WGBH changes sting public radio rival
Since switch to talk format last year, station has made gains on WBUR
WBUR-FM 90.9 has long been a Boston Goliath, with a news-and-talk schedule that’s been a model for public radio nationwide.
But now it appears that thousands of listeners are leaving WBUR and tuning into WGBH-FM 89.7, which last year replaced music programs with news and talk shows very much like WBUR’s — sometimes running the same National Public Radio shows at the same time.
“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.’’
WGBH officials insist that the idea was not to hurt WBUR, but to attract new listeners to public radio — and that, they said, is what’s happening.
“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 ra dio 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.’’
Public radio stations may not sell ads the way commercial stations do, but they do seek corporate sponsorships for programming, and adding listeners can help draw such lucrative support. WBUR’s and WGBH’s local operations get most of their money in donations from audiences and corporations, with a small portion from federal grants.
Since January 2010, when WGBH changed formats, to this past January, the WGBH audience grew by 16,000 listeners, or 6 percent, to 269,000 people, according to the Arbitron ratings service. At the same time, WBUR’s audience fell by 44,000 listeners, or 8 percent, for a weekly audience of 485,900. In 2009, audience numbers for both stations were flat, according to Jack Casey, a radio professor at Emerson College.
In February — the most recent numbers available — the WGBH audience was up 3 percent from the previous year, and WBUR was down 6 percent.
“There is no way to determine why a station gained or lost listeners without a great deal of supplemental research,’’ Casey said, but “logic dictates that if a station changes format to compete with an existing station in the same format, some part of the existing station’s audience will migrate to the new guy.’’
Both stations said the audience shifts began with the change at WGBH in 2010, and the ratings show both local and national shows are drawing listeners to the station. For example, on weekdays at noon, WBUR airs the national program “Here and Now,’’ and WGBH runs “The Emily Rooney Show.’’ From February 2010 to last February, the WGBH noontime audience grew from an average of 18,000 to 34,000 listeners a week. On WBUR, the audience shrank from 113,000 to 100,000 listeners. Among WGBH’s advantages: It has a broadcast signal that reaches farther west and north, which means some suburban listeners may be switching to WGBH to hear their favorite programs more clearly. Eighty percent of WBUR’s audience lives in the Boston metro area; only 60 percent of WGBH listeners are in Greater Boston.
Neenah Estrella-Luna of East Boston is on both sides of the ratings equation. For years, she was a regular listener to WBUR, where she heard NPR’s news and information programs.
After WGBH switched formats, Estrella-Luna, an adjunct professor at Northeastern University, found all of her favorite NPR shows — plus new programs that WBUR doesn’t carry, such as “PBS Newshour’’ — on WGBH, which became her primary source for news.
“WGBH is part of my life. I absolutely love everything they do,’’ she said, referring to the station’s lineup.
Boston’s NPR affiliates are cannibalizing each other as listeners switch stations, according to Emerson’s Casey. “It looks like WGBH eroded WBUR’s numbers,’’ he said, and WGBH has exacerbated the effect by adding shows that were on WBUR. Although WGBH previously shared a few NPR shows with WBUR, such as the news magazine “All Things Considered,’’ its format change added a number of programs that are now available on both stations — for example, the popular interview show “Fresh Air with Terry Gross.’’
NPR does not restrict its affiliates from such competitive programming.
“We believe that local stations know best how to serve their audiences with programming from NPR,’’ said Dana Davis Rehm, NPR’s senior vice president of marketing and communications, in a statement.
WGBH may have a smaller radio audience, but it also owns two prominent public television stations — Channel 2 and Channel 44 — and has more resources, with about 850 employees compared to WBUR’s 120 staffers. It can also run radio versions of its popular TV shows, including the local affairs show “Greater Boston.’’
WGBH’s Rivero said the station created a real benefit for listeners by adding more local programs to public radio, including two midday shows anchored by personalities familiar to WGBH’s television viewers: “Greater Boston’’ TV host Emily Rooney and commentator Callie Crossley, host of her own call-in talk show.
“We had hoped that having local focus and an opportunity to talk about local issues and celebrate our region would attract audiences,’’ said Rivero.
WBUR responded last year by expanding local program “Radio Boston’’ from weekly to daily, and adding to the show’s staff. Kravetz said the station has more ideas for future programs, but declined to elaborate.
Another key change: eliminating one of WBUR’s quarterly on-air fund-raising drives, which can be unpopular with some listeners, according to Kravetz, a former president of cable channel NECN who took over at WBUR in January. Two weeks ago, WBUR raised $1.2 million in a five-day fund-raiser, close to twice the $700,000 raised last March, and will skip its June drive — a first.
“Our fund-raising drive is always an important litmus test of our strength,’’ said Kravetz.
According to Emerson’s Casey, head-to-head competition is rare in public radio. There was a similar battle in Washington, D.C., six years ago. Like WGBH, WETA changed its music-and-news format to all-news to compete against public station WAMU and commercial news station WTOP. After WTOP fought back, boosting its signal, WETA gave up the fight and restored its music programming.
“My understanding is that both stations are doing well since their formats diverged,’’ Casey said.
Here in Boston, WBUR’s Kravetz doubts WGBH can maintain its rate of audience growth.
“It will probably level off,’’ he said. “Even with the small dip in our ratings, we are still multiple times the size of the audience of WGBH in almost every time period.’’
Kravetz said that when he started at WBUR, he met with WGBH management “to open up a dialogue’’ about their roles in the market.
“I do believe that they do not want to hurt WBUR, but the question is whether they can do what they want to do and not hurt WBUR,’’ he said. “I have to make sure that nothing ever hurts WBUR.’’
Johnny Diaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.