Putting the public back in public radio

GM Joe O'Conner says WRNI will rise or fall on the support of Rhode Islanders
By IAN DONNIS  |  June 12, 2007
inside_OConnor
FERTILE TERRAIN: O’Connor wants WRNI to
play a bigger role in covering Rhode Island’s
multitudinous intrigues.

While he has globetrotting experience in reporting on an array of Big Stories — including the first Intifada, the Persian Gulf War, the release of Nelson Mandela, and the police brutality case involving Abner Louima — Joe O’Connor faces a more painstaking challenge while working from his smallish office at WRNI (1290 AM) in Providence.
 
As the general manager of Rhode Island’s public radio station, O’Connor is well aware of “the troubles” that preceded his arrival in May 2006. Although WRNI was launched with high hopes in 1998, its staff and programming were continually cut after 9/11. Then, in 2004, Boston University, the station’s license-holder, abruptly announced its intention to sell WRNI. The university switched course after an outcry, ultimately revealing plans in March to sell WRNI to a local group of public radio boosters.
 
WRNI has been on the upswing over the last year, with the addition of O’Connor and reporter Nancy Cook, the continued presence of news director Mark Degon, and the additional statewide coverage that came with the relaunch in May of WAKX in Narragansett (102.7 FM). O’Connor, who faces the task of simultaneously overseeing and strengthening the thinly staffed station, says it’s unacceptable that a few pockets of the state still remain beyond WRNI’s signal.

Still, O’Connor, a 50-year-old native of Chevy Chase, Maryland, whose resume includes producing experience at Good Morning America, ABC News Nightline, PrimeTime Live, and World News Tonight, and who was the senior producer for the WBUR Group’s On Point before coming to WRNI, seems to welcome his challenges with good cheer.
 
With the local acquisition of WRNI, he says, “The burden is where it should have always been — it is now on Rhode Islanders. It is not on Boston University, who is trying to set us up for success. It is up to the residents of the state to really support this. They’re telling me they want this and they want this excellence [of public radio] on a regular basis. Well, that’s going to take their support “
 
O’Connor talked with the Phoenix last week at WRNI’s office at One Union Station.

With the acquisition of WRNI by Rhode Islanders, how’s the outlook for expanding the station’s staffing and programming?
The outlook is good, and [expansion is] going to be minimal, because there is risk here, in that we will have significant operating deficits in the first five years of the new entity.
 
We have a loan from the Rhode Island Foundation, on generous terms, for $2.65 million. The purchase of 1290 [AM] will be another $2 million. Thanks to Boston University’s generosity, that’s going to be paid off under generous terms, over a 10-year period. But that’s a lot of money that you got to make up fast, just on the capital investment, and then with present staffing — it’s skeletal.
 
We need to add people in order to provide a rich service to the community. So it’s going to be tough in the first few years to add a lot of the staff that we want to add. I don’t have money — won’t have money — in the first few years to invest, myself, in a local program.
 
That’s where the logic comes in, in the sense — can the community help me do programming of excellence, like Trinity Rep Radio Theatre is once a month. Could, years from now, we be able to do it once a week, whatever? Trinity Rep is funding that, getting the outside funding for that. I’m not, it’s not on my books. So those are going to be the sort of things where it’s going to be slow going at first.

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