WGBH and public radio’s future

@robpatrob (Robert Paterson) asks (responding to this tweet and this post) “Why would GBH line up against BUR? Why have a war between 2 Pub stations in same city?” (In this tweet and this one, Dan Kennedy asks pretty much the same thing.)

The short answer is, Because it wouldn’t be a war. Boston is the world’s largest college town. There are already a pile of home-grown radio-ready program-filling goods here, if one bothers to dig and develop. The standard NPR line-up could also use a challenge from other producers. WGBH is already doing that in the mornings by putting The Takeaway up against Morning Edition. That succeeds for me because now I have more choices. I can jump back and forth between those two (which I do, and Howard Stern as well).

The longer answer is that it gives GBH a start on the inevitable replacement of signal-based radio by multiple streams and podcast line-ups. WGBH has an exemplary record as a producer of televsion programming, but it’s not setting the pace in other media, including radio. The story is apparent in the first four paragraphs of its About page (which is sure to change):

WGBH is PBS’s single largest producer of content for television (prime-time and children’s programs) and the Web. Some of your favorite series and websites — Nova, Masterpiece, Frontline, Antiques Roadshow, Curious George, Arthur, and The Victory Garden, to name a few — are produced here in our Boston studios.

WGBH also is a major supplier of programs heard nationally on public radio, including The World. And we’re a pioneer in educational multimedia and in media access technologies for people with hearing or vision loss.

Our community ties run deep. We’re a local public broadcaster serving southern New England, with 11 public television services and three public radio services — and productions (from Greater Boston to Jazz with Eric in the Evening) that reflect the issues and cultural riches of our region. We’re a member station of PBS and an affiliate of both NPR and PRI.

In today’s fast-changing media landscape, we’re making sure you can find our content when and where you choose — on TV, radio, the Web, podcasts, vodcasts, streaming audio and video, iPhone applications, groundbreaking teaching tools, and more. Our reach and impact keep growing.

Note the order: TV first, radio second, the rest of it third. But where WGBH needs to lead in the future is with #3: that last paragraph. Look at WGBH’s annual report. It’s very TV-heavy. Compare its radio productions to those of Chicago Public Radio or WNYC. Very strong in classical music (now moving over to WCRB, at least on the air), and okay-but-not-great in other stuff.

Public TV has already become a ghetto of geezers and kids, while the audience between those extrmes is diffusing across cable TV and other media. An increasingly negligible sum of people watch over-the-air (OTA) TV. Here WGBH lost out too. It’s old signal on Channel 2 was huge, reaching more households than any other in New England. Now it’s just another UHF digital signal — like its own WGBX/44, with no special advantages. Public radio is in better shape, for now, because its band isn’t the ever-growing accordion file that cable TV has become; and because most of it still lives in a regulated protectorate at the bottom fifth of the FM band. It also helps public radio that the rest of both the FM and the AM bands suck so royally. (Only sports and political talk are holding their own. Music programming is losing to file sharing and iPods. All-news stations are yielding to iPhone programs that offer better news, weather and traffic reporting. In Boston WBZ is still a landmark news station, but it has to worry a bit with WGBH going in the same direction.)

So the timing is right. WGBH needs to start sinking new wells into the aquifer of smart, talented and original people and organizations here in the Boston area — and taking the lead in producing great new programming with what they find. I’ll put in another plug for Chris Lydon‘s Open Source, which is currently available only in podcast/Web form. And there is much more, including Cambridge-based PRX‘s enormous portfolio of goods.  (Disclosure: my work with the Berkman Center is partially funded through PRX — and those folks, like Chris, are good friends.)

In the long run what will matter are sources, listeners, and the finite amount of time the latter can devote to the former. Not old-fashioned signals.

