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“Think Radio: In a Turbulent Market, WBUR Stays on Top”

Part one: Nabbing listeners with a local focus

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It’s 10:30 on a summer morning and Tom Ashbrook, host of the radio talk show On Point, listens as a caller named Rosalie meanders through her opposition to the No Child Left Behind Act. Ashbrook, wearing headphones, khaki shorts, and a short-sleeve button-down shirt, scans the papers strewn across his desk and sips coffee while Rosalie jogs through her points. Finally, lifting his hand a couple of inches off the desk, he cuts her off. “Rosalie,” he says. “We’ve got it.”

Such brusqueness may not be typical NPR, but it’s signature Ashbrook, in line with his tendency to push expert guests and average callers alike for bottom-line assessments of complex national issues.

“We’re not there just to fill an hour,” he says in a later interview. “We’re there to grab on to an issue that matters and to go somewhere with it that matters. And I will interrupt in the interest of that.”

While this aggressive style doesn’t please everyone (Boston Globe columnist Sam Allis writes that it “promotes sound and fury over thoughtful reflection”), it has made On Point one of the station’s fastest growing shows since it began in the days after 9/11. It’s one of four nationally syndicated shows produced by WBUR, a National Public Radio member station owned by Boston University, and it airs on more than 80 stations and in 8 of the top 25 markets, including New York City, Washington, D.C., and Houston.

Ashbrook’s show is one of several success stories for a resurgent WBUR, which has emerged from a period of mounting debt, layoffs, and well-publicized staff turmoil just a few years ago. An overhaul of the station’s fundraising strategy has put it in the black for two years running, but the turnaround is not limited to finances. One of the most listened-to stations in Boston, WBUR is thriving while other established media in Boston and nationwide struggle with declining and fracturing audiences, revenue shortages, thinning newsrooms, and anxiety about the future. It’s reaching new listeners via podcasts, Web streaming, and satellite radio, while bolstering its local coverage with additional reporters and a new Boston-focused newsmagazine. Station insiders and media watchers say WBUR’s secret is a mix of editorial excellence, good fortune, and a willingness to both experiment and refocus on its own backyard.

Still, the station is not immune to the pressures all media face. Should it do more to court younger listeners, for instance? And how far should it go to accommodate the growing number of people who discount “mainstream media” and increasingly want, as Ashbrook would say, “to be part of the conversation”? The answers to these questions may determine how long WBUR can maintain its winning formula.

Think locally
As recently as two years ago, newspaper stories about WBUR described the station as troubled. They noted its growing debt to BU and the cancellation of The Connection, then the station’s flagship program, with a huge national following. Prior to that was the October 2004 resignation of longtime general manager Jane Christo (CAS’65) amid accusations of mismanagement, many eventually deemed not credible by a BU investigation.

Boston media critic and blogger Dan Kennedy (MET’84), a visiting assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University, says WBUR’s difficulties were the result of overreaching. Christo, who had headed the station since 1979, built WBUR into a powerhouse of national and international reporting. Several popular shows, including Car Talk, Only a Game, Here and Now, and The Connection, began under her watch and went national. But, says Kennedy, such ambition was expensive. “The station got in over its head.”

In fact, WBUR was more than $13 million in debt to BU by October 2005, when Paul La Camera (COM’66, MET’74), former manager of Boston’s ABC television affiliate, came out of retirement to become general manager, taking over from interim general manager Peter Fiedler (COM’77), now BU’s vice president of administrative services. Both Fiedler and La Camera made controversial cost-cutting moves, including laying off nine staffers.

Sam Fleming, the station’s managing director of news and programming, defends these decisions as needed belt-tightening and as part of La Camera’s strategy of investing in the kind of local news coverage that had languished under Christo.

“We wanted to refocus, to plow money back into the local reporting staff, because it had just shrunk too much,” Fleming says. And since then, the station has hired four new reporters, and in September it launched a locally focused weekly newsmagazine called Radio Boston.

Hosted by Boston television news veteran David Boeri, Radio Boston examines local issues, from gang violence to Boston’s music scene, reported largely from the field. For one segment, Boeri spent a month living in a Boston neighborhood plagued by crime, carrying his microphone on drives through the city with gang members and once in the back of an ambulance responding to multiple shootings.

“I had access to stuff I had never gotten as a TV reporter,” says Boeri. “Suddenly, I had access to families sharing pain, either recent or lingering pain, of sons and daughters who’d been murdered, of children who’d been charged with murder.”

The turn toward the local is paying off, at least in editorial recognition. This year WBUR won three national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association, the first in the station’s history and one of the highest takes of any large-market radio station. Two of those awards were for local stories — a documentary on the 10th anniversary of Boston Medical Center and a feature on a special-needs school in Massachusetts that still uses shock treatment on children with autism and mental retardation. Also this year, the station’s coverage of last summer’s Big Dig tunnel collapse took first place nationwide for breaking news coverage from Public Radio News Directors, Incorporated, and local news stories accounted for four of the station’s five regional Associated Press honors.

“We don’t have the same resources, in terms of money or reporters, that other media outlets in the city do,” says news director John Davidow. “What we do have is the time to tell stories that aren’t just black-and-white and to tell them in a way that really engages the listener. And there’s a great deal of appetite for what we offer.”

That’s pretty much the way Ashbrook describes On Point, which this summer lured Wen Stephenson from the top spot at the Boston Globe’s “Ideas” section to be the new senior producer. Ashbrook notes that On Point’s post-9/11 origins “still echo in the show,” bringing a sense that “things really matter; life really matters, giving a certain urgency to our view of the world.” But, he quickly adds, “I hope it’s not urgency alone. We also try to bring some joy and wonderment and thoughtfulness.”

“I think we find ourselves in an increasingly protected place,” says La Camera. “As other traditional media platforms are being challenged and diminished because of dispersing audiences and advertisers, we’re finding more and more people are looking to us as a harbor of stability and strength.”

Listeners apparently agree. For the past several years, WBUR has consistently ranked as one of the top five Boston radio stations among adults age 25 to 54, according to Arbitron, a broadcast ratings agency.

Part two of “Think Radio” will appear tomorrow on BU Today.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.