Going to news has been done, but going up against WBUR …

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Boston’s public radio landscape shifted Dec. 1 when WGBH moved all of its classical music programming to WCRB 99.5 FM and adopted a news/talk-dominated format for WGBH 89.7.

The change, made possible by WGBH’s $14 million purchase of the commercial classical station from Nassau Broadcasting Partners, marks a strategic redirection for the Boston pubcaster that’s known throughout the world as the top producer of television programming for PBS.

Its radio service, with a 100,000-watt signal extending far beyond Boston, had tried for decades to satisfy both music lovers and NPR news audiences.

Like pubradio licensees in other major cities, WGBH now looks to super-serve both sets of listeners and attract new ones with two distinct formats. On the news side, it’s taking on one of the strongest NPR News franchises in the country, Boston University’s WBUR-FM, as it seeks to carve out its own, bigger slice of the Boston radio audience with a different blend of news and information.

WGBH looks to “unlock the value” of its mixed format, gaining membership and underwriting revenues from the audience its gains on both channels, said Marita Rivero, g.m. for radio and TV. The WGBH news service will broadcast core NPR programs and “unique local content” distinctly different from WBUR’s, she said.

Although the station’s signal expansion follows the generally successful trend of pubradio outlets creating news-dominated formats, it has to create an alternative flavor of news/talk to thrive alongside a formidable pubradio news source.

WETA in Washington, D.C., KUOW in Seattle and KALW in San Francisco created alternative public radio news formats but no one, as yet, has found the magic formula that wins sizable new audiences. (WETA-FM’s adventure in news lasted less than three years, ending when the station got the chance to become the only  source of classical music in the nation’s capital.)

At the same time WGBH is developing its news format, it also has to convert a commercial classical music station with a much weaker signal into a listener-supported public radio service.

WBUR-FM operates on a $20 million budget with a staff of 120 — more than half producing or reporting news content. It is one of the most listened-to public radio stations in the country and produces national series such as On Point, Here and Now and Only a Game, as well as a vibrant, news-oriented website. And it still airs the primo Boston export, Car Talk, born at the station.

“There’s no doubt we’re going to be more competitive on the news and public affairs front,” said Paul La Camera, general manager. “We are the dominant station now in that area and we have no intention in the future of being anything but that.”

WGBH likewise has been building a slate of national radio productions. It’s home to The World and a co-production partner in The Takeaway, both flagship shows from Public Radio International. Its other radio productions have mostly been musical and cultural.

The station’s radio side has been dwarfed by its national TV productions. In 2008, the Boston pubcaster spent 5 percent of its $226.5 million budget on radio operations, or roughly $11.3 million, according to its most recent annual report. A WGBH spokeswoman declined to release financial details for the radio expansion, but earlier this summer the station announced a capital campaign to finance the WCRB purchase.

“In reality we’ve been competing with WBUR for many years, and we already have a shared audience,” said John Voci, WGBH Radio g.m. “My goal is not necessarily to take audience from WBUR, but to really grow the public radio audience in Boston.” College-educated adults comprise 1.4 million of the city’s population but only 13 percent of them are public radio listeners, Voci said. Since college education is a top predictor of public radio listening, there’s plenty of room for WGBH to expand its audience without harming WBUR.

“What WGBH is doing is in some ways like a foray into unknown territory,” said Arthur Cohen, president of Public Radio Program Directors. “There’s been a lot of theorizing about it for a long time — the idea of multiple stations in a market serving a larger audience with two distinct news formats.”

George Bailey of Walrus Research advocated the strategy in a 2004 study, but a key ingredient for it to succeed—a sufficient quantity of strong news programs that are distinctly different from NPR’s standard news fare—has been missing, Bailey said. 

Jeff Hansen, who has programmed two news stations in the Seattle/Tacoma market for three years, says there aren’t enough differentiated programs to create a truly distinctive alternative to the NPR News format. “Just about everything is designed for the core listener,” he said. KXOT in Tacoma, which KUOW operates on a local management agreement, differentiates its schedule with international news programming, but for various reasons it has struggled to attract an audience.

“If you want to appeal to a slightly different segment of listeners, you’d have to design a completely fresh stream” — something on the order of what producers of The Takeaway are attempting to do, but with many more hours of programming, Hansen said. He wonders why WGBH, a co-production partner on PRI’s morning drivetime show, isn’t airing all four hours [two of which are roll-overs] of The Takeaway, which was created as an alternative to Morning Edition.

