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White Diamonds for ’BUR

From student station to iPhone app, BU’s NPR affiliate marks 60 years

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In the slideshow above, view images of WBUR over the years. Photos by BU Photography

Even with his left hand in a cast (broken playing basketball), John Davidow can work the WBUR iPhone app with impressive agility, sliding open windows, tapping buttons. It’s his baby. Well, one of his babies. The station’s former longtime executive director of news has spent the last year reimagining the National Public Radio affiliate for the digital world.

“It’s one-touch listening,” Davidow says, like a proud father with wallet photos. “You can’t beat it. There’s live streaming. You can listen to the top-of-the-hour news and weather, get caught up on all the headlines. When On Point is live, you’ll get a ‘Call-the-show’ button. And this is really neat: the ‘Assignment.’”

In his third-floor office at 890 Commonwealth Ave., Davidow (below), now rechristened executive editor for new media, explains the smartphone feature that allows users to tackle editorial assignments set by the station, from uploading foliage pics (the app automatically activates the camera and sizes the image) to reporting breaking news. User content could end up on the station’s news website, WBUR.org. The free app, codeveloped by Public Radio Exchange, can even geolocate WBUR members in relation to an underwriter offering discounts.

WBUR, which celebrates its 60-year anniversary tonight with an NPR-star-studded gala, has come a long way since its days as a student-run outfit on lower Comm Ave. The station first lit its “On Air” sign at 4 p.m. on March 1, 1950, reaching out on 400 watts to a scattered commuter-school audience with mostly BU sports coverage. In 1976, five years after taking the plunge into public broadcasting, the media outlet gave birth to future NPR juggernaut Car Talk with Cambridge, Mass., brothers Ray and Tom Magliozzi (GSM’89), or Click and Clack as they’re commonly known. In 1980, the station began receiving NPR programming via satellite. Three of the station’s own shows, On Point, with Tom Ashbrook, Here and Now, with Robin Young, and Only a Game, with Bill Littlefield, are now distributed nationally. Presidents, archbishops, and Nobel laureates have warmed its studio chairs. In an age when most traditional media are slumping and cutting resources, trying to figure out a new business model, WBUR continues to thrive, adding staff and expanding programs.

“People don’t get in their cars and turn on the internet,” says Sam Fleming (below), managing director of news and programming. “I can wash dishes and listen to radio. For newspapers, the industry changed so quickly and the business model basically fell off a cliff. For us, it’s not falling off a cliff, but it’s changing slowly so that we know we need to improve our presence on the web. If people were listening to the radio 20 hours a week last year, this year maybe it’s 18 or 15.”

Today, WBUR broadcasts with a radiated power of 40,000 watts and boasts more than 500,000 listeners a week. Last month, it added to its collection of national honors the Edward R. Murrow Award for overall excellence in large-market radio, the first public radio station to net the prize, Fleming believes. He points to the coverage of the death and funeral of Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy (Hon.’70) last year as an example of award-worthy content.

“I thought we did an incredible live broadcast of the funeral with Bob Oakes. And it was shared by other stations across the country. A lot of times, good journalism is taking advantage of opportunities to be great, stepping up to the moment, and going beyond your normal standard of excellence, and in this case, we were able to do that.”

Mark Jurkowitz (COM’75), a former media critic for the Boston Phoenix and the Boston Globe, who is now associate director for the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, D.C., says that while NPR’s growth is bucking media trends, and WBUR also benefits from that, the Boston affiliate is an unmitigated success story.

“WBUR has, over time, emerged as a potent and credible news source in the Boston market,” he says. “Its emergence coincides with a dramatic reduction of the role of news in radio, in Boston and elsewhere."

One key ingredient in WBUR’s success has been local coverage. The station recently expanded Radio Boston, a newsmagazine hosted by Meghna Chakrabarti, from a weekly to daily program. Last month, it aired a well-received road-trip series on the economic struggles of a handful of towns along U.S. Route 9, and in the wake of an economic dislocation and an uptick in violence, reporters have taken an up-close look at Boston’s inner-city troubles. WBUR continues to be a destination for comprehensive local election coverage integrated with the national political story.

“Our audience expects when they hear stories on ’BUR that they are no different in quality, and the thoroughness of the journalism, than what they hear on NPR,” says longtime Morning Edition anchor Bob Oakes. “Sometimes, I think we’re so good at it that some listeners probably can’t tell when they’re listening to a locally produced story or a nationally or internationally produced story.”

WBUR general manager Paul La Camera (COM’66, MET’74) puts it this way: “The word ‘public’ is the defining concept. It’s exactly that: a public partnership between those of us privileged to work at a place like WBUR and Boston University and our listening public.”

