[Sidebar] May 31 - June 7, 2001


Strategic partners

The Providence Journal is a natural resource for WRNI-AM. But the very things that make it an appealing alliance --money and influence -- carry their own risks

by Ian Donnis

Pamela Watts and Jon Saltzman

Offering crisp British accents and first-hand experience in the Middle East, three BBC correspondents are the featured attraction during a recent third anniversary fund-raiser for WRNI-AM, Rhode Island's public radio station. Over 30 minutes, the reporters offer their insiders' perspective on the worsening Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a spirited exchange unfolds when they field questions from an audience of 200 well-informed listeners. The one-hour session, with a lot of insight packed into a brief span, is much like the best of public radio. And not coincidentally for WRNI, the $35-per-person fund-raiser takes place on the fourth floor of the Providence Journal building.

Even by the prevailing standards of synergy, the Journal has played an important role since WRNI was launched in 1998. The newspaper is a leading financial contributor to the station, and it supplies almost all of the regular on-air commentators from Rhode Island-based media. It partners with WRNI on an international training program in which, most recently, a US State Department grant made it possible for Balkan broadcasters to spend six weeks in the Journal's newsroom. The Journal provided desk space for WRNI, near the newsroom, until the station's studio at One Union Station was completed in January, and it even serves as an inadvertent talent pool for scribes looking to make a break from Fountain Street.

This isn't to say that collaboration between WRNI (AM 1290), also heard on WXNI (AM 1230 in Westerly), and the Journal is a bad thing. On the contrary, the newspaper deserves a measure of gratitude for helping the station to get off the ground. Rhode Island was the only state other than Delaware without its own public radio station in 1998, and the enthusiastic response of listeners and underwriters to WRNI has outstripped expectations, staffers say. Although its AM signal doesn't doesn't reach every corner of the state, WRNI has seriously expanded the availability of National Public Radio's thoughtful brand of broadcasting, and it represents a valuable addition to Rhode Island's media landscape.

Still, considering the extent of ties between the two organizations, it's no wonder there are times when the Journal-WRNI connection resembles a mutual appreciation society. Introducing the third anniversary fund-raiser on May 1, for example, Robert Whitcomb, the Journal's editorial page editor, says, "We see our relationship as mutually beneficial," and he touts public radio listeners as a natural source of newspaper readers. Jane Christo, the ambitious general manager who has built WRNI's Boston-based parent, the WBUR Group, into a public radio powerhouse, returns the compliment after the one-hour discussion with the BBC correspondents. "The Providence Journal is a wonderful newspaper," she tells the audience in the paper's John C.A. Watkins Auditorium. "You're very lucky to have it. And we're very lucky to have the kindness and support we've had from the Providence Journal."

Jane Christo

All this wouldn't mean much if WRNI offered vigorous coverage of issues involving the Journal, particularly the bitter dispute between management and the Providence Newspaper Guild, which began in December 1999. But although a few brief spot reports on the labor conflict have aired, and the subject was discussed on One Union Station, WRNI's issues-and-ideas program, as part of an hour-long look at media consolidation, the station certainly hasn't hastened to deliver an in-depth story on the topic. Nor has WRNI reported on the censorship and technology issues arising from the :CueCat, a computer device backed by Belo Corporation, the Journal's Dallas-based parent, which have received considerable attention from the technology press, the New York Times, and the Phoenix (see "Belo lays an egg," News, February 8).

Executive producer Mark Degon, the top locally based news official at WRNI, says other stories have had a higher priority than the labor issue, and Sam Fleming, the Boston-based news director for WRNI-AM and its parent, WBUR-FM -- whose licenses are held by Boston University -- describes the :CueCat story as more suited to the coverage of a specialized program, like NPR's On the Media, or One Union Station, if it had been up and running last fall. In any case, Av Harris, who joined WRNI as a reporter in January, began developing a detailed report on the Guild-management conflict several months ago, and the story's broadcast -- delayed after a National Labor Relations Board hearing was rescheduled from April to June 25 -- is now slated for the run-up to the NLRB hearing.

Degon, Fleming, and assistant general manager Steve Elman cite the presence of a firewall between financial and news functions within the WBUR Group, and even with the cordial links between the two organizations, they dismiss the possibility that relations between the Journal and WRNI could influence coverage of stories involving the newspaper. Says Fleming, "As long as we make our decisions independently, as any good news organization would -- I know we would, and that's the way we run things -- I don't see a down side."

