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[Don't Quote Me]
Public radio and cold cash
Now more than ever we need NPR. The question is, who pays?

BY DAN KENNEDY


FOR THE MORE than 20 million listeners who tune in to National Public Radio at least once a week, the authoritative presence of such mainstays as Bob Edwards and Linda Wertheimer has never been more essential than since September 11.

But for local station managers such as Jane Christo, who runs New Englandís largest NPR affiliate, WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), itís rarely been harder to pay for that news.

Just a month ago, Christo told me she was going to broadcast first and figure out how to pay for it later. "We are overspending our budget, and we donít know where the money is coming from. But we have to spend whatever is necessary," she said. "Thereís no time in my lifetime that this has ever been more important" (see "Donít Quote Me," News and Features, October 26).

Barely three weeks later, Christo announced what she described as the first layoffs in her operationís history. Corporate underwriting ó that is, those brief, low-key advertisements that have been popping up with increasing regularity in recent years ó was down 35 percent. Nine people were let go, six from WBUR and three from its sister station in Providence, WRNI. An íRNI public-affairs show, One Union Station, has been canceled, although a retooled version may pop up next year.

The cutbacks at WBUR ó one of the largest and most admired of the countryís approximately 600 public radio stations ó says something important about whatís going on in public radio generally. Following efforts by Republicans such as Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich to slash or even eliminate taxpayer subsidies to public radio and television stations, public broadcasters reinvented themselves by switching to what is essentially a privatized, nonprofit model.

Public broadcasting today is largely paid for by affluent, well-educated viewers and listeners and the businesses that wish to reach them. This evolution has been especially dramatic for public radio, which, unlike public TV, has a captive audience ó millions of commuters trapped in their cars ó and a clear mission to focus on news and public affairs (see "Bobos in Radioland," News and Features, April 27).

Never has public radio been better, or more popular, than it is right now. Unfortunately, the commercialism that made modern public radio possible now threatens to break budgets at a time when the medium itself is needed the most. The question is whether this is just a momentary blip, or if public radioís fat and happy days are about to be followed by some long-term financial reckoning.

THE CUTBACKS at WBUR will not affect Christoís ability to run NPRís signature newscasts, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. But they will certainly harm local-news coverage, and could possibly set back her ambitious agenda of developing local programming that can be offered nationally, such as The Connection, a cerebral interview-and-talk show thatís carried by NPR on about 50 stations, or Only a Game, a weekend sports show.

"Look, if thereís a downturn in the economy, of course weíre going to suffer, but everybody suffers," Christo said in an interview last week. "I think that we can still do excellent coverage of the war. I think weíre doing some of our best work right now. I think itís only fair that we have to watch our money. After all, the listeners give it to us."

But the listeners ó the public in public radio, in other words ó are not an issue in WBURís budget woes. In fact, the on-air portion of the stationís fall fundraiser pulled in some $540,000, which was $140,000 above its goal ó a testament to peopleís willingness to pay for high-quality news and information during a time of national crisis. Nor is the federal government diverting its limited funds to other, more pressing needs; in any case, only about $1.2 million of the stationís $20 million budget comes from federal tax dollars.

Rather, the budget squeeze came about because of a precipitous drop in corporate underwriting. At WBUR, the sums raised from listeners ($8 million last year) and underwriters ($7.3 million) are almost equal. So when íBUR suddenly found that funding from its recession-battered corporate angels had fallen off a cliff, Christoís October bravado quickly gave way to her November pragmatism.

According to Doug Eichten, president of Development Exchange Inc. (DEI), which helps public radio stations raise money, the dilemma thatís facing íBUR epitomizes whatís going on in other major markets: an increase in listener contributions on the order of 25 percent that is more than offset by a collapse in corporate underwriting, related more to the disappearance of the dot-com economy than to the terrorist attacks.

"That was and should have been seen as something that you just canít count on the way you could count on local support," says Eichten. "There was an over-reliance on some of the support from major corporations."

The flip side, Eichten adds, is that stations whose corporate underwriting comes mainly from local, long-established businesses have hardly been affected at all.

Take, for instance, the case of WFCR Radio (88.5 FM), at UMass Amherst. According to general manager Martin Miller, underwriting fell apart in October ó yet already there are signs of its coming back. Miller has until next June to line up $750,000 in underwriting for the following fiscal year ó and heís received $550,000 in commitments. "Weíre in pretty good shape," he says. "Anything can happen, as we saw. Which is why individual gifts become more and more important." (WFCR, like most public stations, pays for about half its budget with individual-listener contributions.)

For the moment, at least, finances are also holding steady at The World, a daily, hourlong newsmagazine show jointly produced by WGBH Radio, Public Radio International (a smaller rival of NPR), and the BBC. In part, says executive producer Bob Ferrante, thatís because The World had already invested most of its resources in foreign coverage. "Itís a little different for us than other operations because the world is our beat anyway. Itís just a concentration of resources in a different part of the world," he says. But he concedes that covering a war brings with it unanticipated costs, noting, "Things are already tight. Weíre going to have an overage, and Iím going to have to pay the piper."

Unlike at WBUR, The Worldís $5 million annual budget was in place at the beginning of the current fiscal year, on July 1. For Ferrante, then, the question is whether underwriters will stick with the show ó or increase their commitment if necessary ó as the dawn of the next fiscal year approaches. At the same time, The World has added 12 US stations (it now has 142) since September 11, which means more income to offset some of those increased expenses.

"Youíre running a race against the bill collector," Ferrante says. "Weíre okay for now ó and you can put that in capital letters, FOR NOW."

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Issue Date: November 29 - December 6, 2001

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