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Lydon returns (continued)

Filene’s ghost

ONE DAY IN the early 1970s, the Boston Globe published an embarrassing story about a business that was referred to only as "a downtown department store." As retired Globe editor Matt Storin, who was city editor at the time, recalls, the paper had long since abandoned its earlier policy of protecting the identities of its two major advertisers, the locally owned department stores Jordan Marsh and Filene’s. But the reporter, an old-timer, didn’t realize that, and his omission somehow got by the copy desk.

"Wouldn’t you know that the Wall Street Journal somehow saw that — or somebody tipped them — and about a year later it was the lead in one of those center-column features, the overall point of which I don’t even remember," says Storin, who’s now associate vice-president for news and information at the University of Notre Dame.

Storin’s anecdote illustrates a basic fact of city lore: for many decades, Boston’s newspapers dared not report anything that would offend Jordan Marsh or Filene’s, the two giants of Boston retailing whose face-to-face storefronts at the corner of Washington and Summer Streets symbolized the genteel prosperity of a bygone era.

Now the Jordan-Filene’s rivalry is entering a new phase — and it’s one that is likely to have as damaging an effect on the newspaper business in the years ahead as, say, a negative story would have had in the 1950s. Federated Department Stores, which owns Macy’s (as the old Jordan Marsh stores are now called) and Bloomingdale’s, plans to merge with May Department Stores, whose holdings include Filene’s, Lord & Taylor, and Marshall Field’s. The $11 billion deal could have a huge impact on the newspaper business: according to a Merrill Lynch report cited in several news accounts, Federated spent nearly $494 million on newspaper ads in 2003, the most recent year for which data are available, and May spent a little more than $440 million. (Both chains spent considerably less on radio and television advertising.) Consolidation seems almost certain to take a huge bite out of those figures, whether it’s through the closure or merger of stores or a focus on a more national advertising strategy.

"The worst-case scenario is that about half of that might disappear," says John Morton, a newspaper-industry consultant based in Silver Spring, Maryland. "It probably means that the newspapers are going to suffer fairly grievously." Indeed, the trade magazine Editor & Publisher recently cited a study by Deutsche Bank showing that, in 2004, advertising by Federated and May accounted for two percent of all newspaper advertising revenue.

How important is this advertising in Boston? According to figures provided to the Phoenix by TNS Media Intelligence, Federated and May spent a combined $67 million on advertising in 2004 in the Globe and in its principal daily rival, the Boston Herald. TNS was unable to break down that total into separate figures for the Globe and the Herald; but though the Globe obviously gets the lion’s share, the two chains are a vital source of advertising money for both papers.

"Based on what we’ve read of the announcement, any and every advertising vehicle that does business with these stores has to be a bit concerned," says Rick Daniels, president and general manager of the Globe. "We think they’re still going to have to use the Globe and our media properties to promote." But he adds that speculating over how much the combined chain will spend would be "an empty exercise."

Herald publisher Pat Purcell couldn’t be reached for comment this week. However, recently, when the merger was in the works, Purcell acknowledged the difficulties such a deal would create, telling the Phoenix, "Obviously it’s not good for newspapers" (see "Don’t Quote Me," News and Features, February 25).

Could there be a silver lining? Storin wonders whether the Federated-May behemoth might present enough of a challenge to Wal-Mart that the discount giant would start buying newspaper ads, which it is traditionally loath to do. Morton doesn’t rule it out in markets where the two corporations compete; and he observes that Wal-Mart actually did ease its no-newspaper-advertising rule last Christmas season after shopping got off to a slow start.

Still, the bottom line is that two major ad-buying companies are about to become one. There’s no real way to spin that as anything but bad news for newspapers.

— DK

The complaints poured forth. What, students asked, would happen to Live from the Fallout Shelter — a live-music show so respected that it was recently mentioned in a Spin-magazine article on the Pixies, who once performed on the program? What about programs that serve Lowell’s foreign-language-speaking communities, including Cambodian immigrants, Portuguese-speaking Brazilians, and Spanish-speaking Latinos? "Like most of you, I feel very saddened by what’s going on here," said Sidney Liang, the host of a program called Voice of Cambodian Children. "I’m glad to be a part of this family, and I’ll fight to the end also." Osit and Dan Toomey, program manager of the university’s Center for Work, Family, and Community, and the host of a show for immigrant communities called Thinking Out Loud, say they’re willing to integrate the station more tightly with the university. But they complain that they’re largely being ignored.

