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Sound and fury (continued)

Related stories

WBUR Group to sell Rhode Island's public radio station: Sudden move sparks outrage among WRNI donors. By Ian Donnis.

Media: 'Streamlining' sparks cuts at WBUR. By Ian Donnis.

Numerous sources say the station has been buzzing for at least the past several years over reputed financial problems. Although the station’s seemingly incessant fundraisers are said to reach their goals, there is a widespread belief that ’BUR has been experiencing budget difficulties. In large measure, this may be because of Christo’s laudable goal of building up the station with high-quality, expensive programming — five hours every weekday of news-and-interview shows (The Connection, Here and Now, and On Point), plus the Inside Out documentary series and the weekend sports show Only a Game, all of which can be heard at stations around country through NPR and, thanks to a relatively new arrangement, through the XM satellite radio network. The station took a substantial hit with the collapse of the dot-com economy, and sources say it’s been scrambling ever since. WBUR was also hammered with a boycott by CAMERA (the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) a few years ago, with the organization accusing the station of demonstrating an anti-Israel bias. The boycott may have cost the station between $1 million and $2 million, although sources say it no longer appears to be a factor.

But sources also say that Christo runs the station as though it were her personal fiefdom, and that what they describe as her free-spending ways — combined with the lack of financial transparency — make whatever financial problems the station may be experiencing all the more troubling. Responds Keyser, "I’m not going to shadowbox off-the-record comments. I can tell you this: the record of accomplishment at WBUR speaks for itself. It’s the top-ranked public radio station in the top 80 markets. It has won virtually every news broadcast award. It’s a remarkable station."

Whether the station is actually short of cash or simply has trouble managing the cash it has, there is no question money is an issue at WBUR. There are reliable accounts that the station drags its feet in paying freelance contributors and others who provide services to the station. For instance, people who run two studios in New York City that have rented time to the station — so that The Connection or On Point, for instance, can book a guest from New York — say ’BUR is extraordinarily slow in paying its bills.

"The right hand doesn’t seem to know what the left hand is doing," says David Coffin, manager of broadcasting technology at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. "I’ve made it expressly clear to them in the past that you’re calling me yet again and you haven’t paid me for the past two, three, four times." The last time he dealt with WBUR was last spring, he says, adding "they’re worse" than other stations with which he deals. Larry Josephson, who sometimes rents out the studio at his New York–based Radio Foundation, says of WBUR, "They’re slow to pay their bills, and they’re notorious for that. I’ve had to go to Jane Christo to get paid, and that’s ridiculous." However, Josephson adds that ’BUR is no worse than some of his other clients.

Keyser, though, denies that any of the station’s recent moves are the result of financial problems. Not the impending sale of WRNI. Not the refocusing of Here and Now ("The idea is to give the news an opportunity to breathe"). And certainly not the slow payments cited by Coffin and Josephson, which, Keyser says, are the result of "some internal accounting challenges with respect to paying independents for work that they have done" — a problem the station is seeking to rectify — and are "not reflective of the financial or administrative health of WBUR."

THE MISSING VOICE in all this is that of Boston University. More than three years ago, after founding Connection host Christopher Lydon and his staff left the station following an astoundingly nasty contract dispute with WBUR (see "Bobos in Radioland," News and Features, April 26, 2001), BU executive vice-president Joseph Mercurio gave Christo a vote of confidence: "If the question is, do I support Jane Christo as the general manager of WBUR, the answer to that is a definite yes."

Efforts to reach Mercurio for comment this week through BU spokesman Carleton were unsuccessful. But a former WBUR employee says that, even several years ago, relations between Christo and Mercurio seemed to be increasingly tense. "He was in an awful lot, and she would go to his office an awful lot. And she would come back not looking very happy," this source says. "He threw the fear of God into her."

And if Mercurio throws the fear of God into Christo, Christo, in turn, throws the fear of God into her employees. Reporting on WBUR is like reporting on few other media organizations. Virtually no one, even ex-employees, is willing to talk for the record. The fear on the other end of the line is palpable.

"Morale has always been bad there ... because reporters and journalists with whom I worked never knew how long they were going to be employed there," says Ken Bader, who was fired by WBUR in 1997 after he made a minor, unapproved wording change in an underwriting announcement. Bader, who’s now senior editor of The World, a joint venture of WGBH, PRI, and the BBC World Service, adds: "The editorial staff always acted more out of fear of Jane than out of commitment to any kind of quality journalism. So you were kind of on your own. That seems to be the mood there now, so that’s consistent."

Adds Bruce Gellerman, a former ’BUR executive producer and Here and Now co-host who was let go in 2002 after 14 years: "It’s very sad to see what has become of WBUR. The public and employees deserve better. You would think that Jane Christo, as the manager of a public radio station that depends upon public contributions, would allow the people who pay her salary to see the books.... Just where does the money go?" Gellerman is now writing books, teaching, and consulting.

Christo is sometimes described as a visionary, and there’s a good case to be made for that. WBUR was among the first all-news public radio stations in the country, filling a vital niche just as deregulation was transforming commercial radio into an almost news-free zone. And she and the people who work at the station produce some truly great radio. During morning and afternoon drive time, when NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered are on the air, WBUR has long been in the top three in the ratings. Nor is there any drop-off in quality when the station switches to its own programs: The Connection (10 a.m. to noon, rebroadcast from 9 to 11 p.m.), Here and Now (noon to 1 p.m.), and On Point (7 to 9 p.m.).

But the station’s most recent moves point to an operation that’s lurching backward. Maybe what we’re seeing is a necessary retrenchment at a time when money for nonprofits is tight. If WBUR is going through hard times, it’s certainly not alone. The difference is that ’BUR is a place of secrecy, unaccountable to a public that is constantly asked, urged, and pleaded with to send in yet another donation.

If Christo wants the station she has worked so hard to build to survive and thrive, she needs to change the way she does business. And if she won’t, or can’t, Boston University — her boss — should step in and insist on it.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]phx.com

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Issue Date: September 24 - 30, 2004
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