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The undoing of WRNI
The wavering commitment of the Boston-based WBURGroup comes full circle

THE HIGH POINT in the short life of public radio station WRNI (1290 AM) lasted for about a year — encompassing the October 2000 dedication of its impressive new broadcast studio in Providence, the start one month later of One Union Station — an issues-and-ideas show that represented two daily hours of local programming — and the attacks of September 11, 2001. Although 9/11 was obviously an epochal event that galvanized any number of American news organizations, it ultimately marked the death knell for expectations that WRNI would be a robust presence with a strong local focus.

Following 9/11, the WBUR Group, WRNI’s Boston-based parent, suspended One Union Station, understandably focused its efforts on covering the massive story at hand, and WBUR categorically denied that WRNI was being downgraded. As WBUR spokeswoman Mary Stohn, who recently left that position, told me at the time, "There’s absolutely no possibility that ’RNI won’t be comprehensive, strong, and true to its mission at the end of the crisis situation that we’re in." In fact, however, Focus: Rhode Island, the one-hour weekly newsmagazine that emerged as a successor to One Union Station in early 2002, although certainly a high-quality program, marked a dramatic diminution in local programming.

So it went, more or less until this summer. If WRNI’s evolution didn’t match the original vision, listeners and supporters still appreciated any number of local elements above and beyond the copious content from WBUR and National Public Radio — ranging from the work of such smart reporters as Martha Bebinger to the news and feature potpourri of Focus: Rhode Island. But by late August, when WBUR announced the first serious cuts at the two stations since 2001, it became clear that something was amiss. The disparity between official pronouncements and reality was evident when Stohn, who later blamed a misunderstanding on her part, initially denied to the Phoenix the demise of Focus: Rhode Island. In another body blow to WRNI, which operated with a very small staff, the changes included eliminating the jobs of Bebinger and morning anchor Deb Becker, reassigning them to WBUR, and axing the freelance budget for such regular commentators as Providence Journal political columnist M. Charles Bakst.

Although indications that WBUR was raising the ladder and heading for the hills seemed clear, financial supporters and WRNI listeners held out hope that the changes — publicly attributed to "streamlining" — would be temporary. At worse, the few remaining staffers would add at least a little local flavor to NPR staples like Morning Edition and All Things Considered, even if they might not be able to do much beyond reading headlines.

The bolt from the blue came last Friday, September 24, when Jane Christo, the ambitious general manager who helped to build WBUR into a public radio powerhouse, stepped into a morning meeting with WRNI’s major donors at One Union Station in downtown Providence, where the Rhode Island Foundation has provided below-market rent to the radio station.

Those in the meeting — a bevy of influential business people and philanthropists — had helped to raised more than $3 million to launch and sustain public radio in Rhode Island. They had been told that WRNI takes seriously its mission not only to bring the world to Rhode Island, but to bring Rhode Island to the world. WBUR, after all, had helped to bring public radio to the Ocean State with the establishment of WRNI in 1998. And here was Jane Christo telling them that their pride and joy was being put up for sale on the next business day, Monday, September 20.

As one of the attendees said, "I’ve never seen so many dropped jaws in one room."

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Issue Date: September 24 - 30, 2004
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