Boston Beat-Down

Jeff Boudreau sent along this post from the Boston Music Intelligencer (a blog of classical music, link on right), in which Lee Eiseman writes scathingly of the format change at ‘GBH one year later:

“Accountability and transparency are two of our watchwords . . .” according to the WGBH website, except seemingly when management doesn’t like BMInt’s questions.

Within the last few days, according to sources I believe to be knowledgeable, WCRB station manager Jon Solins resigned (effective next month). He was one of the prime architects of the new All-Classical WCRB. On the WGBH radio side management just posted an opening for a new program director in order, according to an industry expert, to help that station improve its dismal performance in building listenership and differentiating itself from WBUR.

In their apparent quest for WBUR’s 400% higher audience share, WGBH radio has elected to duplicate WBUR’s NPR program during about 36 hours of every week. The FCC awarded WGBH radio its potent clear channel in order to serve a disadvantaged public. Since listeners can hear NPR on many outlets, is there any current justification for making such a claim to the FCC? This redundancy of programming also creates an unfortunate waste of resources — natural and financial. WGBH radio’s 100,000 watt transmitter (consuming about 40 kw per hour at the mains) also requires the emission of a rather large carbon footprint. About 200 lbs of coal equivalent per hour or 14 tons per month are burned for this duplication of services — not a very green enterprise.

The readers of The Boston Musical Intelligencer have responded to our coverage of the changes in classical music broadcasting in Boston like no other topic. It has generated much debate and many hits and comments. So as the anniversary of the changes approaches, we are revisiting the consequences of the move of classical music broadcasting from Boston’s powerful 100 kw WGBH radio to Lowell’s 27 kw coverage-challenged WCRB, eliminating clear reception to most of downtown Boston and to the south and east.  BMInt hopes that this article will foster useful discussion.

Has the change wrought new gains for the stations, brought fans flocking to the “revitalized” format?

So how is the WGBH radio strategy working nearly a year later? Average daily adult rating figures obtained from the marketing department of another radio station in Boston show that in the eleven months since the multi-million dollar changes, WCRB has lost one-third of its listeners while WGBH’s listenership has been flat. Of greater Boston’s average daily audience of 4,300,000, WGBH’s share hovers at 1% and WCRB’s has dropped from 3% to 2% — a loss of almost 40,000 daily listeners. The rival WBUR has retained its 4% share.

WGBH Audience Survey Reports show that 25% of respondents think classical programming on WCRB is dumbed-down, 25% think the programming is too demanding, 25% report that they are happy that classical broadcasting still exists in Boston and 25% complain about reception issues, according to sources whose veracity I respect.

But beyond statistics, redundancy and wastefulness, there are issues of content, coverage and finance that continue to nag.

Some months after the changes, the quality of WCRB programming has been improving from the perspective of former WGBH listeners even as one-third of the former WCRB listeners have abandoned the station (according to rating numbers). Yet there seem to be fewer live performances and fewer on-location recordings than on the former some-classical WGBH. Indeed, All-Classical WCRB is also seemingly resorting more often to re-broadcasting locally recorded music from its archives rather than offering newly produced programming, though we have not been able to get accurate statistics. Public broadcasting should support its local community, which WGBH formerly did so very well with its peripatetic recording engineers and luxe Fraser Performance Center, in support of Greater Boston’s vibrant classical music scene. We nevertheless remain hopeful that WCRB, when it can increase its signal coverage, boost its recordings of local artists and reduce its dependency on syndicated programming, will once again honor its local mission rather than functioning as a mere jukebox.

Not quite. At least part of the complaint is due to the problematic signal of WCRB — and the answer ‘GBH pencil pushers have arrived at involves buying another station, WPLM in Plymouth:

With that station out of the way and no longer requiring protection from interference, WCRB could increase power and change the antenna pattern to get more signal to the south and east in areas they no longer reach. Or alternatively it could simulcast WCRB on WPLM. The same industry analyst speculated that the reason for moving classical music to WCRB rather than news and public affairs was that classical listeners are much more generous than news listeners and would be much more likely to respond if a debt-ridden WGBH management came back to them with requests for contributions to buy yet another station. Radio stations are seen as bargains at this time, and classical listeners are seen as generous enablers.

Thus it should be no surprise that sources within WGBH tell me that in terms of donations, WCRB is the tail wagging the WGBH dog, maintaining that WCRB’s listener contributions are running four to five times higher than WGBH radio’s. WCRB’s spring fundraiser was evidently the best ever for a WGBH-owned radio station. What does that say for classical listeners as a breed?