That relationship has borne fruit, most recently in a record-breaking fall fundraising campaign, which saw $1.27 million pledged from 13,650 listeners: a 5 percent increase over last year, and pulled off in one less day, La Camera notes. Keeping down the length of on-air pledge drives and reaching donors in alternate ways is a priority, he says.

The BU in WBUR
While the trustees of Boston University hold the station’s license, La Camera says he’s never felt editorial pressure from above.

“I’ve been here over five years, and there hasn’t been a breath of an example where they ever tried to influence what goes on their air,” he says. “It’s totally hands-off. I know other radio stations where the trustees of their license have been universities and that hasn’t necessarily been the case.”

Peter Fiedler (COM’77), BU’s vice president for administrative services, who served as interim general manager of the station in 2004 and 2005, considers the relationship stronger than ever.

“WBUR has always been seen as one of the jewels in the crown of the University,” he says. “The University has always stood by WBUR, in the good times and the bad times. Fortunately, we’re now in very good times and the pride held for each institution is at an all-time high.”

But there were rough waters, too. Fiedler had to step in after the resignation in 2004 of longtime general manager Jane Christo (CAS’65), whom many, including Jurkowitz, consider the architect of modern-day WBUR, but who had been accused of mismanagement (a BU investigation later found many of the allegations not credible). In October 2005, La Camera, a former manager of Boston’s ABC television affiliate, came out of retirement to take charge of a radio station that was $13 million in debt to the University. He reduced staff and resources, in addition to the cuts and layoffs Fiedler had made. La Camera refocused on local news, which had gathered moss in the shadow of the station’s larger ambitions.

Producing quality stories, and reaching more people with rich reportage, will always be the bottom line, La Camera says. Although he remains acutely aware of that other line, too.

“There’s no doubt that the digital component—online listening, mobile devices, downloads, social media—are all becoming a larger part of the listening mix. President Brown has charged us to remain at the frontier of those developments. We’re not afraid, and we’re taking a lot of steps to get there.”

But, he adds: “This is a $21 million operation, with 119 people. We only get $1.5 million from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The rest of the $19.5 million we have to raise ourselves; $9 million to $10 million comes from corporate underwriting. The bulk of the remainder we raise from listeners. We don’t want to distance ourselves, either, from those two entities through the use of new technologies.”

Org
That’s where Davidow comes in. He’s determined to stay on the right side of the cutting edge while preserving the station’s audio identity.

“We do radio on the radio,” Davidow says. “And we do web on the web.”

His exclusive task over the past year has been converting the station’s website from an electronic brochure to a dynamic, independent content-generating entity. He brought all the station’s websites under one electronic roof. The site offers live-streaming content, of course, and program podcasts, along with extras such as Tom Ashbrook on books and notable BU lectures and discussions.

But Davidow doesn’t want “.org” to simply be a digital translation of the airwaves. So he hired Andrew Phelps as the station’s first full-time online reporter. In addition, Phelps hosts a Boston-focused blog called Hubbub. Davidow also singles out CommonHealth, a health care blog updated several times a day by Carey Goldberg, former Boston bureau chief of the New York Times, and Rachel Zimmerman, former health and medicine reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Then there’s ElectionWire, which covers, and live-blogs, all things Election 2010 and beyond. And Davidow is heading up Order in the Court 2.0, a pilot program to establish digital tools for increasing public access to the courts, thanks to a $260,000 Knight News Challenge Award and a partnership with the Massachusetts court system. Since it went live this past July, traffic to the revamped WBUR.org has been growing 15 to 20 percent a month, he says, with more than 500,000 visitors in October.

What about video?

“We have to be strategic with video,” Davidow says. “Video is very resources-heavy, and we want to put up video comparable to the rest of our programming. We don’t have full-time video resources and editing equipment. It’s really a matter of when to use it. We have to work within the confines of budget and staffing, but we’re continuing to explore.”

And while WBUR has a YouTube channel and partners with broadcasters like New England Cable News to live stream events, Davidow says that “we’re not a TV station. That’s not our mission.”

Tonight, NPR luminaries like Robert Siegel, host of Evening Edition, and legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg (daughter of College of Fine Arts Music Professor Emeritus Roman Totenberg), as well as young talents Audie Cornish, a WBUR alumna, and White House correspondent Ari Shapiro, will discuss the last 60 years in public radio, as well as what the future holds. WBUR’s Ninth Annual Public Radio Gala will also include a tribute to late radio legend Daniel Schorr and a presentation of the Daniel Schorr Journalism Award, a prize WBUR created in 2002 to celebrate the work of an outstanding young radio journalist.

“WBUR has come a long way,” Fleming says. “We’re in a good place. We play a very important role in the community and a big role for BU, which is great. In our business, it’s like a fish that just has to keep going. You have to produce tomorrow, you have to produce next week, and next year. You always need to try and exceed what you’ve done before, especially in this changing environment.”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu. Grace Ko can be reached at graceko@bu.edu.

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