P.S. to Dan Kennedy’s tweeted question, “Is there another city in the country where two big-time public radio stations go head-to-head on news? Can’t think of one.” Here are a few (though I’d broaden the answer beyond “news,” since WBUR isn’t just that):

All with qualifications, of course. In some cases you can add in Pacifica (which, even though my hero Larry Josephson once called it a “foghorn for political correctness,” qualifies as competition). Still, my point is that there is room for more than one mostly-talk (or news) public radio station in most well-populated regions. Even in Boston, where WBUR has been king of the hill for many years. Hey, other things being equal (and they never are), the biggest signal still tends to win. And in Boston, WGBH has a bigger signal than WBUR: almost 100,000 watts vs. 12,000 watts. WBUR radiates from a higher elevaiton, but its signal is directional. On AM that means it’s stronger than the listed power in some directions and weaker in others; but on FM it means no more than the listed power in some directions and weaker in others. See the FCC’s relative field polar plot to see how WBUR’s signal is dented in every direction other than a stretch from just west of North to Southeast. In other words, toward all but about a third of its coverage area. To sum up, WGBH has a much punchier signal. I’m sure the GBH people also have this in mind when they think about how they’ll compete with BUR.

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16 comments

  1. PXLated’s avatar

    Doc, you may find this interesting – MN Public Radio (MPR) annual budget dwarfs everyone else in country – http://bit.ly/7Mnhxz – Over twice the dollars of NY.
    —–
    I’ve heard though that both the MN PBS TV & Radio “stations” are the only part of the system that are “public” & non-profit. That a lot of the production/distribution money is funneled through for-profit companies that Kling & other execs own – Not sure if that’s true or not. (The story was originally told to me by an exec from a PBS system in another state)

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    There is a mix of commercial amidst the non-commercial on public radio. For example, I believe Car Talk is a commercial entity broadcast by non-commercial stations.

    Still, I don’t think the distinction that matters most is that between commercial and non-commercial, but between paid-by-listeners and not-paid. Commercial radio falls into the latter category, which is one reason it’s in bigger trouble. Its customers are its advertisers, not its listeners. This is an accountability loss, even when it’s an accounting win.

  3. Nicolas Ward’s avatar

    Chiming in with the full knowledge that I’m an outlier, but the favorite shows I grab with my OTA HD DVR are WGBH’s Nova and Frontline :o ).

  4. Steve Stroh’s avatar

    While it’s true that Seattle has two major NPR stations – KUOW (University of Washington – Seattle) and KPLU (Pacific Lutheran University – Tacoma), there are a total of 5 NPR-affiliated stations in the Seattle area. http://www.npr.org/templates/stations/stations/ and type in Seattle. We’re pretty blessed!

    On air, KPLU and KUOW mention prominently that they have satellite stations in other areas of the state, some of them on AM frequencies. KUOW is broadcasting in HD and their secondary HD signal is BBC.

  5. Lisa Williams’s avatar

    Excellent point, Doc. When it comes to news and information, it would take a long time for any two stations to be duking it out over the last listener.

    Also, I know that WBUR produces a lot of programming that is syndicated to other NPR stations across the world, so they don’t have to rely exclusively on the local market for revenue. I’m not sure about WGBH Radio in this regard, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they also originated programs that were syndicated elsewhere.

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Off the top of my head (and I’m in a hurry right now), BUR produces On Point and Only a Game. GBH produces The World and co-produces The Takeaway.

    As operations go, GBH is much bigger, owing to its many sydicated TV properties. I guess they’ll do fine as along as customers pay for cable and expect to see PBS there. I’m not sure that’s good for the duration, though.

  7. Steve Burgess’s avatar

    Doc – great discussion. I have been thinking about this move by ‘GBH since they bought ‘CRB.

    ‘BUR toasted ‘GBH radio years ago. It always puzzled me that an organization with the resources of the WGBH Foundation would let what was essentially a college radio station back in the ’80s smack them around. Clearly, they were focused on the flagship PBS franchise. As a result, upstarts like ‘BUR became powerful forces.

    Competition between ‘GBH and ‘BUR for the public ears can only be good. It will elevate both stations and provide additional competition to the commercial stations in Boston who have had to pay attention to only ‘BUR for a while now.

