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Voices | Alex Beam

Gentlemen, start your pledge drives

WGBH ramps up its news programming to compete with WBUR

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / December 18, 2009

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After a quarter century of snoozing, the slumbering giant of Boston public radio - WGBH 89.7 - is finally waking up. In its morning lineup, the World’s Greatest Broadcast House is throwing NPR dowager Diane Rehm (“My favorite talk show host’’ - Hillary Clinton) up against WBUR 90.9’s yappy Tom Ashbrook. At noon, ’GBH has its franchise TV queen, Emily Rooney, facing off against ’BUR’s honey-voiced Robin Young.

Earlier this month, ’GBH tried to steal a march on market leader ’BUR by rejiggering its weekend schedule. ’BUR rejiggered right back. “I’m not going to let a newcomer into the market and air our critical programming earlier than we do,’’ says a feisty Paul LaCamera, ’BUR’s general manager who formerly ran WCVB-5 television station. “I came out of a competitive commercial broadcasting environment. When someone acts, we respond.’’

It’s an old-fashioned radio war; I like it!

Yes, I hear you saying, but it’s only public radio. Only public radio, my eye. WBUR is the second-most listened to morning station in Boston, after WBZ, and ranks fourth in evening drive time. WGBH, which until recently combined news and classical music programming, ranks below 20 in both categories. Public radio types don’t like to crow about share points, but more listeners means more marks come pledge drive time. And advertisers - sorry, underwriters - pay more for placement on shows with big audiences. Numbers matter, a lot.

How did we get here? In the mid-1980s, former WBUR station manager Jane Christo jettisoned classical music and converted the sleepy Boston University station to an all-news-and-talk format. Within just a few years, ’BUR owned the upscale NPR demographic, originating signature shows such as “The Connection,’’ “Car Talk,’’ “Only a Game,’’ “On Point,’’ and “Here and Now.’’ During those years, says ’BUR’s former communications adviser, Mary Stohn, “We were terrified the sleeping giant would wake. The ’BUR signal was only 40,000 watts versus ’GBH’s 100,000. And ’GBH had a huge funding machine. If the stations went head to head, ’BUR would get buried.’’

It never happened. ’GBH, which focuses almost all its attention on its core television franchises, such as “Masterpiece Theatre,’’ “Frontline,’’ and “American Experience,’’ faded into irrelevancy, radio-wise. Now it wants to get back in the game.

Last month, ’GBH purchased classical music station WCRB 99.5, and offloaded all its classical programming there. In morning drive time, it is adding a second hour of its not-terribly-successful co-production with New York’s WNYC, “The Takeaway,’’ and in the afternoon, it is adding an hour of its more seasoned co-production with the BBC, “The World.’’ The noontime Rooney show, and a second hour hosted by Rooney’s TV colleague Callie Crossley, will strive for an “intelligent talk’’ format - a famous oxymoron of the airwaves.

WGBH radio manager John Voci plans to hire about 10 producers, editors, and reporters in the next few months to compete with WBUR’s formidable 25-person news crew. ’BUR uses its reporters to add as much as 20 minutes of local content to each hour of NPR’s “All Things Considered,’’ a show that both stations air. ’GBH can run audio features from Rooney’s “Greater Boston’’ TV show, or from its “Nova’’ science show with “ATC,’’ but Voci realizes it is playing catch-up. “We don’t plan to build up a large news staff,’’ Voci says. “We’ll be lean.’’

’BUR staffers have an almost mystical faith in WGBH’s management ineptitude, and in the past they have not been disappointed. Maybe the worm is turning. ’BUR’s long string of hit shows is behind it. The only new program is the anemic “Radio Boston,’’ marooned in a once-weekly time slot on Fridays. LaCamera says he won’t increase “Radio Boston’s’’ frequency until “it’s of the same standard of quality as the national and international shows that we air from NPR.’’

What about the little lady who started the big war? (That was Abraham Lincoln’s famous term for Harriet Beecher Stowe.) “I think it’s a brilliant move on the part of WGBH,’’ says Christo, who still works part time as a consultant. “They moved their sizable classical music audience to WCRB. Now the challenge is to program the rest of their day with quality news and information. They might become a public radio gem. We shall see.’’

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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