Christian Science Church puts Monitor Radio up for sale
NPR and PRI will offer news at 5 a.m.
Originally published in Current, April 28, 1997
By Jacqueline Conciatore
Public radio folks are skeptical Monitor Radio will find a buyer, even as management says it's negotiating with parties interested in acquiring the 13-year-old church-subsidized operation.
Both Monitor distributor PRI and NPR have informed stations they will develop replacements for Monitor's 5-6 a.m Early Edition, which about 140 stations carry. Longtime NPR newscaster Carl Kasell will host Early Morning Edition and stick around to do newscasts in Morning Edition, the network said last week. Monitor feeds stations early, noon and afternoon editions, but the 5 a.m. slot has the fewest news alternatives and for Monitor the most listening.
The Christian Science Church, known for its international newspaper and ubiquitous reading rooms, has operated Monitor Radio as a public service since 1984, keeping costs to stations extremely low. It currently spends about $9 million and gets less than $1 million back, according to David Cook, who edits the Christian Science Monitor and heads Monitor Radio. Given that, and the fact the church is not selling the "Monitor Radio" name, observers are wondering who would bite.
"I'm still mystified myself," says Scott Williams, program director of KJZZ, Phoenix. "I can't figure out who'd want to buy it. It's a nonprofit--its only asset is its staff and its name, and it's not selling the name."
But Monitor stresses the value of its intellectual property--50 to 60 business and editorial employees, plus a network of stringers worldwide. Says Marketing Director Sue Schardt: "What the staff represents is know-how. ... We've spent 13 years developing this resource, finding a voice and a niche in public broadcasting and developing a quality of service that is distinct, not like NPR or anything else. ... [We have] the ability to get out a show at 5 a.m., give a first look at the days' news, and a noon show, which nobody else can do. ... This sale or transfer of this asset is a means to recognize the value of those things, and to give someone who might share this view an opportunity to continue to provide this service."
The Monitor staff "is more than the sum of its parts," says Executive Producer Karla Valance. The sale is "the equivalent of buying a restaurant instead of starting one--we have staff, clearances, relationships, producers who know how to do it at an incredibly low cost."
Monitor approached both PRI and NPR about taking over the service, and neither pursued it. But Monitor says there are others interested with whom it is negotiating.
Monitor's distribution contract with PRI expires June 30; if there is no buyer the news service will simply stop. However, the Christian Science Publishing Society will continue to produce some sort of news product for radio, though not necessarily public radio. It will have to be self-supporting, says Cook.
NPR and PRI options
The BBC World Service is supporting PRI's replacement programming with cash as well as news resources. "It is a significant investment with PRI," says Steve Salyer, president of the Minneapolis-based network. PRI will also draw on the resources of its daily afternoon news show, The World, which it co-produces with WGBH, Boston and the BBC. The program will have a strong international component--as does Monitor--will be specifically developed for the U.S. market, and will be competitive in pricing, says Salyer. It will also build in room at 5:50 a.m., for the PRI-distributed Marketplace morning report.
NPR decided to develop a separate Early Morning Edition program hosted by Kasell, rather than give Morning Edition an earlier start, because nobody wanted to tell Morning Edition host Bob Edwards he had to arrive for work even earlier, joked NPR spokesperson Kathy Scott. Actually, NPR believes the 5-6 a.m. audience is not large enough to justify the cost of producing an extra hour of ME, she said. A plan for the program's hourly "clock" should be available by May 10.
NPR will find itself adding an hour of news as it absorbs $700,000 in budget cutbacks ordered in late January to compensate for lagging revenues. But Scott says the network will cover the cost out of its existing budget and station fees. NPR approached CPB for support, but "I'm sure others have to. [CPB] may have to put it out to bid as they usually do," Scott says. Rick Madden, director of CPB's Radio Program Fund, says he was approached for funding by one party, and refused the request. But the Fund is willing to re-allocate 1997 funds it recently awarded to NPR for its forthcoming Saturday music and quiz programs, and to PRI for World, he said.
Because producers have to come up with any replacement programming by July 1--a very short lead time--CPB is funding a Public Radio Program Directors (PRPD) meeting with PRI and NPR to ensure the new programming meets station needs. The meeting will be May 1, with about 10 program directors, says PRPD Director Steve Olson.
Other demands on the purse
In reaction to the "yellow journalism" of popular turn-of-the-century newspapers, Christian Science Church founder Mary Baker Eddy decided reliable, solution-oriented news would be a fitting church mission. Since then, the church has invested heavily in producing news--beginning with the daily Monitor newspaper, and later Monitor Radio and then TV offerings. "Every church has humanitarian contributions," says Dennis Glover, a Christian Scientist and former Monitor employee. "The Christian Science Church felt its mission is to keep people informed, [that] democracy depends on enlightened public opinion. With the paper, they willingly undertook very large deficits to do this. But it didn't matter, because they weren't running hospitals and they weren't running schools."
But the church took unexpected heavy losses when it branched out into television in the mid-1980s. It launched a nightly half-hour news program, World Monitor, on the Discovery Channel; bought Boston's WQTV, Channel 68 in 1986; and started a national cable service, the Monitor Channel in 1991. The church shut down the cable network in 1992 and sold the TV station to Boston University. The church says it lost $300 million all told.
The newspaper's circulation has also suffered in recent years, currently standing at 90,000, according to the Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media. With the decision to sell Monitor Radio, the church says it has renewed its commitment to the paper.
The church is also facing a $55 million capital campaign to bring its Boston-based headquarters up to city building codes.
It was a combination of the other demands for money and the radio program's low revenues that led to the decision to sell, says Monitor Editor Cook. "We're not doing this because we're out of money," he says. "We're doing this because the church has other demands on its resources. We were given a long time to see if we could make it self-sustaining. There was no way I could say as part of Monitor Radio's management that we could get to break even." Monitor established its place in the radio marketplace by offering stations a lower-cost alternative to NPR news, so station revenues were minimal. Plus, it has had difficulty building up its underwriting base, Cook says. "If [we] weren't a church raising money, it would be easier," he says. "Foundations find it difficult to sign a check to a church."
"I think it was with great anguish [Monitor] came to this decision," says Salyer. "They've invested millions and millions in public radio and have been proud of the work they've done."
Monitor will continue to produce religious radio programs, currently airing on commercial stations and the church's shortwave stations.
The church is also selling or leasing two shortwave radio stations, one in South Carolina, the other in Saipan.
To Current's home page
Outside link: Monitor Radio's home page at the Christian Science Monitor in Boston.
Web page created April 27, 1997
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.