  8. Chris Stacy’s avatar

    WAMU (NPR) v. WETA (Classical) v. WPFW (Pacifica) v. WCSP (CSPAN) v. the college stations (WCUA, WRGW, WVAU, WGTB) v. the various all-news and news/talk stations (WTOP, WOL, WMAL, etc.)

    Those are all just the close-in majors, before you get to the Virginia or Maryland suburban stations…

  9. Larry Miller’s avatar

    They shouldn’t try to beat BUR at their own game; they should develop their own game. In fact, they should probably drop the simulcast of Morning Edition and All Things considered. They should consider counter-programming, such as going more local, establishing themselves as liberal talk ala Air America, and keeping the unique weekend programming they have.
    They really need to increase signal strength for CRB, or else use their satellite stations for CRB instead of GBH. If they can get the current commercial advertisers on CRB to convert to underwriting announcements, that’ll help pay the bills.
    If you compare ratings for WGBH radio compared to WBUR, you can see why they would want to go for a piece of the action.

  10. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Good ideas. GBH already counter-programs to some degree with The Takeaway on weekday mornings. And I agree that they should get more local. There certainly is a load of talent and topical material to draw from.

    And I agree that they should do something/anything to supplement CRB’s signal — which isn’t bad, as long as you recognize that it’s a Lowell station and not a Boston one. But their “satellite” stations — notably WCAI for the Cape and Islands — is really a straight-up informational NPR station.

    One possibility would be to buy up more failing small stations on the south side of Boston. But I doubt they’ll do that. I think the way to bet is that CRB will remain as it is, and GBH will look to expand service on the Web rather than on the air.

    The big question for me is whether GBH has the heart of a radio station, rather than the heart of a PBS TV production giant. It may have started as the former, but over the years it became the latter. I hope they can make the shift back.

    Again, WBUR could use some competition. And there are more ways to compete than ever.

  11. ed bertozzi’s avatar

    I am a long time contributor to WGBH. WGBH’s change in format offers listeners much less variety, not more. Look at the M-F day and evening lineups. BBC News, Morning Edition, Diane Rehm, Fresh Air, and All Things Considered are on both WGBH (eight hours) and WBUR (11.5 hours). If you listen to one hour of Morning Edition or All Things Considered, you get the important news in short form. Except for Tom Ashcroft, who is the only one who even tries to give in-depth treatment of important topics, the rest of the WGBH and WBUR news and talk shows are superficial. I would love to see WGBH put on programs of the caliber of Tom Ashcroft, e.g., hire Chris Lydon, but don’t hold your breath. You are correct that WGBH figures it will get more listeners than WBUR for similar programming because WGBH’s signal is much better. IMHO, there are two reasons why this is bad for the public: (1) WGBH has more creative resources than WBUR and so should develop better programming, but instead will be satisfied beating WBUR’s numbers just by playing the same old same old; and (2) WGBH was building a true classical music community, tied in to Boston performances and inhouse live performances, but decided to toss over the side all of us who live in southeastern MA (the fastest growing area in the state). Finally, WGBH’s use of spin regarding this change disgusts me. The publicity as to the move of classical to CRB was presented as the opening of the pearly gates and tied to pleas for money. Not a word about how the classical music listeners south of Boston were being ditched. Look at the fourth paragraph of your quote above: “We’re making sure you can find our content when and where you choose”. That’s a lie. The choice of the classical listeners south of Boston is that the classical music signal should be from Great Blue Hill. So the latest publicity is that we can listen on our computers or on a wi-fi radio. Great if you’re an invalid and can’t get out of the house or drive anywhere. The WGBH website features a drawing to win a Tivoli wi-fi radio, the implicit message being that you should buy a Tivoli wi-fi radio so that you can listen to CRB. The video that describes the Tivoli radio neglects to advise that you need an ISP and a router. Further, earlier this year WGBH was firing staff, pleading poverty, and begging for money; then it pays $14 million for WCRB. The underlying theme which I find upsetting is that WGBH has decided that we, the listeners, are stupid and can be let around by our noses. It is really tragic to see an institution like WGBH, which had such high and inspiring standards, become just another organization whose primary goal is to entertain us. I guess they figure that’s the way to get more money.

