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Major cuts at WRNI include Focus: Rhode Island

Note: This is an updated version of the story, posted on Thursday, August 26 at 3 P.M. The previous version contained some incorrect information.

When three staffers were laid off at public radio station WRNI (1290 AM) in 2001, and the stationís commitment to local programming was significantly scaled back, the changes could be understood in the exigencies of reporting on the aftermath of September 11.

Now, though, WRNIís parent, WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) of Boston, attributes the halving of the Rhode Island stationís four-person news staff to a quest for greater efficiency. Since some local public radio supporters were troubled by the reductions in 2001, they seem likely to be much more upset now, particularly since two of WRNIís marquee players Ė morning anchor Deb Becker and reporter Martha Bebinger Ė are reportedly being reassigned to WBUR, and the one-hour weekly newsmagazine Focus: Rhode Island canceled outright.

Echoing the rationale for cuts at WBUR, Stohn says, "We looked at WRNI and, again, needed to create efficiencies and streamline the organization," Stohn says. "Itís unfortunate." Asked about WRNIís fiscal support, Stohn demurred: "The audience is there," she says. "Itís doing well -- Itís doing pretty much what we thought it would be from an audience standpoint."

WBUR is revising the format of its mid-day newsmagazine, Here and Now, moving an unspecified number of the showís staffers to other programs, eliminating one staff position, and, in what it calls an unrelated move, cutting two positions in the news/programming department. In November 2001, when six employees at WBUR and three at WRNI were let go Ė an instance that WBUR general manager Jane Christo called the first layoffs in her operationís history (see "Public radio and cold hard cash," News, November 29, 2001) -- a 35 percent drop in corporate underwriting got the blame.

In a statement, Stohn wrote that Here and Now will be revamped "to feature host Robin Young. Young will focus on the long-form piece and comprehensive interviews that have been her trademark throughout her career in broadcasting."

Although Here and Now sounds as if it may include fewer labor-intensive, highly produced pieces, the impact of the cuts at WRNI is far greater. Although Stohn initially said that Focus: Rhode Island would not be canceled, the show is being scrapped, she says, due to limited resources. Stohn blamed a misunderstanding on her part for her initial denial about the showís fate. Focus: Rhode Island, a weekly hour-long newsmagazine, replaced One Union Station, two hours of daily, locally produced, magazine-style programming, in early 2002 (disclosure: I have been an occasional unpaid guest on Focus: Rhode Island.)

For her part, Stohn notes that Rhode Island (as well as Delaware) didnít have its own public radio station until WBUR came along. "Itís lived up to our expectation and we believe the community is responding by listening to the station," she says, "and the numbers show that." Citing a number of awards from The Associated Press and other sources, Stohn says, "The station has done nothing but excel."

Three years ago, though, the cuts at WRNI led some to question whether the station, and its Boston-based parent, was upholding the pledge used to attract initial financial backing. As Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, the medical director of Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island, and a public radio supporter, told me at the time, "My expectation was that the local programming would increase, not decrease, when they first began with One Union Station. Itís a big surprise to me." Local public radio supporters will probably be far more surprised now.

Issue Date: August 27 - September 2, 2004
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