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Fresh air
Itís time for Boston University to hold WBUR accountable to the public that supports it. Plus, thoughts on Finneranís departure.

FOR 25 YEARS, Jane Christoís autocratic rule as general manager of Boston Universityís WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) has been a double-edged sword. Christo has built one of the most admired public stations in the country. At a time when corporate consolidation and deregulation have transformed much of commercial radio into a news-free wasteland, WBUR has charted an intelligent alternative course.

But Christoís success has come at a cost. Employees are terminated under mysterious circumstances. Those with significant management responsibilities attest to being unable to find out such basic information as the amount of money that has been budgeted for their programs. There is considerable evidence that the stationís finances have been stretched to the limit; sources say there are significant delays in paying vendors and freelancers. And virtually no one ó in many cases not even former WBUR employees ó is willing to speak out, fearing the price of candor in the small world of public radio (see "Donít Quote Me," News and Features, September 24).

All this might have been tolerable when the station was growing, and listener contributions and corporate underwriting revenue were rolling in. But that is no longer the case. Boston University took an important first step this past Monday in announcing that it would delay íBURís planned sale of its Providence station, WRNI Radio (AM 1290), as well as a satellite station in Westerly, Rhode Island. By acceding to requests from Rhode Island governor Donald Carcieri and the stateís attorney general, Patrick Lynch, to put a halt to the proceedings until questions could be answered about the operationís finances, the university made it clear to Christo that business-as-usual is no longer good enough (see "Media," This Just In, page 7).

But BU shouldnít stop there. Because the real problem at WBUR is an overall lack of fiscal transparency, which renders it impossible for anyone but top university officials to make meaningful judgments about the costs and benefits of Christoís decisions. BU holds a special trust in its administration of WBUR ó one that it has certainly exercised far more scrupulously than for-profit media conglomerates, which all too often exploit the publicly owned airwaves for narrow gain rather than for the public good. But WBUR is as much a community property as it is a not-for-profit asset of the university, and it needs to be treated as such.

The Rhode Island situation has made it painfully clear that all is not well in Jane Christoís world. Because WBUR is part of BU rather than a stand-alone operation, it is exempt from certain public disclosure requirements that govern nonprofit organizations. But thanks to some enterprising reporting by the Providence Journal, we have learned that the WRNI Foundation, which is organized separately from WBUR, ran a deficit of $9.4 million between 1998 and 2003. The Journal also reported that, in filings with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), WBUR itself claimed to have incurred a deficit totaling $4.7 million during that same period. Yet WBUR spokesman Will Keyser has insisted that financial problems have nothing to do with the planned sale of the two Rhode Island stations. He also told the Boston Globe this week that the CPB filings "do not paint an accurate picture" of WBURís finances. In a subsequent interview with the Phoenix, Keyser blamed the peculiarities of the CPB reporting process.

High-quality radio is expensive, and Christo has nothing to be ashamed of for sticking with her vision during this economically uncertain decade. But reports of her running WBUR as though it were her own personal fiefdom have persisted for years. As with most public radio stations, WBURís $20 million annual budget comes mainly from listener contributions and corporate underwriters. Boston University should insist on a higher level of accountability, not just to BU officials, but to the public, which is paying the bills. Fuller disclosures, more frequent annual reports, and an independent, community-based WBUR board with real oversight authority would all be good places to start.

In truth, WBUR ó and Boston University ó have always had an obligation to be more forthcoming. But few bothered to make the case for public responsiveness because the stationís growth seemed unlimited and its excellence was unquestioned. Besides, Christoís way of doing business was not all that different from that of her fellow autocrat, long-time BU president John Silber.

Now Silber has retired, and Christo is laying off news staffers and preparing to sell assets she acquired just a few years earlier. Itís a new day for Boston University, and it should be for WBUR as well. A more open way of doing business is not only appropriate ó itís necessary if Christo wishes to serve the public and maintain community support.

THE DEPARTURE of Tom Finneran from the Massachusetts House, where he had long ruled as its authoritarian Speaker, is cause for cautious optimism. At a minimum, efforts to pass an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting same-sex marriage appear to be dead because the new Speaker, Sal DiMasi, a North End Democrat, supports gay marriage. The fact that no one remains in the legislative leadership whoís willing to demonize gay and lesbian couples for political purposes is in itself a reason for celebration. Then, too, DiMasi holds progressive views on a wide range of issues, and is far less likely to balance the budget on the backs of those who need state services than Finneran was.

But Finneranís intelligence and ruthlessness had their uses. Because of his insistence that the state build up its rainy-day fund during the 1990s, the fiscal crisis of the past few years ó now beginning to ease ó did not cause nearly as much damage to the social safety net as it might have. Finneran was also willing to take the heat ó thus shielding his members ó when it came to unpopular but necessary tax increases, and to opposing Governor Mitt Romneyís irresponsible proposal to roll back the income tax to five percent.

What kind of a Speaker will DiMasi be? As a member of Finneranís leadership team, he never showed the slightest hesitation to enforce Finneranís will. His own style, though, may ó and should ó be different. Few would advocate a return to the pure democracy of the 1980s, when then-Speaker George Keverian, in the name of reform, presided over a chamber that was long on chaos and short on accomplishment. But though discipline and strong leadership are essential, Finneran took it to an extreme, stripping members of perks and freezing them out for even minor deviations. DiMasi should seek to strike a balance.

It would appear that Finneran is leaving at least in part because of a federal inquiry into whether he might have committed perjury during testimony in a recent redistricting lawsuit. By claiming to be largely unaware of the redistricting process, Finneran was no doubt being disingenuous; but that was hardly sufficient reason to make this a federal case. Prosecutorial overreach by politically ambitious Republican US attorneys is nothing new in Massachusetts. Finneranís predecessor as Speaker, Charles Flaherty, pled guilty to minor tax infractions and resigned from office to get the feds off his back.

It was time for Finneran to leave. But if, as expected, US Attorney Michael Sullivan runs for the Senate in 2006, he should be grilled on this needless harassment of a duly elected official.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters[a]phx.com

Issue Date: October 1 - 7, 2004
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