boston Globe reports on the suit here; WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), with which OpenCourt is affiliated, reports on it here; and Open Court has its own take, with lots of background material, here.

Headed by WBUR’s executive editor for new media, John Davidow, OpenCourt received a $250,000 Knight News Challenge grant to livestream court proceedings and to make it easier for journalists, both professional and citizen, to provide coverage via Twitter and live-blogging. OpenCourt began livestreaming from Quincy District Court in May.

The issue of archiving those videos has proved to be contentious, with Morrissey’s office arguing that the archives — including the one involving the 15-year-old — could compromise “the privacy and safety of victims and witnesses.” Davidow responds that OpenCourt would be guided by the same ethical guidelines as any news organization, and that a legally imposed ban would be an unconstitutional abridgement of free speech. Davidow tells the Globe’s John Ellement:

This is really taking reporting that is done every day and then trying to take the editorial aspects away from journalists and put them in the hands of the state to decide what is published and what is not…. [O]nce we lawfully covered a story that was published, then it is up to the news organization to decide what to do with that material.

What Morrissey’s office is trying to do is to take long-established customs recognized by journalists and law-enforcement authorities alike and codify those customs into law, even though there is no reason to believe OpenCourt would act less responsibly than, say, the Quincy Patriot Ledger. It would set a dangerous precedent, and I hope the SJC does what is clearly the right thing.

Norfolk DA seeks to close a window at OpenCourt

OpenCourt, an ambitious project affiliated with WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) that’s designed to shine some sunlight on court proceedings, has been dealt a setback at the hands of Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey.

Last week OpenCourt began webcasting a livestream from Quincy District Court. But several days into the experiment, Morrissey asked that archives of the video stream be closed to the public. A motion (pdf) filed by his office claims that “the privacy and safety of victims and witnesses could be seriously compromised,” especially in cases involving gang violence. The motion cites the possibility that the jury pool could be tainted as well.

The OpenCourt blog responds:

The letter and the motions came as a great surprise to us, since we have for the past four months met with all stakeholders of the court, including the District Attorney, to ensure we implement this groundbreaking pilot project responsibly and respectfully.

While we will continue to record sessions, we have voluntarily decided to suspend posting the archives until sometime after May 18, 2011, as we try to work out a practical solution to the concerns raised by the District Attorney.

Headed by WBUR’s executive editor for new media, John Davidow, OpenCourt received a $250,000 Knight News Challenge grant to livestream court proceedings and to make it easier for journalists, both professional and citizen, to provide coverage via Twitter and live-blogging.

“It’s a pilot,” Davidow recently told Justin Ellis of the Nieman Journalism Lab. “It’s now a reality and off the white board. More and more issues will come forward.”

What makes this sticky is that OpenCourt has no First Amendment right to archive its video, or even to livestream. The project is entirely dependent on the goodwill of court officials. Yet the traditional closed-door mentality of our justice system helps foster suspicion and cynicism — exactly the negative attitudes that Davidow and company are trying to break down by making it easy for us to see exactly what takes place.

Let’s hope Morrissey thinks better of his knee-jerk reaction to openness and gives OpenCourt the room it needs to keep moving forward.

Note: OpenCourt’s struggle with Morrissey is also being tracked by the New England First Amendment Center at Northeastern University, to whose blog I occasionally contribute.

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).