Dead Air

Why should taxpayers be asked to fund a union-busting, freeloading corporate behemoth…like WGBH?

Illustration by Shout

Illustration by Shout

Remind me again why eliminating taxpayer subsidies for public broadcasting is a right-wing idea?

Liberals are incensed that Congressional Republicans want to strip PBS and NPR of federal funds, but when is the last time they took a hard look at how things are going with our biggest local public broadcasting affiliate? While Tea Party guerillas distract the gullible with theatrical sting operations and spurious debates about liberal bias, the increasingly corporate culture of public broadcasting goes unchallenged — especially in Boston.

WGBH is trying to bust its union. It has paid nothing to the city of Boston in lieu of taxes in four years. Even as it cut wages and staffers in 2009, it spent millions to acquire a second radio station in Boston and then did little more with it than duplicate programming already available from a competing station across town.

This is the crown jewel of the Public Broadcasting System that deserves uncritical allegiance?

WGBH is one of Boston’s last sacred cows, its status as a civic icon as fixed in the collective imagination as that of Harvard, Mass General, and the Boston Pops. Who could take issue with a revered local enterprise that gave us Julia Child, The Victory Garden, and Antiques Roadshow and now produces one-third of PBS’s programming, including such gems as Frontline, Nova, Masterpiece, and The American Experience?

Liberals could and should.

Decades of interminable pledge-week pitches painting PBS as a national treasure entitled to taxpayer support have numbed the critical-thinking skills of what remains of the political left. There is no question that WGBH, and PBS in general, produces compelling, important work that’s in the public interest. But then, so does the Boston Globe, and no one who believes in journalistic independence would endorse the idea of that newspaper, or any other, accepting government subsidies. For the same reason, it is time to wean PBS from its reliance on taxpayer dollars — especially when the frenetic budget-slashing in Congress this spring threatens everything from fuel assistance for the poor to financial aid for debt-burdened college students.

Free-spending WGBH, in particular, has forfeited any claim to a public subsidy.

The behemoth in Brighton — its new 309,000-square-foot headquarters covers two city blocks — relies on the same municipal services as the small neighboring businesses along Market Street. But unlike them, as the Boston Herald has noted, WGBH has not paid the city a cent for fire and police protection or snow removal since 2007. Yes, it is tax exempt. But the station is supposed to pay Boston through the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program. The check WGBH cut in 2007 for $10,517, according to the Herald, was a tad less than the $245,000 the program calculated it should receive from the station.

Mayor Menino and Boston City Council President Stephen Murphy gently chastised the station this spring for not being a very good neighbor. But the city is still negotiating with WGBH about what would constitute a fair payment.

Why the kid gloves? Why such deference at a time when cash-strapped Boston is closing schools, eliminating jobs, and cutting back on city services?

No one disputes that public broadcasting is facing thorny financial challenges. But these are lean times for everyone in journalism. Traditional print-funding models, from classified advertising to paid subscriptions, have collapsed. Commercial broadcasting is on shaky ground. Struggling to stay alive, newspapers are experimenting with online pay walls. Innovative online news outlets are competing for the same foundation grants that have long helped bankroll public radio and TV. It’s a jungle out there.

But unlike many of PBS’s smaller, rural affiliates, WGBH could survive just fine without taxpayer subsidies. On average, federal funding accounts for 15 percent of a station’s budget, according to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funnels federal dollars to 1,300 PBS radio and television stations around the country. WGBH’s annual budget is more than $170 million (even bigger than that of New York’s WNET). This year $11.5 million, about 8 percent of its operating budget, came from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Moreover, WGBH charges as much as $5,000 to host events in its 208-seat theater and atrium, and twice that much to rent its state-of-the-art television-production facilities. It boasts that it needed no public funding to build its new headquarters or to buy its new radio station. It relied instead on its loyal donor base to raise the $85 million required to construct its fancy building and the $14 million needed to purchase WCRB, the city’s beloved classical music station. If WGBH can privately fund those discretionary investments, it can forgo government handouts and scramble like the rest of journalism.

