WGBH/WCRB go the way of WNYC/WQXR

The longest thread in the history of this blog belongs to Why WQXR is better off as a public radio station, which I posted on July 26, and still has comments this month. The post followed a complex deal by which the New York Times divested its legacy classical music station, WQXR — and by which the station’s format, call letters, record library and some of its personnel survived as a noncommercial outlet of WNYC, on a different channel with a weaker signal. From the comments one might gather that more listeners were unhappy than happy with the deal. My post mostly presented the upside.

Now here in Boston a similar move is underway. WGBH, “Boston’s NPR arts and culture station” will go the way of WNYC-FM, which phased out classical music starting in 2002, eventually shunting it to HD side-channels and Internet streams while populating the FM signal (as well as its AM one) with news and information programming, which tends to be more popular and to attract more money in listener contributions. By saving WQXR, WNYC returned classical music to the airwaves (although the city was still down one classical station, or two if you want to go back to the very late WNCN.) WGBH clearly had the same thing in mind when it bought WCRB, which was already weakened in the Boston metro when it moved from its old local channel (102.5) to its current channel (99.5) in Lowell. (Wikipedia has good background poop on WCRB’s own long saga.) While both WCRB signals have about the same range, the old 102.5 signal radiates from the Boston FM and TV antenna farm in nearby Needham, while the new one on 99.5 comes from a hill overlooking the I-495/I93 intersection, far to the north near the New Hampshire border.

So now WGBH plans to move its classical programming to WCRB, whch will become a non-commercial station (as did WQXR), and to do more news and information programming on its own home signal (89.7), which is grandfathered at 100,000 watts on Great Blue Hill (hence the call letters) in Milton, on the south side of Boston. In terms of wattage alone, WGBH is New England’s most powerful station. (The largest coverage belongs to WHOM/94.9 on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, which puts out 49,000 watts from the highest peak in the Northeast.) As a result WGBH can go head-to-head with WBUR/90.9, which is the incumbent public radio leader in Boston. (I’ve looked at the ratings, and WBUR has kicked WGBH’s butt for years — a fact that I am sure has rankled the latter.)

Still, many listeners are not happy. And not just about losing classical music.

WGBH is doing its best to gloss over the signal loss for classical (and other arts & culture) listeners, especially in the southern reaches of Eastern Massachusetts, where WGBH has a very strong signal and WCRB is mostly absent. To demonstrate, here is a comparison of coverage for WGBH, WCRB and WBUR, calculated by Radio-Locator.com:

gbh-crb-bur

Click on the image for a legible full-size version.

Still, my own take in the WGBH/WCRB case is the same as it was for WNYC/WQXR: this is the best that could be done for classical music on Boston airwaves — and it offers opportunities not possible for WCRB had it remained a commercial station. Go back to that first link if you want to see what those are.

As for me, I expect to be more likely to listen to a ‘GBH-run noncommercial WCRB than I did to the commercial one. First, the commercials were (and, at this writing, still are) annoying. Second, the WCRB repertoire was pretty close to all-hits, rather than the more varied and challenging fare found on WGBH. There should be a happy medium between the two, and I’m sure ‘GBH will work hard to find it.

But I’m privileged to live on the north side of the metro, so I get WCRB just fine. I think it’s a safe bet that more than one half of WGBH’s listening area won’t get a useful signal out of WCRB. And the area within which listeners can get WGBH’s HD stream is a subset of WGBH’s coverage area.

A digressive word about HD radio. I got one recently — a $99 Teac unit — at Costco. The tuner is remarkably good, and it gets most local stations’ HD side-channels. But “tuning” HD is a counter-intuitive chore. You tune in the partent station, wait for the HD symbol to appear, and then tune to the one or two HD channels of the station. It’s a multi-step selection process, with delays along the way. I’d be curious to know if anybody (beside those who pick a channel and stay put) has had a positive experience with tuning it.

For those who want to compare apples with apples, here’s some data:

One last thing. I for one (and I am sure there are many more) would love to hear Chris Lydon return to Boston’s airwaves. He has been a podcasting pioneer with an outstanding show. But coming on a live station would be fabulous.

