WBUR on a roll
Ratings rise, net fundraising climbs, and editorial awards abound
Less than a year ago, newspaper stories about WBUR described the National Public Radio station as troubled and detailed the layoffs of several staffers, the canceling of The Connection, a WBUR staple, the resignation of general manager Jane Christo, and the station’s growing debt to owner Boston University, estimated at more than $13 million.
Today those stories seem long ago and far away. In September, the station hired Paul La Camera, longtime general manager of WCVB-TV, as its new general manager, and since then has enjoyed ratings increases and garnered armfuls of programming awards, and as it nears the close of its fiscal calendar, WBUR projects a surplus for the first time in many years.
“I think the station went through a difficult period,” says Sam Fleming, managing director of news and programming. “But I don’t think that we ever allowed that difficulty to get in the way of what we produced on the air.”
Listeners seem to agree. Data released this month by broadcast ratings agency Arbitron reveal that an average of 475,000 people in the Boston metro area tuned into WBUR during the final quarter of 2005, an increase of nearly 14 percent from the same period in 2004. And in the coveted measure that counts the number of adults aged 25 to 54 listening to the radio at any given quarter hour of the broadcast day (6 a.m. to midnight), WBUR was the number-one Boston radio station, with 5.8 percent of the total listening audience.
Accounting for the ratings boost, Fleming highlights WBUR’s new midday programming lineup, anchored by the current-affairs show On Point, hosted by Tom Ashbrook, and the news and culture magazine show Here and Now, hosted by Robin Young.
“It’s always hard to reach the number of listeners in the middle of the day that you’d reach in the morning or the afternoon,” says Fleming. “Many people just listen to music in the middle of the day.” He thinks listeners appreciate WBUR’s decision to trim its six annual on-air fundraisers, in particular the Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day fundraisers and notes that the average time listeners tune in is now seven and a half hours a week, up from six and a half hours a week in the fall.
WBUR also cut telemarketing fundraising altogether, according to station manager Corey Lewis. And as it turns out, less fundraising has left the station in a better financial position. While gross revenues from this fiscal year’s fundraisers are projected to be down by about $200,000 from the previous year, shorter fundraising efforts reduce costs, and WBUR expects net fundraising to increase by more than $1 million after its end-of-the-fiscal-year fundraiser in June.
Meanwhile, Lewis expects underwriting by corporations to near $8.7 million this fiscal year, up about 12 percent from last year. Revenue from major gifts is also on the rise, about 22 percent more than last year despite the cost-saving elimination of several major fundraising functions and parties. Overall, Lewis expects that WBUR’s revenue will be $18.5 million, up about $500,000 from last year, and the station will be “running in the black” for the first time in at least four years, he says, with a projected surplus of more than $1 million.
Lewis attributes WBUR’s financial upswing to the station’s ability be more efficient with fundraisers, bringing in more revenue without “intruding on the programming.” And this year, that programming continues to rake in awards, including WBUR’s third consecutive designation as News Station of the Year, by the Associated Press, which also bestowed top honors for Enterprise Reporting, Feature Reporting, and Use of Sound.
The station also nearly ran the table when the New England Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) handed out its annual awards last month. WBUR took first place honors in seven of nine RTNDA categories, including General Excellence, Continuing Coverage (of Hurricane Katrina), Hard News Features (on college drug abuse), and News Series (on the academic “achievement gap” among minority school students).
“As our content gets better and better, we can continue to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the media landscape out there that is becoming more and more homogenous,” says Lewis. “And that gap keeps widening.”