Even some inveterate critics of Journal management are similarly untroubled by the extent of ties between the newspaper and WRNI, and they see the addition of a high-quality news organization as a decidedly positive development for the state. "First of all, they're very robust for a start-up operation," says Brian C. Jones, a Guild official and longtime Journal reporter, who discussed the labor issue during the One Union Station segment. "Embodied in that is the sense that they're very independent-minded people, and they take on the topics they want to take up with the old adage -- without fear or favor. They seem not to be intimidated by the corporate underpinning of the thing."

Still, it's clear that the Journal has played a very important role in helping WRNI, which has yet to become self-supporting, to get established. There's no doubt that the relationship between the two organizations is closer than that between WBUR and the press in Boston, one of the dwindling number of American cities fortunate enough to still have two daily newspapers, and WRNI seems to often ignore other media in Rhode Island. (Disclosure: I was once interviewed on One Union Station and, as the Phoenix's news editor, I've occasionally pitched soon-to-be published stories to WRNI.) To a large degree, this reflects the difference between Boston's more competitive media market, and Rhode Island, where the Journal has long wielded outsized influence because of the state's small size and the newspaper's singular prevalence. But the same things that make the Journal an appealing ally for WRNI -- money and influence -- carry their own risks.

So far, says Tim Schick, administrator of the Providence Newspaper Guild, "I have not seen them making a concerted effort to cover the Journal, but likewise, I've not seen them making a concerted effort to cover the Rhode Island media in general. I want to be fair. They're doing no worse a job on the Journal than they have on the rest of the Rhode Island news media." It's not really a fair comparison, as Schick knows, since no other media organization in the state comes close to rivaling the Journal's power. Nonetheless, the broadcast of Harris's story in June, he says, will put "WRNI in the forefront of covering what's going on at the Journal. The other broadcast media have not done a whole lot. Whether that will continue into the future is anyone's guess. My hope is that they will continue paying attention."

It doesn't hurt that at least two former staffers, Ellen Liberman and former State House reporter Jon Saltzman -- "people who aren't exactly cheerleaders for the Journal," says one source -- have found new homes at WRNI. Saltzman joined the station last year as co-host of One Union Station, and Liberman, a seven-year veteran who voiced frustration after repeatedly being passed over for a downtown assignment, recently came aboard as the program's editor. "But if the corporate interests at WRNI feel their dollars are being pinched," the source adds, "they could lean on the reporting staff to be careful in how they deal with the Journal."

STEVE ELMAN, assistant general manager of the WBUR Group, describes the advent of WRNI as "something that grew from a natural desire of Rhode Islanders." Elman, who started at WBUR as a jazz DJ in 1972 and has long owned a Charlestown cottage with his wife, says he was often perplexed by the lack of a public radio station in the state. "Over a course of time, I think a lot of people started saying the same thing," he says. "They kept calling [WBUR] and saying things like, `Rhode Island, really needs this -- why don't you do something?' "

There are indications that WBUR had been exploring the prospect of establishing a station in Rhode Island for some time. Tony Silvia, chairman of the journalism department at the University of Rhode Island, says WBUR approached WRIU, URI's noncommercial student radio station, about five years ago with a proposal to make it essentially a repeater of the Boston station. Silvia said the plan had little appeal since it would have meant the elimination of local broadcasts and opportunities for students to gain experience.

In any case, Rhode Islanders have long been frustrated by the way in which WBUR's signal fades out somewhere near the Attleboro-Pawtucket line. WGBH-FM (89.7 FM), which carries Morning Edition and All Things Considered, has a stronger signal and can be heard well into the state, although it doesn't offer original reporting from its base in Boston, let alone Rhode Island. And not much happened, Elman says, until Muriel "Marty" LaFarge of Saunderstown contacted him in 1997 and offered to advocate for a public radio station.

"She talked it up a lot," he says. "Before we knew, it there was an organization composed of some very devoted people who loved public radio." The result was the Foundation for Ocean State Public Radio, which was formed with four core members -- LaFarge, Elizabeth Delude-Dix of Jamestown, Dominic Varisco, a former executive vice president of Salve Regina University in Newport, and Gene Mihaly of Barrington.

LaFarge hosted a fund-raiser in the fall of 1997, and in a case of serendipity, Elman says, WBUR learned that WRCP, a 5000-watt commercial station with Spanish-language programming, was going on the market. "It seemed to be a very good fit," he says. "We felt very strongly that if a public radio station would be put on the air, it would generate the enthusiasm to be self-supporting. All of the pieces came together very fast."