(WGBH is now airing two hours of The Takeaway every weekday morning, though they are split as lead-in and lead-outs of the 7-9 a.m. block of Morning Edition.)

Playing somewhat nice

According to Bailey, there’s another prerequisite for success with a differentiated news format: The stations have to come to an amicable agreement about which programs they air. “In an ideal world, one station would give up certain programs,” Bailey said. “It’s like playing nice.” 

In their first schedule for the news service, it appears that WGBH programmers tried to “play nice” most of the time by limiting duplication with WBUR’s lineup to the NPR newsmagazines. The lineup, released Nov. 30, also maintained jazz programs on weeknights and Celtic music on weekends.

But where WGBH gave itself an earlier play for the NPR news quiz Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me and two other popular programs, WBUR quickly countermoved. It rescheduled Wait, Wait as well as This American Life and On the Media to air on Saturday opposite the same shows on WGBH. 

“We’re always thinking about creating the strongest weekend schedule for our listeners,” said Sam Fleming, WBUR director of news and programming. “This was an opportunity to revisit that and try to put a schedule together that would strengthen our ability to provide listeners with programs they care most about.”

WBUR now airs Wait, Wait three times each weekend — the first in direct competition with WGBH. “It is such a powerful program for us,” Fleming said. “We want it to air when the most available listeners were able to hear it.” Wait Wait attracts a broad audience that extends well beyond WBUR’s core listeners, consistently earning a 9 share, Fleming said.

“This whole WGBH change forces us to get better at what we do,” Fleming said. “We’ll sharpen our game, make our stories better and put more local material into All Things Considered. . . . It’s the depth of coverage in our local news that really, in the end, is going to distinguish us.” 

The WGBH lineup will change again next month when new midday talk programs hit the air. Plans call for Emily Rooney, host and executive editor of the WGBH-TV series Greater Boston and Beat the Press, to host a noon broadcast; Callie Crossley, a documentary filmmaker and panelist/contributor to WGBH’s Beat the Press and Basic Black, will host a 1 p.m. talk show. 

In those midday programs, WGBH plans to focus on local coverage, opposite WBUR broadcasts of its nationally syndicated programs On Point and Here and Now, Voci said. “That has opened a possibility for us to create programs that could really speak locally,” he said.

Leaving ‘classical lite’ behind

There were more successful precedents for what WGBH is doing in music with the purchase of WCRB. As elsewhere, it’s becoming the sole classical-music source in the market.

KUSC in Los Angeles and WETA in Washington, D.C., claimed the classical mantle in their markets in 2007, and both have enjoyed significant audience gains. WNYC in New York, which purchased WQXR from the New York Times Co. this summer, recently also joined the field. Like its Boston pubradio cousin, WNYC went all-news on its noncommercial frequency, but the New York station already had built the area’s largest pub radio news audience when it had a news-and-music format.

For WCRB, now rebranded 99.5 All Classical, the challenge is two-fold. Its 27,000-watt analog broadcast signal has only two-thirds of the population reach of WGBH-FM, so a sizable portion of ’GBH music lovers cannot receive WCRB. In hopes of retaining those listeners, the stations are promoting the new online stream 995allclassical.org and WGBH-FM’s HD 2 channel, which also transmits the classical service.

The rebranding may also help to rehabilitate WCRB’s reputation — it’s been a “classical light” station — though changes in music selection could  alienate listeners accustomed to its familiar, limited rotation of classics. As a commercial station, WCRB was one of the first to limit its playlist to the most popular musical works; its musical repertoire has narrowed even more in recent years, Voci said.

“It adopted a format of fairly popular musical works on quick rotation, and they excerpted classical works,” Voci said. But narrowing its playlists eventually narrowed its audience, he said. “That definition of what they were doing ultimately hurt them.”

Some degree of attention to popularity can enlarge the audience for classical music, however, according to a recent study for the Public Radio Program Directors Association (separate story).

Now that it’s operating WCRB as a noncommercial station, WGBH’s music programmers are opening up the format, Voci said.  “We are intent on playing complete works and . . . we don’t even have a playlist we are trying to rotate through.”   

In-studio performances, both recorded and live, will remain a hallmark of WGBH’s music service, he added. “We intend to celebrate the classical music community in Boston, using our performance studio and remote broadcasting capability.”

Since moving into its new headquarters in the Brighton neighborhood two years ago, WGBH has presented hundreds of performances, both live and recorded. As 99.5 All Classical, WCRB will be adding “that level of commitment to local music,” Voci said. 

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