This sort of talk drives Lou DiNatale crazy. A veteran political operative long associated with UMass Boston’s McCormack Institute of Public Affairs, DiNatale is now working as UMass Lowell’s executive director of public affairs. His goal, he says, is to preserve WUML’s status as a radio station operated mainly by students, adding that that runs counter to what has happened to many college-run radio stations — including WBUR — that have gone professional. The Spinners, he says, may attract listeners who will then sample WUML’s other programs; besides, he notes, the Spinners play only in June, July, and August, when few students are on campus. And he speaks of Lydon in almost transcendent terms.

For one thing, you may have noticed that the new Lydon program is not scheduled to be broadcast on Fridays. That’s because, DiNatale says, he has been talking with Lydon about hosting a one-hour show at UMass Lowell that will be heard only on WUML, and that will be focused on Merrimack Valley issues and produced largely by students. (At this point there are no firm plans and no launch date for such a show.) For another, the increased visibility that DiNatale hopes the university will receive should create the impetus needed to build a new radio studio, which will become Lydon’s permanent on-air home and the center of a new communications major for students. (Currently, the university offers only a minor in communications.) The radio station might be combined with a cable-television operation as well. DiNatale also says he’s committed to saving the best of WUML’s student and community programs, going so far as to assert that he would consider taking a few Spinners games off the air and streaming them over WUML’s Web site if that’s what it took to accommodate Live from the Fallout Shelter.

Still, DiNatale makes no bones about wanting to upgrade the sound and quality of much of what goes out over WUML’s airwaves. "While some of it is quite good, some of it is ... absurd," he says. "It’s right out in the Wayne’s World area." He adds, "My fundamental idea for the radio station is that it remain student-managed. Not student-controlled or student-owned, but student-managed. The rule of thumb is to come into these stations, throw them out completely, and just take over the whole thing professionally. We decided we had too good a radio station to do that."

DURING CHRIS Lydon’s four years off the Boston airwaves, he hasn’t exactly gone away. He’s done some fill-in hosting here and there — including stints in Minnesota and Jamaica. He’s also been affiliated with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, at Harvard Law School, trying to figure out new ways to combine his enthusiasm for the Internet with his love of radio. He’s been an active contributor to Blogging of the President 2004, a Web site that drew young activists enamored of Howard Dean’s Internet-driven presidential campaign. The site carries a link to a series of downloadable MP3 interviews Lydon has conducted with a range of cultural, political, and technological thinkers, from World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee and writer Gore Vidal to — well, to Boston Herald/WRKO Radio (AM 680) bad boy Howie Carr, a long-time Lydon pet.

One of Lydon’s interviews, with blogger Dave Winer, may very well have been the first podcast: Winer, with former MTV host Adam Curry, is the developer of podcasting software, which greatly simplifies the process of finding and downloading MP3 programs to an iPod (hence the name) or other portable MP3 player.

Now in his mid 60s, Lydon has enjoyed a uniquely varied career. A native Bostonian, he worked early on as a reporter for both the Boston Globe and the New York Times. While with the Times, he popped up as a Virgil-quoting "pointy-head bastard" in Hunter S. Thompson’s classic Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. At WGBH-TV, he became the scourge of then–Massachusetts Senate president William Bulger. During a memorable 1990 on-air interview with then–Boston University president John Silber, who was running for governor, Lydon told his guest that he reminded him of a Public Enemy rap song. In 1993 he ran as an outsider candidate for mayor of Boston, and attracted attention largely on the strength of a radical school-reform agenda.

As host of The Connection, at WBUR, he quickly established himself as the station’s most prominent public voice, and as a nationally respected interviewer/host. Yes, Lydon could have handled his standoff with Jane Christo better. Yes, the station — and The Connection — have gone on without him and Mary McGrath. But there’s no denying Lydon’s excellence, or how welcome his voice and his intellect will be on the air once again.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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Issue Date: March 11 - 17, 2005
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