Hey, how about Larry Josephson too?

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19 comments

  1. Jeff Boudreau’s avatar

    Not mentioned in your article is the fact that WGBH is abandoning the folk and blues by dropping the long-running “Folk on WGBH” and “Blues on WGBH” format.

    WGBH’s boilerplate reason? Going “single focus” (news and talk). A vice president stated at the “community advisory committee” meeting the following Monday that listeners could not memorize schedules, thus could not handle a station having more than one focus!

    Read more at
    http://notlobmusic.blogspot.com/2009/11/wgbh-drops-folk-and-blues-programs.html

    Within 7 days of the announcement, more than 1000 people had joined a Facebook discussion group, “Supporters of Folk and Blues on WGBH” ~
    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=201481030324&ref=ts

    Needless to say, WGBH’s abandonment of the folk and blues communities has left many people feeling very upset and betrayed, common sentiments that can be read in not only the “supporters” group, but the WGBH’s own “WGBH Radio Boston”
    Facebook group ~
    http://www.facebook.com/pages/WGBH-Radio-Boston/26243484608?ref=ts

    That during last Saturday’s “Folk on WGBH” only two donation calls were received speaks volumes that the community has become informed and is withholding its usual generous support by not pledging donations. Why should they.

    WGBH has stated it is going “single format”. Folk and Blues are gone, can Celtic and jazz be far behind?

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    All correct, Jeff, and thanks for adding that.

    WGBH says here that “Folk music fans can continue to find options on WUMB 91.9 FM Boston, WNEF 91.7 FM Newburyport, WFPB 1170 AM Orleans, WICN 90.5 FM Worcester, WOMR 92.1 FM Provincetown, or New Hampshire Public Radio. Blues fans can tune in to WUMB 91.9 FM, WICN 90.5 FM, WHRB 95.3 FM Cambridge, WZLX 100.7 FM Boston, and WUML 91.5 FM Lowell.” Not to mention many places online. (I’d include the links, but WordPress thinks I’m spamming when I do, so I won’t.)

    I expect WUMB to pick up most of the slack, since it’s still positioned as the local folk station. (And a good one, I should add.)

    Frankly I’m surprised that they kept any of the music. But WUNC kept Back Porch Music when they went “single format” a few years back.

    It’ll be interesting to see how it goes.

  3. Ari Herzog’s avatar

    I’m surprised you mention this switch without the more incredible switch from August when hard rocking WBCN 104.1 was phased out, adult contemporary tunester WBMX 98.5 moved to 104.1, and a new sports radio offering from WBZ radio went to 98.5.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    That was a big switch, Ari, but it was pretty well covered elsewhere. I wrote about this switch because my post on the WNYC/WQXR deal was followed by a long and passionate thread.

    I thought my postings about the pirate station on 87.7 would get more play too. But approximately nothing happened. I even got a call from a Globe reporter who went on to not covering it at all. Pretty impressive: a pretty-much full-size FM station operating on the FM band without a license, and clearly serving a community. Not news.

    So, ya never know.

  5. Tom’s avatar

    Oh, Doc, you’re going to love this. There are more commercials on the new 600 watt WQXR 105.9 than there were on the old commercial 6,000 (heh-heh) WQXR 96.3. I’ll bet the same thing happens in Boston — ahem, Lowell — with WCRB. This might become WGBH’s cash cow. Who cares who can receive the station? Who cares how many geezers contribute? Corporate underwriting will pay all.

    On WQXR, many of New York’s arts organizations are “supporting” the station; they get non-commercials in return. So are other non profits. Cancer, anyone? Memorial Sloan-Kettering offers the best cancer care anywhere. Old folks home? There’s a new retirement village for the rich and infirm being built in Briarcliff Manor, on the very edge of the new WQXR listening area.

    The new WQXR (one tenth the power, half the reach) still broadcasts the Friday sabbath services from Temple Emanuel for what used to be called shut-ins. Guess who the underwriter is? Manhattan’s largest Jewish undertaker. With this kind of cash coming in, why should WQXR care about losing all of northern Westchester, most of Fairfield County, and Long Island east of Nassau? They will be buried in cash anyway.

