Albany gets a lot of Chartock, but how much is too much?

By Alicia Shepard

When Alan Chartock, president of Northeast Public Radio in Albany, N.Y., was on a wife-imposed Mexican vacation, despite her objections he still found a way to call in for his five-day-a-week 7:34 a.m. spot.

Chartock, 70, lives and breathes the media institution he created nearly single-handedly in 1981. He’s on air most days and often hosts two weekly shows, one about medicine and the other about media.

If you are one of the 450,000 monthly listeners to mother station WAMC or its 22 repeaters in the hilly towns and valleys where New York meets Vermont and Massachusetts, you know a lot about Chartock.

You know he’s always trying a new diet (currently, no white food). You know he’s obsessed with exercise and his health. You know he thinks hydrofracking is bad for the environment and health. You know he’s in favor of the millionaires’ tax on New York’s top wage-earners. That he doesn’t like Rupert Murdoch. And that he has a dog named Murray, worships Pete Seeger, plays the banjo and is married to “the most wonderful woman in the world, Roselle.”

You would have seen six photos of him on the home page of WAMC’s website last week. You know him simply as “This is Alan.” Like Cher, no last name required.

“I can think of no other public radio manager that has as much power as Alan Chartock,” said Mark Vogelzang, new president of Maine Public Broadcasting. As a Wall Street Journal columnist noted in October, there is a “cult of Alan.”

He is also famously feared by some in the state capital because of the influence that comes with running the local public radio station. It was surprising how often New Yorkers said things to Current like, “You absolutely can’t quote me. We are afraid of him. Alan can publicly smear you because he’s got a great bully pulpit.”

“Alan has an account for everybody,” said one former staffer who requested anonymity. “You have a deficit and a balance. He’s always aware of what that balance is.”

But even those who don’t like him seem to respect him for all he has done to make WAMC a local powerhouse. The Wall Street Journal column by Ralph Gardner Jr. about Chartock could only be described as a paean.

“Don’t discount the raves,” said Rosemary Armao, a journalism professor at the State University of New York, Albany, and a biweekly guest on WAMC’s The Media Project. “He’s a tremendous talent. He’s an excellent interviewer. He is one of the most gifted teachers. There’s a reason there’s a cult of Alan. He’s a fascinating man, and he’s complicated.”

In November, CPB’s new ombudsman, Joel Kaplan, concluded that Chartock has too much power — that he shouldn’t be both a manager and a commentator. Kaplan did not accuse him of abusing that power, but he says Chartock treats WAMC as if he owns the station, which is not how public radio stations are expected to operate.

“It’s not his own personal fiefdom or station,” Kaplan told Current. “It belongs to the public, as do all the public radio and television stations.”

WAMC is remarkably successful, Kaplan wrote in his column, adding, “But its board of directors might want to rethink whether it is the best policy for WAMC’s president and CEO to use that radio station as a forum to voice his personal opinions.”

What concerns Kaplan and others is that Chartock appears on many WAMC shows and often shares his opinions. For example, he regularly hosts the call-in show, Vox Pop, and never holds back if he disagrees, though he’s respectful of callers.

Kaplan, CPB’s part-time ombudsman and a journalism professor at Syracuse University, wrote about Chartok in response to a note from a WAMC listener, a Democrat, who complained to the CPB ombudsman that Chartock may be endangering the public radio system by broadcasting his progressive views so freely.

“I feel that the outrageous behavior of Dr. Chartock of WAMC and some like him jeopardizes the future of the medium,” wrote Richard A. Peters. “I also strongly object to the use of my tax dollars to support the personal opinions of Dr. Chartock.”

Lisa Phillips, who headed the Hudson Valley Bureau for WAMC from 1998 to 2003, said that listeners tend to conflate their local station with NPR. “So when Alan speaks, it’s perceived that he’s speaking for all of public radio,” she said. “This at a time when NPR is striving to cultivate an image of utter, flawless objectivity and nonpartisanship.”

While Chartock’s leanings are decidedly left, Phillips and others who have worked for him say he never imposes his views on staff reporting. They say they are never told whom to put on the air, and even with an issue like hydrofracking, which Chartock opposes, the staff is encouraged to cover all sides.

Chartock is skilled at talking to his base, which is largely liberal and Democratic and lives in the affluent Hudson Valley and Berkshires. Albany County’s government is overwhelmingly Democratic, and so is the state Assembly.

“There’s an incredible hunger for a voice that is not Rush Limbaugh,” said Phillips. “People find WAMC and think, ‘Oh, here’s a voice for the people of this region.’”

Chartock has a Ph.D. in political science, is an emeritus professor at SUNY Albany and is often referred to as Dr. Chartock. The professor and broadcaster also can be described without dispute as an expert on New York state government. He also writes two weekly newspaper columns and publishes the student-run Legislative Gazette, which covers the state legislature.

Chartock, citing the First Amendment, said there is nothing wrong with opining on the airwaves, especially since he presents his opinions as his own and not as those of the stations.

He did not take kindly to the ombudsman’s criticism, pointing out that Kaplan works for a university that holds the license for pubradio station WAER.

“I think there might be a little jealousy at work,” said Chartock. “I think his commentary makes no sense, and frankly, I’m a little ticked off. I’ll tell you why. No. 1, it’s a matter of free speech. We here at the station take that very seriously. No. 2, who is this guy?”

Rewards of pledging

Chartock cites jealousy because WAMC does quite well with pledge drives. Each of its last three pledge drives raised $1 million, he said. During fundraisers, Chartock moves into an apartment above the station rather than commute to his home an hour away in Great Barrington, Mass.

That $3 million amounts to about half of WAMC’s $6.4 million of revenue — the rest comes from mainly from underwriting, some grants and CPB. Chartock earned $170,582 — or 2.71 percent of expenses — for fiscal year 2010, according to Charity Navigator.