WBUR, which acquired WRCP for $2 million, later bought WERI in Westerly to extend coverage to Rhode Island's southwest corner, and an additional $500,000 has been invested, Elman says, in strengthening the signal. It's pretty easy to get accustomed to the AM signal, even if it pales in comparison to FM, and some parts of the state, including South County, Little Compton, and parts of Burrillville remain out of range. "We are never going to give up the mandate to improve the signal," Elman says, and a pending Federal Communications Commission application to build an FM signal in Wakefield could extend reception in South County. Still, the fact that FM stations are 10 times as costly as their AM counterparts augurs against a bigger upgrade in the very near future.

WRNI has enjoyed a strong response, by all accounts, with listeners paying for more than half of the station's $2.5 million budget, although it has yet to become self-supporting, Elman says. "Part of that you would expect when you make a major investment -- like One Union Station and a new transmitter -- you know that's an investment in the future. If what is on the air is good, listener support will follow."

If WRNI represents a windfall for Rhode Islanders who enjoy intelligent radio, it's also another accomplishment for Jane Christo, 59, general manager of the WBUR Group, who turned once-puny flagship WBUR-FM into one of the first 24-hour all-news public radio stations and built a string of stations with more than five million listeners in Eastern Massachusetts, Cape Cod, and Rhode Island. As Dan Kennedy wrote in a recent Boston Phoenix story on WBUR, Christo's principal insight was in recognizing that public radio's future lay in news and information. As such, she's spearheaded the national distribution of programs, like The Connection, Here and Now, and soon, One Union Station, which were introduced with a largely local focus.

Christo, a former advertising executive who took control a quarter-century ago of Boston University's public radio station, was also at the center of a highly publicized conflict in February involving The Connection, the issues-and-ideas program that helped to inspire One Union Station. The dispute led to the departure of host Christopher Lydon and executive producer Mary McGrath -- who say they were fired -- after talks broke down over their demand for an ownership share in the future national growth of the seven-year-old show, which is now broadcast in 75 cities.

As Kennedy noted, the Christo-Lydon conflict represents larger issues, since it reflects big changes in public radio in general -- and WBUR in particular: "Public radio has come a long, long way from the 1970s, when the image it projected was one of earnest granola-crunchers trying to save the world. Today, public radio is a big business (if a nonprofit one) with big money and big egos -- a high-quality source of news and information for the well-educated, well-heeled professionals who can afford to contribute, and for the corporate underwriters (read: advertisers) who cater to them."

In a similar way, the exorbitant cost of establishing a radio station, even a nonprofit one, goes a long way to explain why Rhode Island lacked public radio for so long. For such a station to work, it would need some deep-pocketed friends.

ASHARE OF the credit for the relatively rapid establishment of WRNI goes to WBUR veterans Degon and Martha Bebinger -- a skilled reporter and ubiquitous presence at Providence area news events -- who provided much of the local presence for the nascent station. Although community activists pillory NPR for lobbying with big broadcasting against the proliferation of micro-broadcasters, WRNI has clearly raised the quantity and quality of local broadcasting. A case in point is a comprehensive series on healthcare, reported by Bebinger, that was aired in February.

Although Deborah Becker and Robert Ames, the respective morning and afternoon news anchors, continue to broadcast from WBUR's Boston studio, WRNI took another leap with the debut last November of One Union Station, the locally produced two-hour afternoon ideas-and-issues show -- slated to be offered for national distribution -- which takes a deep look at topics ranging from Bob Dylan and labor organizer Mary "Mother Jones" Harris to child care and the prison industrial complex. WRNI's news staff, which includes contributors to One Union Station, now numbers six people. And from the start, it made perfect sense for WRNI to view the Journal, the state's dominant news organization, as a resource.

Although Journal staffers face the typical prohibition on working for media competitors in the same market, an exception negotiated with the Providence Newspaper Guild in June 1999 made it possible for scribes like political columnist M. Charles Bakst, political reporter Scott MacKay, and sportswriter Bill Reynolds to serve as regular commentators on WRNI. It's not hard to understand why such arrangements are common at public radio stations: they provide additional correspondents, lend the presence and expertise of familiar journalists, and help to boost a newspaper's visibility.

