Two Public Radio Stations. Two Different Business Models. One Future For Public Radio in Boston hangs in the balance.

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From The Boston Globe – by Aidan Ryan

Shifts in the radio news business model have forced WBUR and GBH to try to find new audiences and spurred questions about whether Boston can still sustain two NPR news stations — a rarity even in the nation’s largest cities.

For years, public radio — set up as a public service outside the fluctuations of the commercial market — seemed insulated from the storm the internet unleashed on the news industry.

But when the pandemic hit and office workers stopped tuning in to NPR on their commutes to work, that shift accelerated a worrisome trend: a downturn in radio listeners, which preceded a decline in advertiser dollars. Now, Boston’s two public radio stations are confronting rising costs and the fact that their traditional business models have transformed — and won’t ever be the same.

The shifts have forced WBUR and GBH to try to find new audiences and spurred questions about whether the market can still sustain two NPR news stations — a rarity even in the nation’s largest cities. Both have recently announced serious financial challenges and warned that staff layoffs may be coming, with WBUR last week also offering employee buyouts. And it’s unclear whether listeners can make up WBUR’s sponsorship shortfall with donations, which have not grown fast enough in recent years.

“This year came harder and faster than we planned for,” WBUR chief executive Margaret Low said in an interview.

Commercial news companies have struggled to adapt to the digital age, with changes in traditional business models leading newspapers to close and costing thousands of journalists their jobs. News outlets now compete with streaming services and social media platforms for people’s attention, subscriptions, and advertiser dollars.

That makes sustaining public media, with its mission to serve the public interest, vital for democracy, said Victor Pickard, a University of Pennsylvania media policy professor.

“There’s a greater need for public broadcasting than ever before, especially as entire areas and sectors of our commercial news media system is crumbling before our eyes,” he said.

Traditionally, GBH was known for easing into its day with bird songs and playing jazz and classical music. But it shifted to news in December 2009, prompting questions of whether Boston could support both GBH and WBUR, a longtime news outlet.

By 2017, the debate seemed settled. GBH had quickly built an audience and rocketed to 10th among the nation’s NPR news stations, behind WBUR at number six.

Both stations now air NPR programming such as “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” each with their own local flair, along with original programming. WBUR is still the top news station in Boston. GBH’s “Boston Public Radio” — hosted by Jim Braude and Margery Eagan — outperforms WBUR during the midday slot, the station’s only ratings victory.

The two organizations have amassed relatively large news operations — WBUR has 130 employees in its newsroom out of a total of 220 staffers, while GBH’s newsroom has about 100, out of roughly 850 workers across the organization. GBH also owns other radio stations and a television station, and produces PBS programming such as “Antiques Roadshow,” “Nova,” and “Frontline,” which bring in significant revenue.

But both stations’ live radio audiences have in recent years declined, according to analyses of Nielsen ratings. 90.9 WBUR had about 387,500 weekly listeners in February, down from the 534,400 weekly listeners the Globe reported in 2017. Over the same period, 89.7 GBH’s weekly audience fell to 299,000 from 445,200. Both GBH and WBUR said their online audiences add far more listeners and readers.

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