Making waves

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  June 10, 2010

But the CPB itself must make a major shift, too, they argue: turning local news into a top priority and moving to “aggressively encourage and reward” public broadcasting collaborations with nonprofit and university-based news initiatives popping up across the country.

Ellen Weiss, senior vice president for news at NPR in Washington, says the reorientation is already well under way. Indeed, she says, NPR believes public radio must act now, from a position of strength, if it is to become a major local news player: building the capacity of local newsrooms and forming partnerships with media partners before more competitors step into the void.

Failure to do so, she suggests, could mean serious trouble for member stations in the long run. Traditional radio may not be under significant threat at the moment. But Internet radio will be a real power in time. And when listeners start turning in large numbers to the Internet for Morning Edition and other national news programs, she says, stations will need strong local news operations to distinguish themselves, maintain listener loyalty, and keep the donations flowing.

SCARCITY

This new emphasis on local news finds its strongest expression, perhaps, in NPR’s soon-to-launch Argo Project. The initiative will provide funding for a dozen stations around the country — from Boston, to Wyoming, to San Francisco — for in-depth, online reporting on a single topic: say, health care or the environment.

But the limits on the reach and depth of Argo — the handful of stations involved, the handful of topics covered — speak to the financial limits on NPR’s ambitions. And those limits are evident, too, at local stations like WRNI.

The station, which broadcasts on 1290 AM in Providence and 102.7 FM in Narragansett, is still unavailable in large swaths of the state — particularly to the west. Sizable beats like the economy and the state’s maritime life go uncovered. And the long-form talk and magazine-style shows that anchor a handful of large NPR affiliates in Boston, San Francisco, and New York do not appear to be in the offing here.

Moreover, WRNI’s complement of five reporters — on par with larger stations in Boston and New Hampshire — seems unlikely to grow anytime soon. Indeed, O’Connor says he took a real risk in the last couple of years when he hired “more of a newsroom than I could reasonably afford.”

The gamble, he insists, has paid off with higher ratings and improved fundraising, even in a down economy. WRNI’s revenue jumped from $700,000 for the fiscal year that ended in June 2007 to $2.9 million for the fiscal year that ended in June 2009. But that figure is inflated by the station’s one-shot, $4 million capital campaign. And there are reasonable questions about the long-term sustainability of the operation. Three of WRNI’s five reporters are paid with grant money that will — in at least two cases — taper off in relatively short order.

And a special deal that O’Connor worked out for national programming from NPR and two other outfits — WRNI pays $55,000 per year for a set of shows worth around $300,000 — will expire in 2014.

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