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The Boston Globe

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WGBH moving to a national radio role

WGBH, long a national powerhouse in public television, took a step this week to becoming a national force in public ­radio as well.

The Boston station said Thursday that it has acquired Public Radio International, the Minneapolis company that distributes some of the best-known public radio programs, including “This American Life,” to nearly 900 affiliates across the country and on satellite radio, reaching more than 16 million listeners. PRI also produces its own programs.

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Since revamping its flagship radio station in Boston three years ago, WGBH has been in direct competition with cross-town rival WBUR on news and information programming for Boston-area listeners.

The PRI acquisition makes WGBH a player nationally for public radio staples such as thoughtful public affairs programming.

“We see a tremendous need for programs that support thorough, thoughtful journalism, reasoned civil discourse, where folks don’t have to speak in sound bites,” said WGBH chief executive Jon Abbott.

The PRI acquisition may create additional business tensions between WGBH and WBUR, an important player in its own right in the public radio network, often introducing new shows that go on to become hits. WBUR carries several shows distributed by PRI, including “This American Life,” while PRI syndicates the station’s “Here & Now.”

Among local listeners, WBUR remains the clear leader. In June, for example, WBUR claimed 3.5 percent of Boston-area radio listeners, nearly triple the market share for ­WGBH, according to ratings compiled by Arbitron Inc. WBUR estimated it has 409,000 listeners a week, nearly double WGBH’s Boston-area tally.

WBUR officials said Thursday it too early to say how the WGBH deal will affect its relationship with PRI.

“We will take our time to examine the meaning of this ownership change to the syndication of ‘Here & Now,’ as well as the programs we carry through PRI,” WBUR general manager Charlie Kravetz said.

But PRI said its acquisition will not affect its distribution deal with WBUR, or with hundreds of other stations.

The deal could also help WGBH boost its own programming in Boston, analysts said, by allowing the station to gain first rights to new PRI programs over WBUR, for example. The two could also collaborate more on future projects.

“Anytime you collaborate with a company that has incredible ideas for programming, you’re affiliated with them, you get those ideas first, and your competitors can’t get those ideas,” said Donna Halper, an associate professor of communications at Lesley University.

PRI agreed to the deal, in part, to cope with the growing financial challenges facing public radio. The recession has cut deeply into funding for many public stations as corporate donors have cut back on marketing and philanthropic spending, and government support has eroded. PRI has run small deficits in each of the past two years, though the deal was not prompted by “financial distress,” said Julia Yager, its vice president of brand management and marketing strategy.

The combination will allow the two to share some administrative tasks, potentially relieving budget pressures on PRI and allowing it to invest more in producing programs, marketing, and other core activities. The two could also potentially collaborate on fund-raising for joint projects, Yager said.

Under terms of the deal, WGBH will serve as the parent company, but PRI will continue to operate as a separate nonprofit based in Minnesota with its own mission, board of directors, and fund-raising.

Unlike acquisitions in the for-profit world, WGBH isn’t buying PRI, but simply taking control. PRI’s top executive, ­Alisa Miller, will report to the WGBH boss, Jon Abbott, in addition to her own board.

While WGBH declined to provide financial details, the Minnesota nonprofit will not receive a capital infusion from WGBH or other funding, Yager said.

WGBH is a sprawling enterprise with 750 employees at three radio stations, seven television services, national television production and other activities, and $166 million in annual revenue. PRI has 45 employees and annual revenue of $24 million.

Halper said the WGBH affiliation should give PRI added exposure and fund-raising power.

“This will give PRI the best of both worlds,” Halper said. “It will allow them to continue to be independent, but it will also tie them with WGBH, which has a very successful fund-raising apparatus, a very successful PR apparatus, and is very well known nationally.”

The acquisition probably won’t shake up the public radio world, Halper said, but it puts a spotlight on consolidation of broadcasters, which have seen federal funding drop by $50 million in the past two years and continue to be threatened by congressional budget cuts.

“I think we’re going to see more consolidation rather than less,” Halper said. “In the case of public radio, consolidation may be the only game in town.”

Katie Johnston of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com.

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