Christo’s bet on news/talk paid off for Boston’s WBUR

By Geneva Collins

Jane ChristoSee Jane. See Jane run WBUR. See Jane ditch the music for NPR news and talk. Grow WBUR, grow.

Why the primer approach? Because many in public radio consider General Manager Jane Christo’s reign at Boston University’s WBUR a textbook example of how to turn a middling public radio station into an overwhelming success.

Under Christo’s leadership — and her faith in NPR programming long before it was a sure thing — WBUR has grown from 60,000 listeners in 1979 to 400,000 to date–the fifth-largest public radio audience in the country.

“WBUR is a very important, bellwether station that bodes well for public radio in America. They have national programming, international programming, and tremendous local service to Boston,” said radio audience guru David Giovannoni. The researcher was just back from the Public Radio Program Directors Conference in Denver, where he told the crowd that the WBUR-originated Car Talk showed one of the highest rates of listener donations among public radio programs.

More recently, WBUR has given the system The Connection, the critically respected but slow-to-take-off talk show with host Christopher Lydon, and Bill Littlefield’s Only a Game, an eclectic, literate sports program carried by nearly 100 stations.

In addition to the programming targeted for a national audience, WBUR “is very aggressive in reporting local news, which most public radio stations do poorly,” said Dave Creagh, electronic publishing manager for Christian Science Monitor, who was an executive producer of Monitor Radio for years.

“They’re a potent news machine. Boy, if that’s want you want, they deliver. They’ve found a formula that’s working very well for them. Jane found a niche and just captured it, developed it, and in some ways defined it,” said veteran independent producer and broadcast journalist Jay Allison.

Indeed, the station’s newsroom staff of about 35 employees is larger than many total public radio staffs (WBUR’s total staff tops 100), and Christo plans to launch a local noon news show in mid-1998.

WBUR is also breaking ground on the pledge-drive front. At the Denver conference, the station won a FLO award for its creative fundraising approach this past summer — raising $170,000 in three hours by limiting its fund drive to an hour a day for three days.

But rampant success has its cost. There are those who think that WBUR sounds so slick and commercial that it’s forgotten its ideal-bound public radio roots. Others fret that the single-format concept that WBUR represents threatens public radio’s diversity and puts audience numbers before a station’s mission. There are off-the-record grumblings that the WBUR newsroom has been demoralized by recent firings.

From “Tribal radio” to all-talk

B.C. (before Christo), WBUR was like many other college stations in the ’70s, playing what Creagh described as “tribal radio.”

Christo came to WBUR as development director in 1974, leaving behind a career as an account executive for an advertising agency. She became program director and, five years later, station manager.

“We had just about everything–classical, jazz, alternative music, Latino. There was a woman’s program, different types of minority programs, how-to programs,” Christo remembered in a Current interview last spring in WBUR’s sleek new offices.

“What I wanted to do was build a loyal audience that would be willing to support the station. … When NPR put on Morning Edition in 1982, that really started our ascent into the news business. … I wanted to build on their strengths by making our strengths local news and information and talk. We wanted to evolve a format that when things were happening, people would tune to us.”

Christo switched to an all-classical format to solidify the audience, then over the years plugged national shows like Fresh Air into the schedule, along with BBC and NPR news programming.

Her counterparts at other stations describe Christo as an ambitious risk-taker with keen instincts for what the audience will like, promoting shows like This American Life and Talk of the Nation before they become hits.

“She was the one who added the Car Talk guys. That’s pretty nervy,” said Judy Jankowski, g.m. of KLON in Long Beach, Calif.

WBUR’s last weekday music block was replaced in 1994 with Lydon’s two-hour Connection. What resulted from the gradual metamorphosis from music to talk was steady audience growth that has never abated.

Sometime during the mid-1980s, WBUR began to outdraw grande dame WGBH-FM in the Boston metropolitan area. The station got a huge boost in listenership with two events in 1991: In January, the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War turned everyone into a news junkie. The following month, a CBS-affiliate station changed its format from 24-hour news to sports, and WBUR picked up more hard-core infomaniacs.

By 1995, WBUR was attracting more listeners than WGBH in the region’s Total Survey Area, reaching into New Hampshire and Rhode Island, despite ‘GBH’s more powerful signal (100,000 watts to WBUR’s 40,000). Between 1980 and 1996, WBUR’s weekly cumulative audience had grown 310 percent–faster than the public radio system’s (about 270 percent) and much faster than WGBH’s (59 percent).

“What has really made the difference for us in the middle of the day the past few years has been The Connection, which has changed the tent poles for us,” said Christo. With Lydon’s talk show, there are still listener peaks — “tent poles” — during Morning Edition and All Things Considered, but much less of a dip between them, compared to the audience previously drawn by classical music.

Lydon’s “cheerful rational voice”

Lydon, a longtime WGBH-TV anchor and once a reporter for the New York Times and the Boston Globe, is a cherished resource in a town rife with intellectuals and academics, and many believe The Connection is his best forum yet.

To describe what his show strives to be, Lydon recites a phrase Ralph Waldo Emerson used for a literary magazine he wanted to launch: “one cheerful rational voice amidst the din of mourners and polemics.”

But will a show that plays in Beantown wow them on stations in the heartland? Christo bet it would and took The Connection national at the beginning of this year, even though NPR had passed on it in favor of The Diane Rehm Show. To date, only three other stations have picked it up–hardly a resounding endorsement for a woman touted to have Midas instincts when it comes to picking programming.

One of those stations, WSUI-AM in Iowa City, had a 10 percent average quarter hour jump in listenership since it started carrying Lydon’s second hour.

