Saturday, March 12, 2005

Merger Mania Hits Public Radio

Out of left field the local public radio station WGUC is acquiring WVXU. Are we witnessing the death of public radio in Cincinnati? No place I have ever been in the entire country has had anything like the public radio stations we have here in the Cincinnati Area: WGUC, WNKU, WMUB, and WVXU. Merger two of them together, cutting staff, and altering programming is likely going to be negative for the city. This does reduce competition. Now, when you are talking competition it does not have the same meaning for commercial radio as it does for public radio. They compete for donations, but in the case here, once they get what they need, then don't have to keep on fighting for every dollar. I believe both stations had a solid complementary situation and shared NPR's gem news programs fairly with Morning Edition on WVXU and ATC on WGUC. Because of this both stations had news teams. WVXU appeared to have a bigger staff and was putting more effort into news and news gathering.

The only opportunity I can see from this combination that will have a lasting effect, outside of financial stability under the combined structure, is a new and better funded news team that serves both stations and provides local news coverage that can rival WLW and all of the broadcast TV channels for serious news coverage. It can take the form in how they fill in local news breaks on Morning Edition and ATC as well as specialized news forum shows or even a weekly local ATC/Morning Edition type magazine show.

I most strongly hope that they do not significantly alter WVXU's programming. The local programs must stay. They must keep the BBC on overnights. The most critical thing is keep the old time radio shows going. They are so unique and so valuable to the society. What I would not be sad to see go are some of the nationally syndicated music programs they air, like Audio Synchronies. I am sure there are fans of this out there, but I do not see the value in airing it as often as they do. The fan base maybe huge, but I don't know who or where they are. The locally based Jazz shows should be carried on. Jazz on the radio is about as rare as Classical on the radio, if not more rare.

The place I hope they choose to cut are on repeats. I love the NPR programs Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me and Prairie Home Companion. I don't need to hear them twice on the same weekend.

Reduced control of media is a negative no matter how it is spun. In this case I generally have trust and dare I say 'faith' that WGUC will not destroy a great radio station and a great concept. Time will tell if I am misplacing that trust.

1 comment:

  1. As a member (well, a soon-to-be "former" member) of WVXU's on-air team, there's much that has yet to be revealed about the circumstances surrounding the sale of the station. The intrigue that has taken place (including the machinations of a "volunteer" WVXU announcer and newsman who was also a member of WGUC's Board of Trustees - how's that for conflict of interest?!) over the past year or year and a half is only now surfacing, and it's both revealing and saddening.

    Most offensive to all of us who worked here (see, I'm making a healthy adjustment by my early adoption of the past tense) was Xavier University's action in not informing us in advance of the sale. Xavier kept the information to themselves, and while that's understandable to a point, it was morally and ethically wrong for the university to allow the station to hold its Spring fund drive. The on-air staff unwittingly bilked people out of $400,000 dollars - pledges made by listeners in order to make certain the station's signature programming would remain on the air - only to find that WVXU was being sold two weeks later.

    WGUC's initial public statements certainly map a clear course for the "new" WVXU. WGUC will "supersize" its classical programming, sending "All Things Considered" and "Car Talk" over to WVXU, along with all the nationally-ground out NPR anyone could possibly want. You can be assured that a few locally produced scraps will be allowed, if only for the sake of appearances. However, I'm sorry to say that few or none of the "old radio" shows Dr. Jim King (and tens of thousands of listeners) so loved will be retained. It's no secret that WVXU's listenership (and income) is driven almost entirely by two shows: "Morning Edition" and old time radio. But Mike Martini and Mark Magistrelli (VXU's classic radio gurus) apparently see the handwriting on the wall. I understand that when Fr. Graham made his announcement about the WGUC takeover, Mark quietly walked out of the meeting, got on the phone and started setting up appointments with at least two other interested stations.

    Xavier's action is not entirely surprising. For starters, longtime VXU GM Dr. Jim King and XU president Fr. Michael Graham had the kind of warm personal relationship not seen since the days of Churchill and Hitler. Perhaps even more important is the fact that broadcast facilities have become risky liabilities to colleges. All it takes is one disgruntled listener who thinks they heard something "offensive" to send the university's administration, PR and legal experts into a tizzy. (And note that for all its non-controversial nature, even WGUC was spun off from the University of Cincinnati several years ago.)

    Unfortunately, the disdain and outright hostility WGUC has long shown toward WVXU and its personnel will most likely militate against any significant number of staff being retained for the merged operation. I hope that at least VXU's news staff gets to stay; it's a pleasure hearing a real news story and not some meaningless 20-second soundbite spewn from the maw of Clear Channel.

    The WGUC and WVXU web sites state that listener input will be solicited to determine the direction of WVXU's future programming. An e-mail address is provided; write to WGUC (not WVXU - remember who's in the driver's seat now!) and make your opinions and preferences known.

    Even if they'll be ignored in the end, at least you can rest better knowing that at least you tried.

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