New Jersey’s pubradio operators step up coverage of Garden State

By Alicia Shepard

Nearly a year ago, two of the East Coast’s largest metropolitan pubcasting powerhouses took over nine New Jersey pubradio stations, casting uncertainty over the future of public radio news coverage for Garden State listeners.

The outlook has begun to brighten as New York Public Radio, operator of WNYC and WQXR, and Philadelphia’s WHYY have brought the New Jersey stations into their operational systems and refined plans to expand and deepen their reporting on New Jersey.

Color-coded map of broadcast coverage areas of WHYY, WNYC and their New Jersey stations.

WNYC bought NJN Radio's four northern transmitters, while Philadelphia's WHYY came away with its five South Jersey outlets. Map shows approximate 60 dBu coverage areas (moderate to good reception) of the nine stations and their new parents. (Map compiled by Current, based on NJN Radio auction document and Radio-Locator.com maps.)

For four decades, the New Jersey state government owned and subsidized public radio and TV services delivered through the New Jersey Network.

Then last year, New Jersey policymakers decided they wanted out of the broadcasting business. WHYY acquired five stations and NYPR bought four. New York’s PBS flagship station WNET began running NJTV on a lease arrangement.

Although the amount of New Jersey coverage they’ve delivered so far has been limited, the radio stations are working on partnerships to establish new facilities and develop multiplatform coverage, and New York Public Radio plans to hire more staff.

The five stations now owned by the New York pubcaster are now known as New Jersey Public Radio, and their newsroom is to be headquartered in new facilities at Montclair State University, under a partnership announced May 15. The NJPR stations include WNJT in Trenton, WNJP in Sussex, WNJY in Netcong and WNJO in Toms River.

New York Public Radio paid $1 million in cash to the New Jersey Broadcasting Authority that controlled NJN’s stations and committed another $1.8 million in in-kind services.

The expansion into New Jersey made sense for New York Public Radio — even though the deal closed less than two years after its purchase of classical WQXR — because WNYC already had the largest share of public radio listeners in New Jersey. Even so, before the purchase WNYC’s coverage of New Jersey wasn’t as robust or in-depth as its reporting on New York.

“We’ve always covered New Jersey in a way that is important but never as well-resourced as we thought it could be,” said Dean Cappello, WNYC senior v.p. and chief content officer. “We started thinking about how we could do that.” New Jersey listeners comprise 25 percent of WNYC’s audience.

NYPR hired journalist Nancy Solomon last November as NJPR managing editor, focusing exclusively on New Jersey stories. Solomon, an independent producer, lives in New Jersey and has 10 years’ experience covering the state, often as a freelancer for NPR.

“We’ve dramatically extended our reach … down the western side of the state,” said Solomon, “and now 72 percent of the population of New Jersey can hear our signal. Before, it was 60 percent.”Nancy Solomon pictured in newsroom.

Solomon has been commuting to WNYC’s Varick Street headquarters in New York City, but in June she’ll begin reporting from Montclair State University’s new School of Communication and Media. The university at the north end of the state is providing broadcast space, production facilities and an endless supply of interns. A new studio dedicated to NJPR should be finished in September. The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation is backing the partnership with grants of $125,000 to each entity, according to Dodge’s Molly de Aguiar.

Montclair State officials “were looking at creating a real journalism program that would serve the interests of the state of New Jersey,” Cappello said. “They are building facilities to our specifications. It makes it possible for us to have staff in New Jersey.”

“Increasingly, New Jersey is becoming a phenomenal state to cover in terms of its influence,” Cappello said. “It’s no longer a bedroom state to New York and Philadelphia.”

NJPR will start hiring reporters over the next six months. “We’ll start modestly because we need to raise money to do what we want to do,” Cappello said. “Over time, we see an editorial unit that is dedicated to New Jersey that is eight or nine people strong.”