  12. Daniel Buckley’s avatar

    12/3/09

    To whom it may concern,

    Who hi-jacked WGBH? Have you been listening to 89.7 FM lately?
    Where did all the music go?
    Where is all the uproar?.. the outcry? Are we all meek li’l sheep? Are we just going to stand by and watch? Who took over at WGBH?…the same people who gave us the Radio City Music Hall X’mas Show instead of the
    Nutcracker Ballet?…who took over and pimped up the Boston Globe?
    Are they homesick?
    Where is the outrage? Are all you music lovers going to sit back and listen as WGBH gets WCRB’d? Are we just going to shuffle along with the third movement of Mozart’s 39th followed by the last movement of Beethoven’s 3rd, and then on to Claire de Lune? Will we ever hear vocal or choral pieces on the new WCRB?
    What were the leaders at WGBH thinking when they took the best, the classic yet classy, premier FM station in the country and turned the station on its head? Was it really a good idea to take all the classical music programs, presented by informed and professional music annotators, and farm them out to a second-rate radio station like WCRB (way outside of Boston too)?
    BUT… WCRB was a great radio station, wasn’t it? Didn’t they broadcast the Metropolitan Opera every Saturday afternoon? Weren’t live recordings of the great orchestras from Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York
    along with the BSO aired weekly? Did they or did they not have a fine, competent, and committed group of music annotators themselves? Whatever happened to that?
    Could it be that WGBH is on the same slippery slope WCRB slid down many years ago when it descended to the mediocre depths of wallpaper music? Also, why does WGBH 89.7 FM long to be a news/talk-radio station? Do we need two WBURs here in Boston? Isn’t one enough?

    Whatever became of WGBH’s claim to be the Arts and Culture station of Boston????

    Inquisitively.

    Daniel Buckley

  13. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Before answering, Daniel (for myself, not any radio station), please also check out the long thread here (103 comments so far), about WNYC’s buying of WQXR. The WGBH/WCRB deal gets talked about there too.

  14. Richard Mitnick’s avatar

    Daniel-

    Your comment, “…Could it be that WGBH is on the same slippery slope WCRB slid down many years ago when it descended to the mediocre depths of wallpaper music?” I most appreciated.

    Are you aware of the fact that most of what WCRB presents is really Classical24 from Minnesota Public Radio? Canned music aimed at the lowest common denominator, designed to not offend and not intrude?

    I have all over the “blogosphere” been quoting a noted Classical music critic who used almost the same words for this sort or programming. He called it “musical wallpaper”.

    And, as angry as you are, are you not even angrier that you cannot go on any forums at WGBH to raise your cry? Thnaks to Doc Searle for giving you all this venue.

    Doc Searle referred you to his other wonderful thread where WGBH is discussed along with WQXR. I am a New Jersey resident and a WQXR listener and member. We have been through a lot, some of it painful. But we get to thrash it out on comment pages at http://www.wqxr.org.

    If you get really unhappy and can listen via computer, go to the above WQXR link and try our 105.9 traditional Classical music web stream, the hosted FM programming, and also our Q2 eclectic/New Music/traditional/even jazzy web stream, both at 128kbit stereo.

  15. Reverse Phone Search’s avatar

    “Note the order: TV first, radio second, the rest of it third.” I think in these days, the internet shall be the first. At least the trend is like this. They are many stations are broadcasting Video/Audio programs through internet. There will be more in the near future.

    But many people in WGBH are quite happy, because they are thinking “I’m doing a great thing by working for an important non-profit”. Many people have been at WGBH for a long time, and they all think they are the boss.

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