“This is a thinking person’s show. It works out well here–we’ve got lots of bookish types (from the University of Iowa), many, many writers living in town,” said WSUI Program Director Dennis Reese. “But I wonder how it would play in Boise, for example.”

In September, WBUR announced that PRI would begin distributing the show in 1998–but there’s no word yet from Boise.

A much easier programming sell was Only a Game, perhaps because it has no competition on the sports front, and demands only a weekly slot. Headed by writer and longtime NPR commentator Bill Littlefield, the hour-long Saturday program focuses on the stories behind the athletic events, not the box scores and players’ stats that comprise so much of commercial sports talk radio. Although it launched locally in 1993, it was always intended to be a national show and is now carried on 96 stations.

Strengths are weaknesses

But does WBUR’s increasing focus on news/talk programming squelch creativity and hogtie diversity?

“If you take a specific program, like a minority program, and put it on for an hour Saturday afternoons, I’ve never been one that thought that was diversity,” said Christo. “I think we do a better service and are more diverse by doing our best to cover everything that we possibly can, at a time when all these diverse members of the community are available to listen to radio.”

“I think WBUR’s strengths are in some ways also the weaknesses,” said David Freudberg, an independent producer in the Boston area. “Overall, I’m enormously impressed with Jane Christo’s savvy over the years. She has been very attentive to where she perceives the audience to be. … The dangers are that WBUR approaches the sound of a commercial station. The sheer number of underwriting credits that you hear in a given hour of drive time can be overwhelming.

“Public radio needs to achieve a delicate balance [of national versus local programming],” said Freudberg. “There are certain national shows that are wonderful to have wherever you go. … But if public radio turns into a turn-key franchise like a 7-11, clearly we have forsaken our mission to the local audience.”

The Christian Science Monitor‘s Creagh has lived in the Boston area for seven years and listens to both WBUR and WGBH (which plays classical and jazz).

Ask to comment on Giovannoni’s assessment of WBUR as a bellwether station, Creagh replied, “David’s judgments tend to be related to the size and caliber of the audience. If you measure success in those terms, I agree with him. I get information from WBUR. But I get more joy from WGBH. There’s room for both.”

Marita Rivero, WGBH’s v.p. for radio, observes that WBUR and WGBH serve the area in very different ways.

“WBUR has a strong single format, provides great public service, great marketing and outreach,” said Rivero. “It’s made the most successful use of news and information programming from national sources and combined it with its local effort.”

She is quick to acknowledge the area’s third public radio station, the University of Massachusetts’ tiny WUMB. “Pat (g.m. Pat Monteith) has developed WUMB like a community station. It focuses on folk programming and special formats like Women’s Day. WGBH is a multifaceted service that we hope plays a major role in defining intellectual and artistic life in Boston. We’re an active part of the New England music community.”

Eye on Rhode Island

Christo has made no secret of the fact that she would like WBUR to expand its coverage throughout southern New England, including Rhode Island, which does not have a public radio station to call its own. In February, WBUR acquired an AM station on Cape Cod, where it simulcasts its FM broadcasts.

But it lost a bidding contest against WGBH in September to partner with Cape and Islands Community Public Radio to bring public radio service to the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard next year.

WGBH “wanted to collaborate with us, was interested in our long-range goals of … upholding public radio’s mission, even in the face of opposing trends–trends that have to do with inadequate balance between audience growth and income production and public service and mission,” said Allison, CICPR’s executive director. “WBUR made an excellent proposal, but it’s a Boston service.”

Christo also recently announced that WBUR will begin a locally produced noon news and information program in July 1998, with a budget of about $500,000 next year.

The plans do not bring hurrahs from the newsroom, which is reportedly demoralized over two recent staff dismissals. No one will speak on the record about the events, but it is known that Ken Bader, senior editor of local news, was fired in July, apparently for changing the wording of an underwriting credit on the air and refusing to change it back.

Bader refused to comment on the incident to Current. [In a letter to Current after publication of this article, Bader explained: "I did make a minor grammatical correction to the underwriting credit, but after my supervisor asked me to change it back, I did so. These facts are not in dispute. I did not comment for your article, as I do not consider Current an appropriate venue for resolving station personnel disputes. I regret that others apparently do not feel likewise."]

In August, Aaron Schacter, who had covered the statehouse for 20 months for WBUR on contract but was not technically an employee, was told to pack his boxes and that he would not be hired as promised after WBUR got scooped on the news that Massachusetts Gov. William Weld would resign to pursue his appointment to become ambassador to Mexico.

After an office uproar, Schacter apparently was told in recent days he would be hired after all.

Christo said the university’s confidentiality rules prevented her from discussing details about the cases, although she added, “Aaron is working here as a casual employee. Plans are to hire him full-time.”

“I’ll confirm only that we’re talking,” said Schacter.

WUMB’s Pat Monteith, asked to comment on rumors of WBUR’s newsroom unrest, sighed and replied, “There are rumors at WGBH, there are rumors at Monitor Radio, there are rumors here. You’re trained to compete and public radio’s become very competitive over the past four to five years.

“There’s a different level of expectation that comes from the top,” said Monteith. Station managers “have become very demanding, and it makes for a very pressured situation. At some point, if we weren’t so demanding, making sure the job gets done to move the station to the next level, it’s not going to happen.”

Copyright 1997 Current

EARLIER STORIES

WBUR’s national call-in show Car Talk is one of public radio’s genuine hits.

RELATED STORIES

Though men hold most top positions in public broadcasting, Christo and other women run many the biggest public radio stations.

LATER STORY

Hearing that listeners were fed up with long pledge drives, WBUR cut its pledging to a fraction of its former length — one of many public radio stations experimenting with reduced pledging.

Christo and talk host Christopher Lydon parted company in 2001 over his demand for equity in his program,The Connection.

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