    I’ll bet WGBH is watching this as a model. WNYC has a reputation for not caring about the suburbs — or the outer boroughs — so I don’t think we can expect badly needed translators for Westchester, Connecticut, and Long Island.

    As for WCRB, they may have more options in the way of more open frequencies. They could find an empty frequency in Fall River, Massachusetts, for instance, put up an antenna atop President Avanue, and serve Providence, New Bedford, and Newport, too. Think they’ll do that? Nah. The money rolls in anyway. Cemetery plots, anyone? Advice on what to do with your estate? Oriental rug cleaning? Doc is going to love the new WCRB.

    I drive a lot in the New York Metro area; WQXR’s coverage area has been cut by half, regardless of what the Emmanuel Ax and other cheerleaders have to say. WHCN, “The River” — nips at its heels in Norwalk, Westport, even Stamford … and completely swamps WQXR in Danbury and Bridgeport.

    But let’s not beat this to death. It will be very interesting to see how WCRB plays out. Meanwhile, the finest FM signal in New England is now going to be yada, yada, yada. How best to margnalize classical music and maximize revenue? WNYC found the answer with WQXR, Newark. WGBH may do the same with WCRB, Lowell. Cash cow. I can here it moo all the way down in Southern Connecticut.

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Well, Tom, you may be right. (Hard to argue, given what WNYC has done with WQXR so far.) I doubt the new WCRB will have as many non-commercials as the old one had commercials, but I expect the type will resemble WQXR’s.

    One guy wrote to me privately to suggest that I’d thought about all this more than WGBH had. Could be, though I hope not. Either way, the long term path ends in a place where signals don’t much matter and programming — “content,” as they say now — does.

    We’ll see how it goes.

  7. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Well, Tom, you may be right. (Hard to argue, given what WNYC has done with WQXR so far.) I doubt the new WCRB will have as many non-commercials as the old one had commercials, but I expect the type will resemble WQXR’s.

    One listener wrote privately to suggest that I’d thought about all this more than WGBH had. Could be, though I hope not. Either way, the path ends in a place where signals don’t much matter and programming — “content,” as they say now — does.

    We’ll see how it goes.

  8. Griselda White’s avatar

    I’ve decided not to think about WGBH/WCRB and not to contribute to them either. I am putting my ears and my money with WHRB-FM. What a great, unpretentious and delightfully comprehensive station it is. The student DJ’s are just fine and don’t fall in love with the sounds of their own voices. And the Orgies—what can I say!! And after all, they are saving the Met Opera broadcasts. What more could anyone ask?

    I’m happy.

  9. Steve Burgess’s avatar

    Doc – in reference to you thoughts about HDRadio…

    You’re right – the user experience in tuning HD is suboptimal in most cases right now. Not caused by the technology, but by the inattention of the device manufacturers to this key aspect of product design.

    You will find that the experience of tuning HDRadio on some devices is much better than on others. I have a Vistion car radio adapter that has three modes – two as you describe and a third that is more akin to the “normal” user experience of radio tuning.

    There is an effort afoot to create a “program guide” for HDRadio receivers – instead of tuning by frequency, you would tune by program, similar to a Tivo program guide. The challenges to this are many, not the least of which is the resistance of major corporate owners to change. It puts all stations on a more equal footing vis a vis discovery.

    I have heard that the tuning experience for the (believe it or not) Best Buy Insignia portable HD radio is pretty decent.

    Eric Rhoads of Radio Ink has commissioned some custom branded Insignia portable HD radios to sell them at cost. Why? Because he wants radio people (i.e., people employed in radio) to be able to afford them so that they can understand the HD Radio experience. Here’s a link to his blog post about this:

    http://ericrhoads.blogs.com/ink_tank/2009/11/my-battle-over-hd-radio-broadcasting-and-the-biggest-sale-of-my-career.html

    Great that he is doing this, sad that the short-sighted corporate management of radio groups has not seen fit to equip its employees to be successful. But that’s a rant for another day.

  10. Doc Searls’s avatar

    The problem with HD radio is that one company runs it as a commercial operation. The fact that Eric Rhoads had to sell Ibiquity on his idea, in order to make HD radio work, testifies to how screwed up the whole thing is.

