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WBUR, WGBH stalemated in Boston public radio war

Posted by Mark Leccese  July 24, 2012 03:31 PM

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Out running errands at 11:30 Saturday morning, I tuned the car radio to the always amusing “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me” on WGBH-FM. While I was in the supermarket, though, I missed part of the show.

No problem. At noon I switched over to WBUR-FM, which broadcast the same episode of the same show.

Weekdays, WBUR and WGBH each air “Morning Edition” from 6-9 a.m. and “All Things Considered” from 4-6 p.m. (Oddly, there’s a delay of about 2 second between the simultaneous broadcasts, so if you miss a word or two you can punch up the other station and catch it.) WGBH airs “Marketplace” at 6 p.m. and it’s on WBUR at 6:30.

You can listen to “The Diane Rehm Show” at 10 a.m. on WGBH and at 10 p.m on WBUR. You can listen to the “BBC World Update: at 5 a.m. on WGBH, “BBC Newshour” at 9 a.m. on WBUR and “BBC World Service” at 11 p.m. on WBUR.

In the 19 hours between 5 a.m. and midnight, seven hours are repeated between the two stations — with six hours of programming aired simultaneously. (On the weekends, both WGBH and WBUR broadcast “Weekend Edition,” “Studio 360,” “This American Life,” “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” “On the Media,” and “Radio Lab.”)

It is worth noting the six hours of drive-time overlap in the morning and the evening are not precisely the same — each station uses the time allotted for NPR affiliates during those shows to add local news.

The two station’s overlapping programming leaves me puzzled – it’s as if Kevin Cullen wrote the same column on the same day for the Globe and the Herald, or Channel 4 and Channel 5 decided to air the same newscast at the same time every morning and evening.

Money, certainly, is a factor. Neither public radio station in Boston could possibly afford 24 hours of original programming a day. But both stations do produce excellent local shows that, fortunately for listeners, don’t overlap.

WGBH has a two-hour block, starting at noon, that it calls “Boston Public Radio.” The show is primarily chat with in-studio guests, and the lead hosts are the always interesting Callie Crossley and the provocative Emily Rooney.

WBUR has a one-hour show at 3 p.m. called “Radio Boston,” which features somewhat more original reporting than he WGBH show. I listen to “Boston Public Radio” and “Radio Boston” whenever I can.

When WGBH shook up its programming schedule last month and eliminated the weeknight jazz program — a move I lamented in an earlier blog post — it mashed together what had been “The Emily Rooney Show” and “The Callie Crossley” show into one show called “Boston Public Radio.”

That the show’s name is so similar to WBUR’s “Radio Boston” that it seems like a poke in the eye to WBUR — or, at least, a challenge.

Dan Kennedy, author of the “Media Nation” blog, wrote last month when WGBH announced the changes to it programming line-up that the shuffling suggested “executives are planning to up the ante in their competition” with WBUR.

In April of last year, the Globe’s Johnny Diaz wrote a long piece about WGBH taking on the “Boston Goliath” WBUR. The bosses at WBUR clearly expressed their displeasure to Diaz.

“This marketplace did not need to have two public radio stations with the same format,” said Charles J. Kravetz, WBUR’s new general manager.

Angry at facing competition that’s more common to commercial radio, Kravetz accused WGBH of copying his station. “This format, which WBUR pioneered across the country, was a winning formula,” he said. “This is a zero-sum game. If either station flourishes, it will be at the expense of the other.”

The bosses at WGBH disagreed and suggested both stations would be winners.

“Our goal is that we have a larger and more vibrant public radio service in Boston,’’ said Marita Rivero, vice president and general manager of programming for television and radio at WGBH. And although she acknowledged that the WGBH audience has grown since the station changed formats, “the growth feels like we are attracting new people,’’ she said.

Rivero said there’s room in Boston for both stations, citing WGBH research that showed a large number of listeners who don’t tune into either station — an untapped audience for public radio, she said.

“We will see WGBH grow,” Rivero said, and “WBUR will grow.”

Radio ratings can be complicated and vary from month to month, but it’s worth looking at a ratings snapshot to see whether Kravetz or Rivero was right.

For the June ratings period, WBUR placed 11th in the Boston market, with 3.5 percent of radio listeners in the market tuned to that station in an average quarter-hour period and a total of 407,600 cumulative listeners. That may be an aberration: WBUR had an average 3.9 share for the five months of February through June. WGBH ranked 21st in June, with a 1.3 share and 225,500 cumulative listeners. The average share for February through June was 1.36.

Five years ago, in October of 2007, according to the Boston Radio Blog, WBUR had a 4.0 share and WGBH a 1.4 share.

Again, one month of ratings is just a snapshot, but these numbers suggest — not prove, but suggest — is that neither station’s ratings have changed significantly since WGBH got into the all-news-and-talk business. (WBZ-AM remains in the leader in news and talk with a 4.7 share and 675,300 cumulative listeners in June.)

It’s a stalemate, and it’s a stalemate that’s good for listeners: The more news choices we have on Boston radio, the better.

I just wish WGBH would copy-cat a little less and innovate a little more.

Follow @mleccese on Twitter.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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