In Between Two Worlds.” Photo: ChrisJTSE

May 29, 2019; WBUR, “News”

Mixing elected with appointed board members in any nonprofit brings unique challenges and one public radio station is about to experience them firsthand. One of Boston’s three public radio stations, WBUR, has been engaged in an internal skirmish about the makeup of its governing group since Boston University announced that general manager Charlie Kravetz would be resigning as of June 30th of this year. The announcement was made in March, following a period during which On Point host Tom Ashbrook was fired for creating a hostile work environment and the staff voted to unionize, even as a long-awaited events space championed by Kravetz opened. The WBUR Board of Overseers took umbrage; despite their lack of formal decision-making power, they expected to be included in such an important consideration. At that time, Hedge Fund COO William Gannon, who was the chairman of the Board of Overseers, surfaced the idea of trying to wrest the station from the university and make it independent. Some doubted this proposal would be received well by a newly unionized staff, who have excellent benefits at BU.

Two months later, WBUR has rejected the idea of spinning the station off; instead, a new deal will install a new board, the Executive Committee, with decision-making authority over its leadership and finances. The new Committee will comprise mostly existing members of WBUR’s Board of Overseers—made up of donors and members—along with one BU staff member and one member of the school’s board of trustees, both of whom will be appointed by BU’s president. The new board chair, which for now is Gannon, will still report to BU’s president, and BU will continue as owner of the broadcast license.

Gannon announced the change in governance yesterday, jointly addressing a staff meeting with BU’s president, Robert Brown.

“WBUR deserves to have an oversight structure that’s really engaging with the community that it serves and that is really invested wholeheartedly in the mission of ’BUR,” Brown said in an interview. “That’s not to say BU is not. But it’s not something that our Board of Trustees can ever spend much time on in this big $2.6 billion research university.”

Ernie Sanchez, the founding general counsel of NPR, comments, “BU’s decision to create this new ‘hands-on’ board is a bold step to increase public participation in WBUR’s operation. It is also a very smart business decision…You can’t expect the public to fully support a public station if the public is kept at arm’s length by the station’s license holder.”

Meanwhile, no search has even begun for a new general manager, and the process is expected to take more than a year. It will be interesting to watch how this governance setup, with its split accountability system, will work.—Ruth McCambridge