It would be foolish not to utilize people like MacKay, a top-notch reporter with an encyclopedic knowledge of state and national politics. At the same time, WRNI seems to go into default mode when looking for commentators. A weekly press panel on Here and Now, a magazine-format show produced at WBUR and broadcast on WRNI, presents a good opportunity, for example, to include staffers from other papers around the state, and David Offer appeared before leaving early last year as editor of the Newport Daily News. But the most frequent Rhode Island representative since Offer's departure is Andrea Panciera, editor of projo.com, the Journal's Web site, who has been on six times in the last three months, compared to one appearance by WJAR-TV reporter Jim Taricani (a Phoenix contributor), according to WBUR spokeswoman Mary Stohn.

The Journal helps WRNI to leverage more than recognition and insight. The Providence Journal Charitable Foundation, and Jocelyn and Stephen Hamblett, the former publisher (and current Belo board member) who engineered the 1997 sale of the newspaper to the Belo Corporation, were among seven top-tier donors from the local gentry who contributed $100,000 or more to WRNI's $2.2 million capital campaign last year. Another top-tier donor was the Sharpe Family Foundation, and the capital campaign was led by Henry D. Sharpe Jr., the former president of fabled manufacturer Brown & Sharpe, and a longtime former member of the Journal's board of directors.

The Journal also has the primary role in defining what constitutes news in Rhode Island. The newspaper sets the agenda for the stories that get distributed throughout the state and the nation by the Associated Press, and which headlines wind up on local television and radio. WRNI certainly does a good amount of enterprise reporting, and Degon says the station monitors a variety of sources, from the New York Times and Boston Globe to the state's smaller papers. But it's the Journal that largely determines which local headlines get read during the cut-ins on NPR's Morning Edition. Although another paper might break a story first, it's unlikely to hit the airwaves until it gets published in the Journal.

This situation is compounded by a decided contradiction on Fountain Street: although the Journal takes seriously its role as a watchdog of government, recently shining a light, for example, with a multi-part series on unaudited spending at the General Assembly -- the paper's coverage of issues involving its own institutional interests has withered in recent years (see "Disappearing ink," News, November 23, 2000) and labor tensions increased after the sale to Belo. While the newspaper recognizes labor disputes outside of the building as legitimate news -- such as strife at Rhode Island Hospital last year that received repeated front-page attention -- the ongoing 17-month-old standoff between management and the Providence Newspaper Guild, which represents more than 500 Journal employees, is almost completely unreported.

In the same way, there are legitimate stories that would likely get reported in the Journal if they involved another major local institution, but are instead ignored if they have to do with Rhode Island's newspaper of record. In one recent example, Guild leaders Brian Jones and Kerry Kohring, a copy editor on the business desk, traveled to the annual meeting of Belo's shareholders in Dallas to express their concern about the Guild-management conflict -- and were promptly excised from Belo's Webcast of the gathering's highlights.

In another such instance, the Journal delayed publication by about a month last fall when Walter Mossberg, a respected Wall Street Journal technology columnist whose column typically runs in the Sunday paper, panned the Belo-backed :CueCat. Although executive editor Joel Rawson said the column was held to coincide with the :CueCat's official release, the decision smacked of self-censorship and it attracted criticism from Mossberg and others. Although the :CueCat has been a critical and commercial flop, promotional publicity has been ceaseless in the Journal and it's being ramped up on WJAR-TV (Channel 10), whose owner, NBC, is among the big investors in the project.

Are these kinds of stories of interest to the typical news consumer? Maybe not, even if they offer insight into decision-making at big news organizations. And it may well be that some of WRNI's general inattention to the Journal in the past stems from matters of news judgment and the limitations of working with a small staff. At the same time, the Journal touches tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders on a daily basis, and the unfolding story of the newspaper under Belo's ownership -- which reflects larger trends in this declining yet still highly profitable and influential industry -- is of no small local importance.

"From an everyday listeners' perspective, I don't know that there's an enormous amount of interest in the labor problems of the Providence Journal," says Silvia, the URI journalism chairman. At the same time, "I think that, in general, it's very difficult these days not to be somewhat cynical when someone looks at the cooperative ventures between various print, broadcast, and Internet ventures," he says. "It's a much broader problem than this radio station and this newspaper."

Silvia's absolutely right. The concerns that come with the expanding consolidation of the media are multi-faceted and far-flung, but they should also be understood close to home. If WRNI takes seriously its mission to "not only bring the world to Rhode Island, but to bring Rhode Island to the world," as One Union Station co-host Pamela Watts said during the BBC fund-raiser, the station has an obligation -- especially because of its ties with the paper -- to cast a critical eye at the Journal on an ongoing basis.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]phx.com.

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