In well-mannered public radio, an airwaves war
Mark ArsenaultJune 04, 2017
Associated Press/Globe Staff
At the time, it seemed like a bold move for a media company. Maybe a stupid one.
Sleepy public radio station WGBH-FM would forsake classical music and jazz programming that had defined it for decades in favor of an all-news and talk format, going head-to-head — or maybe, tote bag to tote bag — against WBUR, the established NPR giant licensed to Boston University.
“It was a bit of a jump off a cliff,” WGBH Radio general manager Phil Redo acknowledged.
Now seven years after switching formats, WGBH has the audience numbers to say it was right all along: There was room in Boston for a second all-news NPR outlet, without cannibalizing the first.
Over the past five years, WGBH’s audience has grown more than any other major NPR news station in the country, says Ken Mills, a Minneapolis broadcast consultant who writes about noncommercial radio. Its weekly listeners have nearly doubled since the spring of 2012, rising from 235,200 to 445,200, according to Nielsen data aggregated by Mills. By that measure, WGBH now ranks 10th in the country among NPR news stations.
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“The growth of listeners at WGBH is truly remarkable,” Mills said. “I don’t know of any other situation in public radio where a station has penetrated the market that fast.”
Perhaps the most remarkable part of WGBH’s ascent is that it largely spared its chief rival, steadily building a base without damaging WBUR, or even swiping their monogrammed umbrellas.
WBUR still boasts a larger audience and continues to grow. The station’s weekly listeners grew over the past five years from 409,000 to 534,400, Mills said, to the nation’s sixth-highest mark.
Their simultaneous success says something telling about Boston, which may well be more devoted to the decorous purr of public radio than any other American metropolis.
If the audience shares of the two stations were combined, it would create the No. 1 radio station in Greater Boston, according to Nielsen audience estimates. Taken together, WGBH and WBUR command a bigger local market share than San Francisco’s KQED, the public radio station with the most weekly listeners in the country, according to Mills and Nielsen.
In the realm of public radio, the Boston situation — close quarters combat between well-off rivals — is extremely rare.
“Boston is the only market in America that has two full-power FM stations running this same news and information format head-to-head,” said WBUR general manager Charles Kravetz.
WBUR’s “Here & Now” is hosted by Jeremy Hobson and Robin Young.
Managers at both stations politely downplay the rivalry with sports-like clichés about how competition makes everybody better. Neither side is spiking the football.
Elbows get a bit sharper, though, over the question of which station is the most local, which better reflects the voice of Greater Boston.
Both stations regularly remind listeners of how Bostonesque they are. Tune to WBUR at 90.9 and you’ll hear the tagline, “Boston’s NPR News Station.” Click over to 89.7, WGBH, for “Boston’s local NPR.”
The slogans sound similar, and some programming overlaps, too. Both stations run locally tailored versions of NPR’s “Morning Edition.” Both run popular national shows such as “All Things Considered” and “Marketplace.” Managers at both agree there is some “brand confusion” among some listeners, though that has subsided as the competitors have worked to differentiate themselves.
After moving here from Chicago about seven years ago, Michael Omenazu, 28, who lives in Cambridge, sampled both stations as a way to acclimate to his new home. He settled on WBUR, finding it “more fresh and new and inventive,” he said, with “personalities more connected to the community.” The WBUR app is one of the first things he fires up in the mornings.
Steve Sandak, a 31-year-old who lives in Medford, said he has been a dedicated WGBH guy since about 2014.
“It’s the people,” he said, referring to the on-air hosts. “I’ve gotten used to hearing them and there is a foundation of trust.” He appreciates that midday hosts Jim Braude and Margery Eagan regularly bring back newsmakers for ongoing conversations.
Of the two stations, WBUR has allied itself more closely with National Public Radio, said radio consultant and historian Scott Fybush. WBUR began broadcasting in 1950, as an educational station licensed to BU, according to BUR. In the 1970s, the station began airing NPR programs.
Now, WBUR creates more than four hours a day of nationally syndicated NPR shows. The locally produced daily news magazine “Here & Now” is carried nationally by about 450 public radio stations and averages 5 million listeners a week, Kravetz said. It is run in partnership with NPR; 23 people work full time on the show. Stations that air it pay a fee, he said.
“The good news is that because it has been accepted by stations across the country it is now [financially] self sustaining,” he said.
Two other WBUR-produced shows, “On Point” with Tom Ashbrook and the sports program “Only a Game,” are heard nationally on about 250 stations, according to WBUR.
“We’re probably the public radio station with the closest relationship to NPR of any station, because we produce more hours of national programming for NPR than any other public radio station,” Kravetz said.
Amid their battle for supremacy in Boston, both stations say they are investing and expanding. Both work out of handsomely appointed studios and both are financially prosperous — admired and envied by many in the public broadcasting universe.
