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Sound and fury
WBUR dumps its Rhode Island stations, lays off employees, and downsizes Here and Now. Itís time for Boston University, its license-holder, to demand some answers.
BY DAN KENNEDY AND IAN DONNIS

HEREíS SOME UNSOLICITED advice for Aram Chobanian, the interim president of Boston University: itís time ó indeed, itís long past time ó to demand some accountability on the part of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), the BU-licensed public-broadcasting giant whose excellence is matched only by the mystery surrounding its operations and the imperious, fear-inspiring style of its general manager, Jane Christo.

The past two weeks have been especially tumultuous. The most startling news unfolded last Friday, when Christo announced she was looking to sell íBURís Providence station, WRNI (AM 1290), which it had acquired just six years ago for some $2.4 million. Included in the deal would be a sister station in Westerly, Rhode Island. The announcement spurred anger on the part of some civic leaders, who charged that they had been lured into offering their financial support to an operation that would at some point be shut down ó and had not even received any guarantee that the stations will be sold to another noncommercial broadcaster.

"Rhode Island should feel insulted," says Rick Schwartz, spokesman for the Rhode Island Foundation, a charitable organization that has given WRNI hundreds of thousands of dollars and below-market rent in the Providence building it owns.

This past Monday, Rhode Island attorney general Patrick Lynch announced he had written a letter to Christo asking that Boston University halt the sale until his concerns and those of WRNIís major contributors had been addressed. "I am also troubled," Lynch wrote, "that a valuable asset such as National Public Radio may leave the State of Rhode Island. Again, it is difficult to address the scope of this loss because of the secrecy and untimely communications from Boston University. Thousands of Rhode Islanders helped WRNI to prosper and grow through their devotion to National Public Radio. To cancel this important station, as your announcement indicates may happen very quickly without comment or debate, will deprive the citizens of this State of a valuable source of important public information."

The WRNI move made Christo and company look as if they were heading in two directions at the same time. Only a month ago, thenĖWBUR spokeswoman Mary Stohn announced that WRNIís four-person news operation would be cut in half (see "Media," This Just In, August 27). That suggests the final decision to sell WRNI came very quickly. Yet WBURís new spokesman, Will Keyser, who works for the Boston advertising-and-PR firm Hill Holliday, denies that the decision to put WRNI on the market had anything to do with money. "The financial implications of the sale are not driving the decision in any way," Keyser says. "I know there are concerns about the process, and those that feel that the process is not fair, but the reality is that the community will be given [a chance] through this process to make a serious and viable offer for the station, if thatís what they would like to do."

As for Attorney General Lynchís letter, Keyser says, "Weíre studying the attorney generalís letter and will respond at an appropriate time." BU spokesman Kevin Carleton, when asked about Lynchís request that the university put the sale on hold, replied he had not seen Lynchís letter and thus could not respond.

To those who follow the ins and outs of WBUR, the unexpected departure last week of Stohn ó a public-relations executive who had worked as the stationís outside spokeswoman for the past quarter-century ó was perhaps even more surprising, given her long-standing close working relationship with Christo. Stohn certainly wasnít shedding any light on the matter. In a written statement she said, "This was a very tough call. Itís difficult to give up a client after 25 years, especially a client that has developed like WBUR ó from a struggling station to a national powerhouse. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity I was given to represent WBUR and I know they will continue to excel in broadcast journalism."

This past Monday marked the debut of the downsized Here and Now, heard on WBUR from noon to 1 p.m. Host Robin Young ó whoís been flying solo since co-host Bill Delaney was let go earlier this year ó will now introduce fewer stories, with more interviews and less in the way of produced, packaged reports. Young is a smart, eclectic host, so thereís no reason to think the new format wonít work. But itís obvious that Here and Now will be less expensive to produce than itís been in the past.

In all, Keyser says, one part-time position was eliminated at WRNI and two full-timers were moved from Providence to Boston. In Boston, he adds, three full-time news employees were let go, for a net Boston reduction of one slot. Since becoming general manager in 1979, Christo has always been a woman of enormous ambitions. But, combined with the pending WRNI sale and the downsizing of Here and Now, these are the signs of an operation thatís retrenching in some pretty significant ways.

Christo, through Keyser, declined to be interviewed for this article. Nevertheless, itís becoming clear that, more than at any other time during her long reign at one of the countryís most admired public radio stations, there are questions to be answered. About the stationís finances. About her management style. And about why, at a public station that relies so heavily on the goodwill of its listeners and the community, so little is known about its internal operations.

MANY PUBLIC television and public radio stations disclose all sorts of information about their operations, as nonprofits are required to do under various federal and state laws. For example, if you go to GuideStar.org and search for "WGBH," which operates Channels 2 and 44 and WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) in Boston, you will find, among other things, that the WGBH Educational Foundation reported more than $311 million in revenues and nearly $189 million in expenses in 2002, the most recent year for which data are available. With free registration, you can find out a lot more than that ó or you can visit WGBHís headquarters and ask to see its publicly available records.

Enter "WBUR," though, and you come up with nothing. Thatís because WBUR is not a stand-alone station, but rather is part of Boston University, which holds its broadcasting license. You will find an extensive filing at GuideStar for BU, including a list of the universityís five highest-paid employees and what they earn. But BU is one of the largest universities in the country, and íBUR ó though a substantial operation ó is simply too small to show up anywhere in BUís publicly filed financial reports.

Keyser scoffs at the notion that WBUR is secretive about its numbers, saying anyone who claims otherwise is "steering you in the wrong direction." He says the stationís current annual budget is about $20 million, roughly the same as last year, and that íBUR is in the process of preparing a new annual report, which could take several months. He adds that the station will continue to release "broad financial information as is necessary." But he says Boston Universityís policy is to disclose only information required by law, and that WBUR, as part of the university, is bound by that policy.

Nearly a dozen current and former WBUR employees were contacted for this article, and virtually none of them would agree to be quoted, even on a not-for-attribution basis. But the consensus is that WBURís finances always have been a mystery to the staff, even to those with significant managerial responsibilities. A former producer says he couldnít find out how much had been budgeted for the show on which he was working. Others make similar comments.

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Issue Date: September 24 - 30, 2004
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