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Joan Vennochi

Turmoil in the air waves

Despite the grumbling, public radio competition is good for Boston

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / April 21, 2011

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CRY ME a river of pledge money and federal grants.

Public radio not only wants taxpayer dollars to back it up. One local station manager also wants a monopoly.

“This market did not need to have two public radio stations with the same format,’’ Charles J. Kravetz, general manager of WBUR-FM, lamented recently to the Globe about the competition his station now faces from WGBH-FM.

Tell that to McDonald’s and Burger King, Home Depot and Lowe’s, Shaw’s and Market Basket, Target and Walmart. Any business would be happy if its rivals disappeared. But those wishes run up against an economic reality called capitalism.

Competition is its core underpinning. It leads to fierce fights everywhere, especially in the world of Boston media.

This is still a two-newspaper town, where The Boston Globe competes against The Boston Herald. Multiple local TV network affiliates vie with each other and Comcast-owned New England Cable News. A battery of talk radio hosts on WRKO-AM and WTKK-FM battle it out from morning to night. WEEI-AM, which once dominated Boston sports radio, is trying to stop a slide of listeners to WBZ-FM. Boston Magazine, Boston Common, and the Improper Bostonian are engaged in a vicious hunt for advertisers and readers. And, that’s just a slice of what’s happening in the traditional news media. Beyond that, there are other print and online options.

Yet, Kravetz doesn’t think it’s fair that WGBH replaced music programs with news and talk shows similar to WBUR’s, and sometimes runs the same National Public Radio shows at the same time. “ . . . This is a zero-sum game,’’ he complained. “If either station flourishes, it will be at the expense of the other.’’

That attitude is a microcosm of the arrogance and insularity that has come to define the public broadcasting universe. It irritates even those who cherish its great journalistic contributions.

The larger attitude problem played out over the past year; first, in National Public Radio’s awkwardly handled firing of Juan Williams as a senior news analyst for comments he made as a Fox News contributor. Then, Ron Schiller, an NPR fundraising executive, was caught making comments that seemed to disparage conservatives and Tea Party movement members.

A subsequent analysis of the full two-hour sting video showed some of Schiller’s comments were taken out of context. But there was no question about the accuracy of his comments concerning federal funding. He did say that taxpayer money only amounts to “about 10 percent of the total station economy,’’ adding, “Frankly, it is very clear that we would be better off in the long run without federal funding.’’

Schiller, who’s gone from NPR, was right about the funding. Yet, despite a Republican-led effort to strip money from NPR, public broadcasting has so far dodged the budget ax. According to a review of the federal budget resolution by the Washington Post, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which passes federal funds to public radio and TV stations, is slated to receive $445 million from Congress — about the same amount it received in its last appropriation.

Meanwhile, NPR still has image problems. It’s searching for a new CEO, and according to The Wall Street Journal, may hire a public-relations firm. According to a brief circulated by NPR, the news organization’s goal is to “reshape public opinon about NPR — not only in the wake of recent painful events, but in light of an escalating effort by others to define us in ways that are antithetical to what we stand for and who we are.’’

The real problem is that NPR representatives have been defining themselves by their own actions and statements.

In the case of head-to-head competition, at least, NPR gets it: It does not restrict affiliates from competitive programming. It’s Kravetz who needs an attitude adjustment.

Some listeners are apparently gravitating to WBUR’s new rival because WGBH is offering more local programming, including talk shows. That’s not a bad development. It illustrates how starved the Boston area audience is for serious, news-driven conversation about important local issues. Competition only helps their cause.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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