“Both are very well heeled compared to most public radio stations,” Mills said. “There are maybe two dozen stations that are in that range.”
WBUR is just finishing a $2.6 million expansion of its offices, newsroom, and studios — and intends to keep building. Station executives plan to open a 240-seat event space next year, for lectures, films, live radio shows, storytelling, and public conversations.
WBUR is aiming to raise $10 million from donors to build it. “We’ve raised about $5.5 million so far, and we’re confident we can get to that $10 million mark,” he said.
About 70,000 people donate annually to WBUR, he said.
A comparable figure for WGBH is hard to come by, as the station’s financials are merged with its corporate parent, the public TV colossus Channel 2, and several other broadcast properties. But this may give a sense of scale: Together, they earned $179 million in total revenue in 2016, according to a WGBH financial statement.
Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/File 2016
WGBH counters “Here & Now” with “Boston Public Radio,” hosted by Jim Braude (left) and Margery Eagan.
Boston University does not subsidize WBUR’s operations.
Meghna Chakrabarti, the host of WBUR’s “Radio Boston” show who fills in when needed as host of “Here & Now,” said she traces WBUR’s success to its pairing of national coverage with “deep and meaningful journalism on the local level.”
“People, no matter whom they are in this region, are intrinsically passionate about where they live, and they’re equally passionate for understanding the world,” Chakrabarti said. “That’s the perfect mix for public radio.”
WGBH made its debut on air in 1951 with a live broadcast of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, according to the station. The call letters referred to Great Blue Hill, the location of the station’s transmitter. For many years after, its image and programming were decidedly — and for its fans, lovably — sedate, beginning the day with the bird songs and easy-on-the-ear strings and winds that heralded “Morning Pro Musica,” the station’s signature classical music program.
The audience was devoted but comparatively tiny. Then, in late 2009, came the startling format shift — and the waves of new listeners.
WGBH counters “Here & Now” with its flagship local program “Boston Public Radio,” a popular show hosted by Braude and Eagan. The daily show brings an “uber-local focus” to freewheeling discussions of current events, Braude said.
“There is an obsession, in the best sense of the word, with this local prism,” he said.
Redo, WGBH’s general manager, said hiring Braude and Eagan four years ago was “the singular moment” of the station’s reboot, which “put us on the map.” The duo came to WGBH from the commercial station WTKK, which abandoned its talk format in 2013. Radio specialists say “Boston Public Radio” has a more mainstream sound than the typical, slickly produced NPR program.
“GBH is going after what had traditionally been commercial radio listeners,” said Fybush, the radio consultant and historian. He noted that WGBH recently hired another commercial radio veteran, former WBZ-AM morning voice Joe Mathieu, to anchor WGBH’s “Morning Edition.” “If you look at the names they are working with there, whether Eagan and Braude or Joe Mathieu, it clearly says they’re looking to be a bit more of a mass market, mass appeal station,” he said.
The Braude and Eagan show is more comfortable turf for listeners who might otherwise eschew public radio, offhandedly thinking of NPR as highbrow chitchat for poindexters, said one radio specialist, who still works in the Boston market and asked not to be named.
Eagan laughed at the description and cited her long history as a columnist at The Boston Herald, “You know I’m a tabloid girl.” The radio show, she agrees, draws a cross-section of listeners.
On June 11, WGBH will expand “Boston Public Radio” with a one-hour Sunday version called “BPR Weekend,” the station said. The show will start as a 12-week pilot with rotating hosts, beginning with Andrea Cabral, former Massachusetts secretary of public safety, and Marcela Garcia, a Boston Globe editorial writer.
The Globe has a number of connections to both stations. Globe editor Brian McGrory is a frequent guest on WGBH, and the newspaper is working with WBUR on a podcast about the 1990 robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Redo, of WGBH, contends that his station is the “more locally focused.”
“I think we try to have more voices on that reflect the sound of the city.” He wants to produce “a blend that provides Boston with a very vibrant and local-sounding station that doesn’t avoid the big stories. I think that’s the biggest difference. Our business model is not premised on having two national programs.”
WGBH produces “The World,” which airs on 380 stations, Redo said. The station coproduces “The Takeaway,” a daily national news program.
In case you were wondering — wait, wait . . . don’t tell me — Kravetz disagrees about which station has the more local bent. If you knew that was coming, score two points for yourself.
“The fact that we do all these wonderful national programs doesn’t mean that they are more local,” Kravetz said in response to Redo’s comments. “They have a three-hour program in the middle of the day that is only heard in Boston, so I guess that’s a local program. But our local investment in news dwarfs theirs.”
“That’s a great boast,” Redo said, skillfully deescalating a potential contretemps. “The more people committed to local news the better.”
No mic drops in this NPR battle. The mic is placed down, gently and genteely.
Mark Arsenault can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.