Benjamin Roe has been hired effective March 1 as Managing Director for Classical Services at WGBH/WCRB, to replace the recently retired Jon Solins. BMInt herein looks at what Roe is inheriting, what will be his task, and what will be the effect on classical-music broadcasting in Boston.
A New Hampshire native, Roe is no stranger to Boston, having worked at WBUR and other radio stations in the area. His classical music credentials are impeccable. He was one of the most active and influential classical music figures at National Public Radio (NPR) for twenty years. For six of his most productive ones, starting in 2001, he was head of music for NPR, then the last true active network of live classical music broadcasts in the country. It included such programs as SymphonyCast, Performance Today, and the NPR World of Opera. With local support from WGBH, many broadcasts were beamed live to the nation, including the BSO, the Boston Pops, and the Handel and Haydn Society’s Messiah.
In 2007, NPR basically shut down its music production arm, reducing its staff from sixty to six to concentrate on news and talk. Some of the musical residue is syndicated now on American Public Media out of Minneapolis. But live classical broadcasts to the nation now hardly exist.
Roe is coming to head classical services at WGBH after a three-year run as General Manager of WDAV in Charlotte, NC. According to media analyst David Boraks, Roe’s fiancée, Jennifer Foster, also from WDAV, will be joining him at WGBH where she will do, “….voice work for the news-and-info-focused WGBH-FM and be involved in other production and outreach activities.”
Roe is also coming at a very challenging time. Over the last three years, staff and management have had to deal with financial crises, the purchase of WCRB, and overall staffing reductions (including TV) which, according to sources, have lowered the number of employees from about 1,200 to 850. Labor is working without a contract and is in protracted and difficult negotiations with management, so BMInt solicited statements from both sides. Last December 22, Jeanne Hopkins, WGBH vice-president for Communications & Government Relations responded:
WGBH has a long and productive history of working with multiple unions and we want that to continue. We are currently in negotiations with AEEF/CWA, proposing a contract to reflect the significant changes that have taken place in the media industry. Our interest is in creating a fair, flexible, and responsible workplace for all of our employees, and to protect and grow production jobs here at WGBH.
Today, a statement came to BMInt from Jordan Weinstein, president of the AEEF-CWA Local 1300, WGBH’s largest union:
In fiscal year 2009, our members agreed to serious and deep cuts to their wages, some losing more than 30% of their income, while everyone else gave up nearly their entire annual wage increase, totaling collectively hundreds of thousands of dollars. Months later, after we obtained a copy of WGBH’s federal tax form, we discovered that during the same year in which our workers were making sacrifices to help WGBH solve a financial crisis, the heads of WGBH awarded themselves bonuses totaling more than $200,000. That was not the best example of trust-building, transparency or good-faith bargaining.
Despite painful concessions we’ve made in recognition of the weak economy and a tough fundraising environment; despite our members’ voluntary pay cuts, work furloughs, and numerous layoffs; despite our attempts to work collaboratively and creatively with WGBH management on solutions to the foundation’s financial problems, WGBH continues to demand concessions that go beyond financial necessity and threaten the fundamental right to bargain collectively. This is WGBH’s complete repudiation of a history of union/management collaboration that has made the broadcaster the jewel in the crown of the Public Broadcasting Service.
We hope WGBH members and the larger Boston community recognize in these union negotiations the kind of anti-union, anti-family tactics that threaten to silence public broadcasting altogether. WGBH needs to know the community it serves expects it to exercise the same principles it espouses in its programming.
On the WCRB and the WGBH radio side, we hear that the staff is particularly demoralized. WCRB is operating with a talent and production staff of only six — those six are very over-extended and local production and programming are suffering. Some sources worry that new management will be automating more of the classical playlist rather than encouraging more shows to have local concert content. At WGBH radio, now given over solely to news and talk (with some jazz), the eighteen producers and on-air personalities are laboring mightily to gain listeners. Despite their disproportionate share of the WGBH foundation’s radio budget, they have not grown their audience.
BMInt has been tracking how has the public has been voting with their dials. WGBH’s share of the 4 million-plus Greater Boston radio audience hovers between 1 and 1.2 percent— just where it was before the $14 million purchase of WCRB and the expensive growth of the news and talk machine at WGBH. On a happier note for management, WCRB’s listenership is back to where it was when the station was a commercial broadcaster sixteen months ago — about a 2.9% share. Meanwhile, Radio Operations Director John Voci’s NPR rival, WBUR, has been slipping in the ratings — from 4% a year ago down to 3.1% over the recent holiday period. What’s interesting and ironic here is that it is WCRB with its classical music format that appears on-track to overtake WBUR, rather than WGBH radio with its very expensive news and talk format. WBUR’s slippage, of course, has helped in this race. But the lesson just may be that the audience for news and talk is in decline. The internet perhaps is where the action is in that department. Another way to look at the saga sixteen months and $20 million later: with one quarter of the signal strength and one third the staff, WCRB has three times the audience of WGBH radio.
BMInt believes it’s time for the WGBH Foundation to change course. The arrival of Ben Roe may be seen as a salutary sign. Perhaps WGBH radio and WCRB can switch formats and bring classical music back to Boston with its powerful transmitter on 89.7. Perhaps recordings of local concerts will be reinvigorated. Perhaps Friday Symphony broadcasts will be back, too. From BMInt to Ben Roe, “We wish you well.”