WBUR and WGBH have reimagined public radio, so what’s next?
The searches to fill top jobs at Boston’s two big public radio stations will be among the most complicated in American media these days. What used to be a fairly straightforward position — keep one FM station on the air with donations from local listeners, underwriters, and grants — has become much more complex as the nature of public media has changed.
And for the new leaders who will replace Charlie Kravetz at WBUR and Phil Redo at WGBH, the job will only get harder as both stations jockey for position in the next decade. At WBUR, in particular, Kravetz’s successor will have to manage a new relationship between Boston University, which holds the station’s license, and a new board of directors that will have the right to hire and fire the general manager and supervise the station’s finances.
“Radio” isn’t even the preferred description for public media anymore, and with good reason. While both stations still draw hundreds of thousands of listeners over the air, an increasing number of listeners begin their days by streaming audio over smart speakers instead of tuning in to FM on a clock radio.
Even buying a clock radio that tunes in FM and AM has become a challenge. The car dashboard is often the only place that younger consumers still encounter broadcast radio, but it too has become a battleground as automakers look to lure buyers with ever-increasing connectivity. If Alexa isn’t in the car you buy this year, she (or one of her rivals) will probably be in the one after that — and Alexa is just as happy to play a radio stream from New York or San Francisco as one from Commonwealth Avenue.
WBUR and WGBH are no strangers to national-level competition, of course. Even before Kravetz arrived a decade ago, WBUR was already producing shows for a national audience. Under Kravetz, “Here & Now” joined the national NPR lineup, reinforcing WBUR’s status as one of the major players in public radio. At WGBH, where its sister TV station has long been a major national program producer, Redo took a two-pronged approach, using his commercial radio background to build local programming that’s often edgier than WBUR, attracting a sizable audience of its own without pulling WBUR down from its lofty ratings perch.
Boston is one of the few cities with two competing public radio news operations. In the most recent Nielsen Audio ratings, WBUR was neck-and-neck with its big commercial competitor, WBZ, with WGBH not far behind. That situation would have been unimaginable when I worked at WBZ in the early 1990s; WBUR’s news audience was only a fraction of today’s numbers, and WGBH wasn’t a news presence at all, starting its mornings with classical music and bird songs.
The idea that a WBZ morning news anchor would leave to join WGBH, as Joe Mathieu did in 2017? We’d have laughed — but it’s Mathieu who might be having the last laugh. While his newsroom at WGBH has been growing, his former colleagues at WBZ have been riding a roller coaster of changes as the station changed hands to iHeart.
Whoever replaces Redo and Kravetz probably won’t spend a lot of time thinking about competing directly with WBZ and other commercial stations. While WBUR and WGBH can’t ignore the local audiences that are still their financial backbone, they also know their future is a national one.
WBUR, in particular, figured out early on that the same audio production skills that made “Car Talk” so successful would apply to the more intimate medium of podcasting. By lining up big-name partners such as the New York Times, WBUR’s “Modern Love” quickly hit the top of the podcast charts — and in the process, its newsroom quickly became younger and more diverse as it became a more attractive place for new talent to work. (That rapid growth in staffing, of course, was also one of the factors behind the union drive that preceded Kravetz’s abrupt exit in March.)
What does it mean to be a “Boston” station when your competition is now New York’s WNYC, the BBC and tens of thousands of us who can all produce audio from our living rooms? The WGBH and WBUR brands are still powerful ones, reinforced by new local ventures like WBUR’s CitySpace performance venue and WGBH’s studio at the Boston Public Library.
The voices that fill those rooms will be shouting into an ever more crowded media cacophony as their new leaders take over. Keep your ears open; what emerges is bound to be fascinating.
Scott Fybush is the principal of Fybush Media, a broadcast consulting firm, and the editor of industry trade publication NorthEast Radio Watch.