The WGBH glossy Annual Report — which, it must be noted, is not an official filing document  —has a couple of interesting facts: 48% of revenues come from listener/viewer support, and 6% of all revenues go to support radio. That’s about $12 million of $200 million total revenue. Since nearly half of WGBH revenue comes from “viewers/listeners like [us],” we have a stake in what’s broadcast and we should make our voices heard, both in praise and criticism. The cautionary admonition to me from a WGBH director, “Gentlemen don’t criticize WGBH,” certainly raised journalistic hackles.

Hoo, boy! Where have we heard that before? It’s not our business how they spend money donated by listeners and fronted by the government? You might as well be requesting financial disclosure of the CIA.

Repeated calls and email requests to top management for fact-checking and responses for this article have met with “….we respectfully decline” to answer BMInt’s questions. It is therefore impossible, using financial statements available to the public to tease out official numbers pertaining to radio alone, let alone to compare expenses and donations between WCRB and WGBH. These numbers should not be treated as proprietary by a publicly supported entity, but rather as WGBH often says, “…shared with the world.”

Forced to make its own analysis of WGBH finances based on publicly available reports, BMInt’s troubling conclusion is that the WGBH Foundation had a $21 million loss in their fiscal year ending in August 2009 and doubled its payment of debt service from 3% to 5.8% of total expenses in the past two years. As per the 2009 IRS Form 990 reporting, and before additional debt was incurred for the purchase of WCRB, debt was 33% of net assets versus 0% for New York City’s WNET and .5% for Washington, DC’s WETA. BMInt’s spreadsheet [downloadable here] provides a detailed analysis of the situation at the WGBH Foundation with names redacted. The website Guidestar offers much more financial data than we are able to present here.

Meanwhile, WGBH’s organized labor is apparently working without a contract and management is reportedly asking for concessions even as the top twenty employees continue to get raises.

And as one R. C. Knox commented:

Whether its numbers are going up or down, CRB is irrelevant for those of us who live in parts of the city or greater Boston who cannot receive it. A year later, the essential point is that GBH, a so-called public radio station with a strong signal, no longer brings the public any classical music. The damage to the region’s cultural life is immense. There are many other good options for news and information. For most of us, there are no good alternatives to the high-quality classical music programming GBH used to provide. No one in the mainstream media has even told this story. It’s a shame that classical music listeners, who are more “generous” contributors, didn’t make a bigger stink. We’ve canceled our membership. If everyone stopped contributing — and that includes to CRB — the soulless suits who run the place might get the message.

And in a long, highly engaging comment, Romy the Cat ventured this:

I can give literally a thousand critical points of what WCRB does wrong (in my view) starting from retarded hyper-cheerful woman who spin con-bravura marches in major key at 6AM in a morning and ending with absolute contribution non-transparency. But the short point of those thousands and one complains is that somebody who runs WCRB does not really like or understand what they are doing. A year ago John Voci bravely brought himself to public as a front face of the new WCRB. I do not know if he truly “owns” WCRB or if he is just a well-oiled clerk in a large machinery of NPR lubrication. Regardless who he is, from the comment he made is was self-evident that he has nothing personally vested in classical music and no specific personal interests the station specialty. I am sure that if tomorrow somebody above him would decide to make WCRB dedicated to art of yodeling then Mr. Voci’s outlook would not be affected. Again, I do not know who is responsible for it but I know that I would like to see a person who is in charge of decision making for Boston classical musical station to have personal vested interest in classical music and in the using public broadcasting for advancement of classical music. You would never have a butcher who hate meet and you would never have a fat personal trainer. Why wouldn’t we permit the same in people who run out public radio. To love what you do — it is a too demanding requirement?

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One Response

  1. Has it been one year already? Time flies, and so are their executives (note labor is working without a contract and management wants their union to make salary concessions), but WGBH-fm’s ratings certain are not.

    Jim Kweskin shared this observation early on: “I can only assume this has something to do with the almighty dollar. Isn’t this supposed to be public radio and aren’t we the public. Folk music has been a mainstay on WGBH for as long as I can remember. Acoustic artists are as popular as ever and in some ways even more popular then in days gone by. I don’t get it. WGBH should be ashamed of itself. Well, as Ma Joad said, “We’re the people and you can’t stop us and you can’t lick us. We just keep coming, ’cause we’re the people.”
    -Jim Kweskin, November 11, 2009.

    For an accounting of the event as it was unfolding one year ago, read http://notlobmusic.blogspot.com/2009/11/wgbh-drops-folk-and-blues-programs.html

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