The typical public radio practice is to use several fundraising tactics at once — strategically employing on-air appeals, emails, telemarketing, direct mail and online donations to interrupt programming as little as possible.

Chartock does it differently. “We do very little direct marketing,” he said. Instead, pledge becomes a family affair, turning over the airwaves to WAMC hosts and the audience and preempting most national programming.

“We consider the fund drives as a regular part of our programming,” said Chartock. “This is an opportunity for our audience to gather to exchange views. We read every comment and every name that gives money. It’s been like that for 30 years. I think some of the resentment I hear from the naysayers is that they can’t do it. There are very few stations that can make $1 million in a fundraiser compared to the proportion of people listening.”

WAMC’s most recent fund drive also raised the ire of the CPB ombudsman because the station offered in exchange for a 99-cent donation a button that says, “I support WAMC Northeast Public Radio & Occupy Wall Street,” with a big red “99%” superimposed. Chartock told the ombudsman he couldn’t think of any premiums designed for conservative listeners.

CPB’s new ombudsman questions the sale of buttons that tout both WAMC and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“The button issue as a premium is a problem,” said Kaplan. “It reflects that they have a point of view and are supporting the movement. Their defense was, it was a successful premium — maybe [a premium designed for conservatives] would be successful, who knows?”

Chartock and his top aides repeatedly cite free speech as their defense and note that WAMC has conservative commentators on air.

“I and this radio station will never succumb to those people who want to shut us up,” said Chartock. “I believe some of what is going on here is intended to shut us up.” The ombudsman’s comments will be an issue during the next fund drive, he predicted.

Chartock-watchers say he sometimes chooses a “bad guy” to fundraise against. Often the adversary is NPR, which Chartock feels charges his station too much for its national programs — $800,000 a year.

They bought a college station

Chartock got interested in WAMC in 1979 when he was a political-science professor. Back then, Albany Medical College held the license, and the station struggled to cover its costs. With four days of fundraising, Chartock and a small group accumulated $129,000, bought the station from the college, and set up WAMC as an independent nonprofit. For years, Chartock held both top positions at the station, serving as its board chair as well as its top exec.

Today, WAMC runs mainly local programming with such shows as The Round Table, Capitol Connection, Medical Monday, In Our Backyard, 51%: The Women’s Perspective, and the call-in show, Vox Pop.

Most famously, in the late 1990s Chartock had a weekly show with Mario Cuomo, former governor and Democratic Party icon, titled Me and Mario. Cuomo’s successor, Republican George Pataki, wasn’t interested in a similar arrangement, said Chartock.

Between July 2009 and July 2010, the station produced 46 hours a week of original programming, according to Selma Kaplan, v.p.

Within the pubradio system, Chartock is a firebrand known for, as he would say, “speaking truth to power.” He is known for his strong personality, moral certitude and readiness for conflict.

Mark Fuerst is a public radio veteran and consultant to stations and to Current who lives in WAMC’s listening area. Fuerst, like many who know Chartock, has conflicting assessments of WAMC’s manager. He admires the radio host for his interviewing skills, his deep political knowledge, his fundraising acumen and how he’s expanded the station. WAMC’s transmitters reach into seven states, extending to parts of Connecticut, southwestern New Hampshire, Canada, and New York City’s suburbs.

But many think Chartock has made WAMC too much about him.

“I know lots of public radio managers who have healthy egos but perfectly understand that they are temporarily managing a public resource,” said Fuerst. “That’s their role. It’s not about them. One of the reasons that some people don’t like Alan is that they feel he stepped over that line.”

Chartock is legendary for picking fights with other public broadcasters and trying to encroach on their territories. Two adjoining licensees with regional names nearly as ambitious as Chartock’s Northeast Public Radio — North Country Public Radio in Canton, N.Y., and New England Public Radio in western Massachusetts — have battled with Chartock to keep WAMC’s repeaters out of their territories, not always successfully.

In 2008 WAMC tried to take over an FM frequency, 91.7 MHz, in Lake Placid, N.Y., from North Country Public Radio. North Country had operated a translator there for 20 years. Both systems wanted to put in a full-power transmitter. North Country ended up spending $30,000 on legal costs to fend off WAMC’s application, according to General Manager Ellen Rocco.

As Chartock enters his 70s, his board is concerned about succession issues. When asked what would happen if he were hit by a bus, WAMC Director of Underwriting Dona Frank said, “The bus would crumble.”

Chartock has no plans to retire. He still gets up at 3 a.m., is in the car by 4 a.m. and then spends an hour on an exercise bike at WAMC before beginning his day.

“There’s no denying all the things he’s accomplished,” said Vogelzang. “He’s smart. He’s grown an extensive public radio network, and he will stay there until the day he dies.”

Chartock says his wife worries that his workaholic ways will kill him and is always trying to get him to relax or travel. “She says I’m going to kill myself. If that’s the case, killing myself for WAMC is worth it.”

Alicia Shepard, former NPR ombudsman and a longtime journalist, is a freelancer based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Comments, questions, tips? aliciacshepard@gmail.com

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  • Ansi Vallens

    Fair assessment. There would be no WAMC without Alan Chartock. But his complete domination results in mediocre fare. Many feel the same way. I recently hosted a trivia game at a Hudson, NY, bookstore. Between rounds I took an informal poll. Of the 30 people there, some 20 listened to public radio. Unfortunately, 16 streamed WNYC from New York rather than listen to local WAMC. When asked why, almost all cited Chartock.

    • Kevin K

      This is so true, so sad. Maybe an opportunity for social media? A kickstarter campaign to kick Chartock to the curb? Participants pledge to donate to the station provided he retires?

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