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'Open Source' host Lydon asks listeners to assist show financially

'We need to get through the summer and solidify the foundation,' says radio veteran Christopher Lydon. "We need to get through the summer and solidify the foundation," says radio veteran Christopher Lydon. (nubar alexanian)

Is "Open Source" closing? Ever since the public radio program lost its major backer, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, last October, it has been openly soliciting funds. But the two-year-old program, which is hosted and produced by Boston radio veteran Christopher Lydon, reached a new level of seeming desperation last Friday, when Lydon posted " S.O.S. from Open Source" on the program's website (radioopen and a series of fund-raising e-mails went out urging potential donors to call producer Mary McGrath's cellphone with pledges.

"We need the money," said Lydon during a phone conversation yesterday. "We need to get through the summer and solidify the foundation. This is the way public broadcasting does it. We turn to the audience."

The program, which features discussion of politics, arts, and social issues, aims to further listener involvement and stimulate ongoing dialogue by soliciting listener e-mail and commentary on its blog. Airing locally Mondays through Thursdays at 7 p.m. on WGBH-FM (89.7), it's distributed by Public Radio International to approximately 33 stations and XM satellite radio. The radio show and blog were launched May 30, 2006, by Lydon and McGrath, the founders of the now defunct WBUR-FM (90.9) show "The Connection." Originally meant to be produced at UMass-Lowell, it was going to be the showpiece of a proposed communications program at the state university. That deal, originally designed to last five years, had the university funding the program with a monthly $38,000, in a series of six-month contracts. According to UMass-Lowell spokeswoman Patti McCafferty, on Oct. 13 new interim chancellor David J. MacKenzie announced that the latest contract, which expired Dec. 31, would not be renewed, citing budgetary pressures. "Open Source" is produced by Lydon's independent production company, Open Source Media Inc. Although the program airs on WGBH, which also rents its facilities to the producers, the station does not produce or fund the program, according to WGBH spokesman Ben Schwartz. No one at PRI could be reached for comment.

Since losing the UMass-Lowell funding, says Lydon, the show has been kept afloat with various other resources. "We've always had benefactors," he says. Those resources include $150,000 received in January, the first installment of a $250,000 MacArthur Foundation Grant, according to McGrath.

That grant, however, is not enough to sustain the program, which stresses its "Web community" and ongoing online conversation as an essential part of its makeup. In order to keep running, "Open Source" needs "the better part of a million dollars annually," says Lydon. "We're a very lean ship."

While declining to comment on the budget of "Open Source," Arthur Cohen, president of the Public Radio Program Directors Association, did note that this amount may be difficult to raise, particularly for a program that focuses on its Internet listeners. "The finances are really tough," says Cohen. "The amount of online listening going on just can't compensate for on air. . . . As much as the buzz for online is great, it's not the same as on air. And it's much more difficult to convert [online] listening [into contributing] membership."

As a basis for comparison, Cohen suggested the daily program "On Point ." According to its website, that program is carried on more than 80 stations, including WBUR. And getting on more stations may be a real challenge for "Open Source." Citing the "maturity" of public radio, he notes, "as stations have become really successful, they're less free in taking something new."

Despite the tall order, Lydon remains optimistic about the weeklong fund-raising drive, which he expects to meet the station's immediate needs by Friday. An update on the website at press time yesterday reported that $16,181 had been donated by a total of 300 people.

"We're hugely pleased," says Lydon. "The four corners of the world have responded."