    What Ibquity should do is free up its specs so that anybody can use or improve them. Then you’d have a marketplace. That’s why today we use Ethernet for networking and not IBM’s Token Ring. Even though Ethernet was owned by Xerox and Intel, it was unencumberd by intellectual property issues. Anybody could use or improve it. Instead with HD Radio we’ve got a Token Ring-like private system with huge intellectual property encumberances and aversive first costs (for makers) built in right from the start — and that’s before we get into bad implementations like the ones many of us have complained about.

    It’s not as big a fiasco as AM Stereo, but it’s of the same breed.

  11. DavidT’s avatar

    The loss of classical music radio stations in major academic/intellectual hubs such as Boston/Cambridge says something about the values of larger communities who were once major Classical enthusiasts as well as for Jazz, Blues and Bluegrass variants. Of course there are endless ways to find classical and jazz on the Net, nonetheless there was something indigenous to take pride in.

    I attended school in Cambridge in the late 80′s and WCRB was a mainstay along with WGBH (and the great WHRB). Just now as then, I would not have any interest in listening to news and more news 24/7 with BBC links while studying or working. Hence it is either feeds from Winamp or listening to Sirius for the very same great stuff I used to hear locally.

    Many of my friends share this opinion even though we did not major in Music or Fine Arts. As for WBCN, it was one of the massive stations for rock and retro rock. It too was listened to a lot and enjoyed. We were lucky to have all these fine stations and formats and supported them. It is almost incomprehensible to not to be able to find a local station with Classical music on a snowy winter day or night in Boston metro.

  12. David Curtis’s avatar

    Re: WGBH/WCRB /WBUR/ WHRB. As GBH has gone to a talk format, much of the daytime programming mirrors WBUR. Is this duplication useful ?
    CRB is a poor signal in my southern Boston neighborhood. That CRB is broadcast as an HD station on the GBH site improves the signal, but the sound is glassy and without dimension. I am not a vinyl is better than CD freak, but I do recognize well presented, recorded sound and HD ain’t it.
    As for the music choice on CRB, it’s a shade better than the 1001 Strings they used to love there, but “light” classical seems to be the order of the day. Back ground music for bookstores………..
    This leaves us with WHRB. Long may it prosper.
    .

  13. Richard Mitnick’s avatar

    Doc-

    My alert for WQXR turned up a post at, guess what, the India Times (India as in Asia) which gave a link to this discussion.

    The thing that I find most interesting is that aside from this discussion, the only other discussion I can find about the WGBH/WCRB event is at boston.com, a service of the Boston Globe, not at WCRB or WGBH.

    Also, if one does a search for WCRB, one will come up with only the WGBH web site, and no where is there any sign of WCRB, not even in a search of the WGBH site. Have they killed off the call letters?

    Thanks for your interest in Public Radio.

  14. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Here’s a Twitter search for WQXR. You wouldn’t know about the controversy. Note that WQXR/WNYC are not the ones posting.

    Here’s WCRB. Less active, also non-controversial.

    Here’s a Google search limited to the last week, of WCRB and WGBH.

    And the same for WQXR and WNYC.

    Ask me, it’s blown over, mostly. In both cases.

  15. Richard Mitnick’s avatar

    Well, I am not a twitterer, so that stuff is lost on me.

    The Google search for WCRB/WGBH I do not believe turned up anything on a WCRB web site. Oh, sorry a pdf of a schedule. But, no comments pages.

    I do believe that if it has not yet quite blown over, it most assuredly will. The people who have been unhappy have either left, or are leaving, or, hey- it’s not that bad.

    At the WQXR comment pages (“blogs”) ther has been less of the vitriole.
    So, that’s not so bad.

    Thanks.

  16. Richard Mitnick’s avatar

    Doc-

    Thanks for the Ping. I think you are terrific and I added you to my blogroll.

  17. Richard Mitnick’s avatar

    Doc-

    Regrets on the ping thing, I was just corrected that it is not a reference by you to me, rather, the fact that I linked to your post. Shows how little I know.

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