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WBUR to change talk show lineup

Moves come amid shifts by rival WGBH

Radio station WBUR-FM will cancel ''The Connection" after the show's Aug. 5 broadcast and said yesterday that it had laid off eight staffers from a full-time workforce of roughly 110 employees, including host Dick Gordon, who took over after a bitter dispute between WBUR and its previous host, Christopher Lydon.

Ratings for ''The Connection" had been ''flat for several years," said Nancy J. Sterling, a spokeswoman for WBUR (90.9). Sterling said WBUR also will reduce its annual on-air fund-raisers to four from six in response to listener complaints.

Tom Ashbrook, who hosts the award-winning WBUR call-in show ''On Point" from 7 to 9 p.m., will move his show in August into ''The Connection" time slot of 10 a.m. until noon.

The changes at WBUR are taking place as rival National Public Radio station WGBH-FM (89.7) has recently beefed up its news and talk offerings to compete for WBUR's listeners. In late May, the station began airing Lydon's new talk show, ''Open Source," Monday through Thursday evenings.

Asked about the shifts at WBUR, Lydon said, ''I have nothing to say."

Gordon could not be reached for comment.

''The Connection" airs on about 65 other NPR stations around the country. Lydon, a journalist and former Boston mayoral candidate, started the show a decade ago and took it national in 2001. He and former WBUR station manager Jane Christo engaged in a very public battle for control of the show that year when Lydon demanded a share of the syndication revenue. Lydon and WBUR parted ways, and Christo ultimately installed Gordon as host.

''The Connection" will continue its run for a few weeks with a substitute host, Sterling said. As a member of National Public Radio, WBUR is required to give sister stations notice before changing programs that air on other stations, Sterling said.

WBUR, which is owned and operated by Boston University, has run up about $13 million in deficits over the past few years, Sterling said. The station has streamlined operations and made changes after Christo resigned last fall following allegations of mismanagement -- charges that Christo denied. Peter Fiedler took over as acting general manager a short time later.

Yesterday's moves project savings of $1 million, but the savings will be reinvested in the station and three new hires as WBUR focuses on local news that has national impact, including healthcare, medicine, and arts stories, Sterling said.

WBUR's budget for this fiscal year is about $20 million, Sterling said, and WBUR officials expect that budget to have a small surplus. In its last fiscal year, WBUR reaped $7.8 million from fund-raising, she said. Other financial support comes from underwriters, including BU.

Listeners have steadily complained about WBUR's on-air fund-raising. The station now looks to engage in ''smarter" fund-raising that puts more emphasis on telephone, online, and direct-mail efforts, Sterling said.

Commenting about yesterday's moves, Fiedler said in a statement: ''We were receiving consistent complaints from listeners about the volume of our on-air fund-raising. At the same time, we needed to act in a financially responsible manner. We have now decided to put our resources into 'On Point' and 'Here and Now' and enhanced local news coverage, including the addition of two reporters to the news staff."

''Here and Now" is another WBUR show.

Fiedler also said in his statement, ''Dick Gordon is a highly respected journalist who has served WBUR listeners and others around the country with great distinction."

Commenting on the change in his time slot, ''On Point" host Ashbrook said: ''It's hard to see a show go away, but I understand what's being done. At 'On Point,' we're excited to go to work for our morning listeners."

In 2001, Gordon, a veteran of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., beat out other finalists to become the host of what the Globe then described as WBUR's ''signature syndicated call-in show."

In discussing WBUR's changes, Lucy Sholley, WGBH's director of media relations, said, ''We have no plans to make any changes at this time."

Chris Reidy can be reached at reidy@globe.com.

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