A Very Civil War – WGBH – WBUR – Boston public radio stations – Jon Abbott – Paul La Camera
Thanks to a series of moves late last year by public broadcasting giant WGBH, the Hub is now home to two all-talk public radio stations. Let the battle for the hearts and minds of tweedy, tote bag–loving Bostonians begin.
In the four years since La Camera took over at WBUR, the station’s annual budgets have all carried a surplus, even as they have slowly increased (last year’s was $20 million, roughly equivalent to those in the fat times of Christo’s reign). La Camera has chopped the station’s debt to about $11 million, and managed to add staff. That was his big push when he signed on: getting more people to do more local reporting. Christo had wanted a local news element, too, but now there are eight full-time reporters at WBUR, a commitment matched by few other public radio stations. La Camera has also added a weekly newsmagazine/talk show called Radio Boston, which has its own staff of five. The WBUR website was recently overhauled to reflect a local bent, and more staff has been hired there. (All told, there are now 120 employees at WBUR.)
Initially, La Camera wanted an increased emphasis on local news because that’s what WBUR listeners said they wanted: Station polling showed that their interests were split evenly among local, national, and international affairs. But now the local element is also a way for WBUR to distinguish itself from its new competition (though WGBH is looking to hire a handful of local reporters, too).
WGBH executives repeatedly say they’re not in competition with WBUR, but it’s hard to imagine they actually believe that. For one, WGBH now bills itself on-air as "Boston’s NPR Station," which is basically how WBUR has touted itself for decades. ("Pretty ballsy" is how WBUR online editor Andrew Phelps described the move in a recent tweet.) Second, after a WGBH anchor says, "You’re listening to WGBH," often what the listener hears is that signature snippet that airs at the end of a WGBH-produced TV show, when the station’s call letters are displayed in their late-’70s red and yellow font: that vaguely synthesized/computerized melody that climbs quickly across the upper registers and explodes in a high note, just as the call letters themselves glow yellow. Jordan Weinstein, who in addition to being the union president is a WGBH radio anchor, calls the little riff a "brilliant" addition. It extends the brand of a great television station to another medium—the Big Footprint’s audible signature.
WGBH has also added two local news hours at noon and 1 p.m.: The Emily Rooney Show and The Callie Crossley Show. WBUR, despite all its reporting strength, doesn’t have a daily show. Local content is dropped into Morning Edition or All Things Considered or saved for Radio Boston. While the lack of reporters at WGBH may make the station’s midday shows just another series of yak-fests, ‘GBH’s pitch is clear: We’re offering local content at the same time, every day. (La Camera admits he’s considering a daily local news hour to better compete with WGBH.)
The most immediate benefit for WGBH, though, may be in new fundraising opportunities. Owning WCRB means WGBH can now seek underwriters for two stations that serve broad chunks of Boston’s listening audience—and behind those stations, the resources of the nation’s largest public broadcaster. "If I’m WBUR, I’d be looking for a partnership with another station right about now," says Bruce Mittman, president of the ad agency Mittcom and owner of eight radio stations in upstate New York.
La Camera sniffs when he hears that. "Advertisers buy by demographic," he says. In the most coveted demographic, 25 to 54, WBUR’s November listener share consistently outranked those of WGBH and WCRB by more than 5 full rating points, which is pretty much the difference between the top and the bottom of the market. "So, no. I’m not worried."
WBUR also recently finished its best fall pledge drive, raising $1.2 million. The station has more than 600 underwriters—more than at any other public radio station—and despite what’s happened to the rest of the media industry, its underwriting dollars have held steady.
In early January, weeks after La Camera said he had little reason to worry about his station’s preeminence, the December ratings came out. He still needn’t worry. In the 25-to-54 demographic, from 6 a.m. to midnight, the station’s listener share ranked 10th overall. (WCRB and WGBH were 21st and 23th, respectively, out of the top 30 stations.) For morning drive-time for that same demographic, WBUR’s share was one-tenth of a percentage point shy of ranking first in the market. Corey Lewis, station manager for WBUR, says these numbers are so formidable because "they’ve been built up over time."
But time is all WGBH has. The intent isn’t to wallop WBUR next month. Abbott freely admits he sees WGBH’s programming as only a "complement" to WBUR for the foreseeable future. Still, WGBH is too large, Abbott’s thinking too restless, the ambitions too grand, for the station to remain an also-ran forever. It may have grown through an entrepreneurial spirit, but WGBH these days makes few decisions lightly.
It’s not going away, in other words. And it has too many resources at its disposal to be taken for granted as a competitor. Paul La Camera knows this, and that’s why he’s sending out staff on retreats and tinkering with WBUR’s schedule. "The fact that we have such a head start, does that mean we’re untouchable?" he says. "That’s not my attitude."