Busting in Boston

The lead in this post on boston.com says it all:

Union busting at WGBH? How will that play during Pledge Week? Labor-management relations at the World’s Greatest Broadcast House are sinking quicker than PBS ratings. At the end of October, management declined to extend its contract with the 280 members of the Communications Workers of America Local 1300, and now seems bent on putting the pesky communards out of business. A federal mediator has been called in, and doesn’t seem to be helping. This isn’t Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood anymore.

The author, Alex Beam, himself a member of CWA (Communications Workers of America), added this about the disparity between the way ‘GBH treats management, workers, and budgetary concerns:

There is plenty more to argue about over at ’GBH’s ruinously expensive new headquarters in Brighton. The CWA took heat for insisting on a 3.5 percent pay increase when media drones (like me!) were taking pay cuts all over America, or losing their jobs. Weinstein points to more than $200,000 of management bonuses awarded during the same time period. Separately, management wants an “artistic discretion termination’’ provision in a new contract, which means sacking on-air talent without recourse. Huh? Somebody doesn’t like Emily Rooney’s dress, they toss her off the air? I wouldn’t want that in my contract.

On the Facebook page of the local union, here, opinions ran a little more heated:

Kim Webster: I’m glad this is getting publicity. I would have mentioned this statement from Laurie Hurtt though, which floored me: “[the AEEF] falsely implied that there was some negative financial consequence to employees if they worked on expired project contracts.” (http://www.aeef.org/Laurie_Hurtt_letter_to_AEEF.htm). So there’s no financial advantage to job security? Does she think the whole AEEF has a combined IQ of 5?

Trudi Goodman: I sent a letter to WGBH telling them that I refuse to renew my membership until this is all resolved fairly. I got back a very hideous form letter. Eff them.

Meanwhile, at the Boston Musical Intelligencer, here, we find this from Jordan Weinstein, president of the AEEF-CWA Local 1300, WGBH’s largest union:

In fiscal year 2009, our members agreed to serious and deep cuts to their wages, some losing more than 30% of their income, while everyone else gave up nearly their entire annual wage increase, totaling collectively hundreds of thousands of dollars. Months later, after we obtained a copy of WGBH’s federal tax form, we discovered that during the same year in which our workers were making sacrifices to help WGBH solve a financial crisis, the heads of WGBH awarded themselves bonuses totaling more than $200,000. That was not the best example of trust-building, transparency or good-faith bargaining.

Despite painful concessions we’ve made in recognition of the weak economy and a tough fundraising environment; despite our members’ voluntary pay cuts, work furloughs, and numerous layoffs; despite our attempts to work collaboratively and creatively with WGBH management on solutions to the foundation’s financial problems, WGBH continues to demand concessions that go beyond financial necessity and threaten the fundamental right to bargain collectively. This is WGBH’s complete repudiation of a history of union/management collaboration that has made the broadcaster the jewel in the crown of the Public Broadcasting Service.

We hope WGBH members and the larger Boston community recognize in these union negotiations the kind of anti-union, anti-family tactics that threaten to silence public broadcasting altogether. WGBH needs to know the community it serves expects it to exercise the same principles it espouses in its programming.

As author Lee Eiseman notes in conclusion:

On the WCRB and the WGBH radio side, we hear that the staff is particularly demoralized. WCRB is operating with a talent and production staff of only six — those six are very over-extended and local production and programming are suffering. Some sources worry that new management will be automating more of the classical playlist rather than encouraging more shows to have local concert content. At WGBH radio, now given over solely to news and talk (with some jazz), the eighteen producers and on-air personalities are laboring mightily to gain listeners. Despite their disproportionate share of the WGBH foundation’s radio budget, they have not grown their audience.

BMInt has been tracking how has the public has been voting with their dials. WGBH’s share of the 4 million-plus Greater Boston radio audience hovers between 1 and 1.2 percent— just where it was before the $14 million purchase of WCRB and the expensive growth of the news and talk machine at WGBH. On a happier note for management, WCRB’s listenership is back to where it was when the station was a commercial broadcaster sixteen months ago — about a 2.9% share. Meanwhile, Radio Operations Director John Voci’s NPR rival, WBUR, has been slipping in the ratings — from 4% a year ago down to 3.1% over the recent holiday period. What’s interesting and ironic here is that it is WCRB with its classical music format that appears on-track to overtake WBUR, rather than WGBH radio with its very expensive news and talk format. WBUR’s slippage, of course, has helped in this race. But the lesson just may be that the audience for news and talk is in decline. The internet perhaps is where the action is in that department. Another way to look at the saga sixteen months and $20 million later: with one quarter of the signal strength and one third the staff, WCRB has three times the audience of WGBH radio.

BMInt believes it’s time for the WGBH Foundation to change course. The arrival of Ben Roe may be seen as a salutary sign. Perhaps WGBH radio and WCRB can switch formats and bring classical music back to Boston with its powerful transmitter on 89.7. Perhaps recordings of local concerts will be reinvigorated. Perhaps Friday Symphony broadcasts will be back, too. From BMInt to Ben Roe, “We wish you well.”

The comments following are well worth the read.

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