The changes in the formats of WGBH and WCRB, which hundreds of BMInt comments lambasted, have not produced results likely to please management. The latest Arbitron reports, the first to measure the response to the changes, show WGBH with the same listenership it had in October and WCRB with 14% less. On February 3rd this writer made a presentation on behalf of BMInt to a very courteous WGBH board board of directors:
Good Evening. I am like those at the table, a director of a Boston cultural non-profit. In my case it’s the Harvard Musical Association, where I have been director-at-large for twenty years and the chairman of the program committee for all of that time. So I can speak with authority on matters of classical music programming as well as fiduciary responsibility connected with a board seat.
I am also the publisher of the Boston Musical Intelligencer, an electronic journal of the Greater Boston classical music scene which I founded with Harvard’s distinguished Professor Robert Levin and Bettina Norton. We have been on line for 16 months and have reached a level of over one thousand daily visits and 8,000 daily hits. When we launched our coverage of the WGBH-WCRB transitions, our comment rate went up 10-fold. So I know what the classical music public is thinking on the subject, and they are not happy.
I have also seen some of the feedback from WGBH listeners, and I wonder if this body has also seen them. In a matter of a few weeks, the responses numbered in the thousands. I would guess that conservatively the comments ran 6 to 1 negative. So my educated surmise for the total would be something like 5,000 negative and 900 favorable. I understand from former WGBH staff members that the trend has continued in January, and I strongly urge the members of this board to ask for copies and analysis.
In short, your listeners, as defined by your reports and the BMInt comments, are very unhappy with what WGBH has done. What we hear most are four main complaints— dumbing-down of content (including the use of the American Public Media syndicated classical music feed), diminished signal coverage, the loss of Friday BSO broadcasts, and irritation over WGBH’s attempt to duplicate the highly successful all-news format of WBUR in order to reach a larger, younger audience.
Much has been said about the aging of the classical music audience. Yes, many are over 60, but they are often well-off and generous, as they generally are out of the child-rearing years. Furthermore, it has ever been thus. In 1900 the average age in ticket lines for the BSO Friday afternoon concerts was 60. But those 60-year-olds were once 25… and today’s 25 year olds will someday become the prominent classical music demographic. And I should add in this context that there is a tremendous institutional overlap on board, staff and supporter levels between the Symphony and WGBH. And many at the BSO on all three of those levels are extremely displeased.
I also encourage this board to ask John Voci to explain statements that are puzzling to many people: how he claims to have increased classical music broadcasts in Boston despite having cut 50 hours per week overall. Does he include the Boston Pops, which many classical-music lovers would not consider serious music? Does he include recorded BSO concerts which are no substitute for live broadcasts? And does he include additional talk about the BSO by WCRB announcers? And why does he cite duplicative service as the reason for having cut Friday BSO broadcasts even though for many years WGBH has duplicated WBUR’s NPR programs. Both statements are truly Orwellian.
When confronted with the apparent in-defensibility of his justification for cutting BSO broadcasts he later cited costs of $25,000 to $30,000, misunderstood by most of the people in attendance at our recent panel discussion as reflecting per broadcast costs and not the entire season— a fact, I hasten to add, that, as it is becoming known, is further infuriating contributors who already feel cheated. Here are my calculations based on private discussions with former WGBH staff: First, the BSO charges NOTHING. The marginal cost for a hypothetical Friday BSO broadcast includes only two costs —an engineer, and an announcer. The total amounts to roughly $200 per hour. If the broadcasts cost $400 each, and there are 20 each season, then the true additional cost for a year is $8,000. That would be .06% (six one hundredths of one percent) of the $13,000,000 radio budget. A rational person is unlikely to cite accept cost as a reason for the dropping of Friday broadcasts. It’s got to be a marketing-driven decision. Is it because on Friday afternoons Mr. Voci wants shorter musical stretches in his playlists to allow the placement of more infomercials? If it’s really a matter of the $8,000, then Boston Musical Intelligencer will offer to raise the funds. I could even be persuaded to write a personal check here and now if I were assured of the return of Friday broadcasts to WGBH.
I do believe John Voci’s statement that WGBH switched to the all-talk format because management was unhappy with the station’s ratings. For a 100,000-watt clear channel to be 23rd in the Boston Arbitron© ratings (used by permission) is indeed proof that something was amiss. Here are some relevant comparisons showing average daily listeners and market ranking for the month ending Dec. 9 (before the changes took place):
WQXR= 306,000, rank 23 in NYC (17.1 million market)
KUSC= 300,000, rank 19 in LA (12.1 million market)
WETA= 230,000 rank 7 in DC (4.7 million market)
WBUR= 195,000, rank 9 in Boston (4.3 million market)
WCRB= 123,000, rank 16 in Boston
WGBH= 38,700, rank 23 in Boston
However, what should be of particular interest to you is WETA in Washington, DC which rose to a rank of 7 in DC (5% of the market) after shifting its format to all classical. Their listenership doubled and listener support rose by 48% as a result of that change. And they didn’t have to borrow $15 million or hire an expensive new staff to make that happen. After ineffectually going all-talk for 18 months, WETA allowed the single DC classical music station to be sold, and without spending any appreciable amount of money, exploited the situation with some cleverness. They decided that as the only classical music station in DC they would be appreciated by a large public. They were content to let their NPR rival present news and talk. They now have the third highest number of listeners of any non-commercial station in the country.
So I encourage this board to ask some tough questions of management.
Will WCRB’s 123,000 listeners become WGBH contributors?
Will the formerly loyal WGBH classical listeners continue to make contributions?
Is it financially responsible to hire expensive additional staff simply to duplicate the successful WBUR format?
Was it a breach of your fiduciary duties to allow WGBH to deplete its $15 million dollar line of credit to buy WCRB when any additional contributions which may accrue from WCRB’s listeners won’t even come close to paying the debt service?
Let’s be realistic: the former WCRB listeners are not used to being asked for contributions and many of the former WGBH classical listeners either can’t receive WCRB, don’t like its style, or both. The result is likely to be diminished listener support. This is the clear import of the Audience Service Reports.
After forsaking its mission to provide unique content to an underserved public, which was the basis of the FCC giving the station its 100,000 watt clear channel, can WGBH survive its next license renewal hearings unscathed?
So whither WGBH? May I predict that it will wither if it continues with its current plans? The latest Arbitron reports, the first to reflect a full month of the changed format, shows that WGBH is exactly where it was in October, while WCRB has slipped 14% in the same period. WBUR has also slipped by about 15%. One plausible conclusion is that WGBH did attract some of WBUR’s listeners, but not enough to compensate for those who migrated to WCRB or left the WGBH-WCRB enterprise altogether. One could also reasonably assume that WCRB’s lost status was clearly the result of more loss of their former listeners than gain from the previous WGBH classical listeners.
Please consider learning from WETA’s lesson, but don’t take 18 months to figure it out. Admit your mistakes; sell WCRB and make WGBH radio the crown jewel that it ought to be. And let WBUR continue in its successful mission without misguided competition.
Thank you for the opportunity to address you, and thank you for listening.
F. Lee Eiseman, publisher
Boston Musical Intelligencer