To establish a brand identity for NJPR, Cappello decided to hire a local morning-drive host for the New Jersey stations’ broadcasts of Morning Edition. David Furst, formerly with WAMU in Washington, D.C., hosts the broadcasts out of WNYC’s studios.

Like public radio content directors across the country, Cappello has made expansion of local news coverage a top priority. “If you look around, significant public radio organizations are really looking at how we [can] do a better job covering our local market. That’s how we will distinguish ourselves.”

To build NJPR’s newsgathering capacity, Cappello is exploring partnerships with local bloggers, Patch.com, the NJTV stations operated by WNET and the Star Ledger newspaper in Newark, N.J. “We want to build a staff to create content under the NJPR banner, some of which we intend to share,” Cappello said. “We want to push the idea of building a lot of collaborative relationships because we live in an age where multiplatform relationships make sense.”

Solomon has already demonstrated her approach to reporting on New Jersey. She produced in-depth, almost daily coverage of the trial of Dharun Ravi, the Rutgers University student who was recently sentenced to 30 days in jail for using a webcam to spy on the romantic liaisons of his gay roommate Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide in September 2010. Solomon’s reports were broadcast by NJPR and WNYC, and adapted for their websites; NPR also picked up her coverage for national broadcast.

“I was told to go every day and really cover the trial from start to finish,” said Solomon, who produced multiplatform reporting for radio and the Web. “Ravi’s story led the site’s traffic every day for three months. I was able to do a bunch of features for WNYC and NPR, and get the name NJPR out there.”

More NJ ‘mindshare’ at ’HYY

WHYY is also working on plans to enhance its coverage of communities in southern New Jersey. The  Philadelphia pubcaster paid $926,000 for three stations serving New Jersey Shore communities, and did an in-kind swap worth $612,000 for stations in Burlington and Berlin, N.J., whose signals overlapped those that already extended WHYY’s reach into New Jersey.

The five stations have been simulcasting WHYY’s signal since July 1, according to WHYY’s Kyra McGrath, chief operating officer. “We are looking into the possibility of differentiating the program stream to target some underwriting.” But assembling a separate stream of underwriting credits for New Jersey listeners will cost money.

Because Philadelphia is so close to Camden, N.J., WHYY’s newsroom has always produced some coverage of southern New Jersey. Since 1998, WHYY has partnered with WBGO, the NPR jazz and news station in Newark, N.J., to produce coverage of the state capital in Trenton.

But when the NJN was on the air, McGrath acknowledged, WHYY conceded most New Jersey news to its public TV and radio networks. Since the neighboring pubcaster’s demise, WHYY’s journalists and producers have devoted a lot more time and energy to covering the Garden State, McGrath said.

“At every morning news meeting,” she said, “New Jersey is taking more mindshare now that we have the five stations. We are tracking programming to make sure we are giving more air time to New Jersey topics.”

She pointed to Marty Moss-Coane’s weekday broadcasts of Radio Times. When planning programs, producers are much more deliberate about bringing in experts from New Jersey. They “think about Princeton, not just University of Pennsylvania,” McGrath said.

For last fall’s launch of Newsworks.org — the WHYY-managed news site covering Philadelphia, New Jersey and Delaware with 22 journalism partners — its web producers created a special page for New Jersey news, and devoted an online editor to run it. Its features include a blog about the Jersey Shore written by Jen Miller.

Copyright 2012 American University

RELATED LINKS

New Jersey Public Radio website.

Montclair State University, 20 miles west of the Bronx in North Jersey, created a new School of Communication and Media in December, and is trying to expand its media footprint in the state. Montclair State, New Jersey’s second largest state university, was a candidate to operate the public TV network when NJN was defunded.

Early in May, the New Jersey-focused Gerald R. Dodge Foundation put $250,000 into the New Jersey Public Radio collaboration with Montclair State University.

Jen Miller covers the Jersey Shore for WHYY’s Newsworks online news service

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