Cannibalizing the Competition? Public Radio Wars in Boston

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April 16, 2011; Source: News Telegram | If you are a public radio listener and you visit Boston you may notice that at the left hand end of the dial you will often be able to tune in to absolutely identical programming on two different radio stations – at 90.9 on the dial and at 89.7. The former station is WBUR and the latter is WGBH.

Last year WGBH, which had always had a mixed format of news, talk and music decided to divide its classical music offerings off onto a separate station (99.5) and this left it largely mirroring WBUR’s all talk/news format. WGBH’s signal is stronger and this, the fact that they are a part of a larger corporation that includes the iconic WGBH TV, and possibly a number of other factors have resulted in audience growth of 6 percent for WGBH and an audience decline of 8 percent at WBUR.

While WBUR’s audience is still larger, it is crying foul. Charles Kravetz, WBUR’s new general manager says, “This format, which WBUR pioneered across the country, was a winning formula,’’ he said. “This is a zero-sum game. If either station flourishes, it will be at the expense of the other.’’

Marita Rivera, of WGBH pooh-poohs the idea, countering that “the growth feels like we are attracting new people.” Still, according to the Worcester Telegram, Jack Casey, a radio professor at nearby Emerson College says that although the dynamics are complex and might deserve digging into, it looks to him like the area’s public radio stations are “cannibalizing” each other.

Casey says such head to head competition is rare but points to a similar situation that played out in Washington D.C. six years ago. Apparently in D.C. WETA changed its music-and-news format to an all-news format, which directly competed with two stations – one public and one commercial. The commercial station countered by boosting its signal, whereupon WETA went back to its previous programming.—Ruth McCambridge