 

Even as the station refuses to negotiate with Local 1300 of the Communications Workers of America — the union representing 280 producers, writers, editors, and marketing employees — WGBH continues to pay handsome salaries to its top managers, more than a dozen of whom make north of $200,000 in total annual compensation.

Are only the poor, the middle class, and union members expected to adopt the currently popular mantra of doing more with less? Why should this purported liberal bastion get a pass from liberals when it refuses to negotiate in good faith with the people who produce the programs on which its considerable reputation rests? Why no outrage when the station unilaterally imposes a “last, best offer” that gives WGBH the right to outsource jobs and fire employees without cause?

Why should WGBH be rewarded for emulating the dubious labor practices of corporate media giants? The New York Times Company, for instance, broke the back of the unions at the Boston Globe in 2009 by threatening to shut down the newspaper if workers did not submit to draconian wage cuts, mandatory furloughs, reduced pension benefits, and reductions in retirement and health insurance benefits. The Times Company did that even as it paid CEO Janet L. Robinson $4.9 million, 26 percent more than the year before, and chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. $4.8 million. Not a bad payday for two managers who — shades of WGBH — had just built a gleaming new Times Square headquarters that their company and its suffering stockholders (many of them union employees) could ill afford.

Why should we endorse those same twisted priorities with our tax dollars? For all the talk of its inestimable communal value, it is not as if WGBH bought WCRB to expand the listening options available to its Boston audience. It bought the station so it could dump its own existing musical programming there (99.5 FM) and convert WGBH radio (89.7 FM) to a canned, all-news format. Most of that news is provided by National Public Radio and was already available in Boston on WBUR (90.9 FM).

The purchase was about expanding WGBH’s brand, not its journalism. Callie Crossley and Emily Rooney each talking about the headlines and taking phone calls for an hour every day is no one’s idea of hard-hitting local journalism. Radio Boston on WBUR, by contrast, produces fresh, independent reporting, a boon in an era of shrinking journalistic resources in the city.

It is worth noting that we are nearing the 100-year anniversary of the Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence. Next year there are sure to be centennial commemorations of the gutsy textile workers who protested the decision of greedy mill owners to lower wages in response to a government-mandated shorter workweek — just the sort of event WGBH likes to highlight. Maybe Ken Burns will produce a documentary.

WBGH’s own union, meanwhile, gets no such respect.

In this economy, no union expects an easy time at the negotiating table. But when the transparent aim is not compromise but the abandonment of the collective bargaining process, what distinguishes Jon Abbott, the president and CEO of WGBH, from Scott Walker, the union-busting governor of Wisconsin? The answer? Not much. Let’s let taxpayers decide for themselves whether they want to support either one of them.

  • MF

    I suspect journalism is dying in America partly because it is poorly practiced, an excess of opinion and snark and a paucity of research and facts. This column is an excellent example of reckless, grossly ill-informed punditry.

  • Kendall

    What a joke.

  • Mark

    Your article is right on target. The reference to Jon Abbott being like Scott Walker is correct. The day of PBS in general and WGBH in specific being a cause for Liberals to support is long gone. The management tactics are straight from the Koch brothers playbook. The terms used and actions made echo what is being on across the country in the name of conservatism. The table has turned. Know what you are supporting when you send in your donations.

  • marlene

    Every media professional in Boston knows this is true. They’re still handing out the Kool Aid at Guest Street, but we’ve stopped drinking it. You should too.

  • Michael

    “Every media professional”? Really?

    Ms. McNamara’s diatribe mentions not a single substantive issue that is in play in this negotiation.

    The template for the contract between WGBH and this union goes back 40 years and is antiquated as it applies to today’s production environment. A close examination would reveal how much feather-bedding, job-killing and costly language is in that contract when it comes to staffing production work. It would show that it’s essentially because WGBH is a union shop that it costs so much to do production there.

    The contract that was imposed contains a wage increase (admittedly small), no increases in employee costs for healthcare, and no job reductions.

    These are not the Bread and Roses workers. These are not John Lewis’s coal miners and WGBH is not playing the role of Scott Walker. It’s a union negotiation and those are, almost by definition, contentious.

    This is incredibly sloppy work on Ms. McNamamra’s part.

  • kevin jorgensen

    Bravo!