Fuse Commentary: WGBH’s Radio Theater of the Absurd

WGBH is exploring an interesting question—how little can you invest in arts coverage and still have the chutzpah to ask for money from supporters who mistake crumbs for a loaf?

By Bill Marx.

Kai Ryssdal, Host of Marketplace. As of July 2nd, you will hear him 30 minutes earlier each weekday on WGBH than on WBUR. Wow!!!

The utter absurdity of WGBH’s recent decision to downsize its jazz coverage—cutting down host Eric Jackson to weekend duties and removing longtime host Steve Schwartz—was crystallized via an advertisement on the station this morning, obviously prepared to trumpet the broadcast riches made possible by the new weekday broadcast line-up, sans jazz as of July 2nd. Kai Ryssdal, host of American Public Media’s syndicated program Marketplace, announced that the show would be coming to WGBH at 6 p.m., the earliest time in the Boston area to hear it.

Yes, NPR fans, that is part of the trade off of doing away with quality arts and culture programming, which until recently was supposedly a crucial part of the station’s mission. WGBH is running a program that reports business news that can be heard, a half hour later, on NPR station WBUR. In an age of ipods and podcasts, of TiVos and webcasts, only the densest WGBH donor will see the competitive value (or see much reason to send in big bucks) for the glory of being 30 minutes ahead. It will be interesting to hear the fundraising pitch on Morning Edition: “Please support WGBH—so we can keep running Marketplace just before other stations.” Wow!

WGBH is a dying animal, dissipating in agonizing slow-motion. The more the station tries to cravenly shadow box WBUR—taking the easy way out by depending on syndicated programming rather than creating excellent homegrown shows—the more redundant it becomes, a copycat embarrassment. Does it really make any difference whether I support NPR on WGBH or WBUR? Do we need two NPR stations providing the same programming, albeit some of it at different times? But original programming is expensive—outsourcing is much more profitable, which is the motive force behind many of the station’s recent moves. Instead of investing in distinctive jazz and cultural coverage, doubling down on its invaluable commitment to the arts in Boston, the masters of WGBH have decided to remove a big chunk of what they have and go the low-cal, low-wage route of rote cable TV programming—two hours of yak led by a quartet of talking heads. The point isn’t to provide news in the hard-hitting, investigative reporting vein; the aim is to pump out hot air punditry that specializes in giving voice-time to a cadre of professional “experts.”

Let me make a confession here: over the past few years, my feeling about jazz coverage on WGBH was that, in an age of online music services, the expertise of Eric and company was wasting away in an antique format. The shows sounded tired and old-fashioned. Not enough was being done to use technology as a means to communicate the value of discernment and education. A music service such as Pandora feeds taste—it doesn’t cultivate it, and there is still an appetite among music lovers young and old to learn, to exchange ideas and views. The challenge for WGBH was to invest resources and imagination into its jazz programming, using online technology to convey the beauty of jazz and its history. The move the station has taken is one more step toward the sorry time that issues of quality will degenerate into whether WBUR or WGBH plays a program earlier than the other. We may already be there.

Here’s further evidence that WGBH (now touting itself as “Boston Public Radio”) thinks the city’s arts and culture are only worth the back of its hand. I am not sure where fundraising dollars to WGBH are going, but I can say for sure that it is not being invested in creating serious coverage of the arts. Here’s a case in point: the new, online arts journal on the station’s site, edited by the overworked Jared Bowen (who is carrying the torch for civilization on the daily talk fests, so pray for him) and a bunch of interns who like everything they see, a lot. Experienced voices that might go beyond parroting publicity releases—such as the outgoing Steve Schwartz and the now cut to part-time Eric Jackson, are nowhere to be seen. The reasoning of the profit-minded WGBH moguls is obvious: slap up lip service to the arts for a plugged nickel on the web, and the donors will support it anyway.

WGBH is exploring an interesting question—how little can you invest in meaningful arts coverage and still have the chutzpah to ask for money from supporters who mistake crumbs for a loaf? The station may get away with this scam because it has nerve to spare, the latter buoyed by more than a little contempt for its listeners. On the same morning I heard the exciting news that I could catch Marketplace 30 minutes earlier on WGBH than on WBUR, there was an ad featuring a listener who said that he was happy to support WGBH because of Eric in the Evening. As of July 2nd, there will be much less jazz coverage for this fan to support, and he might just notice, though WGBH is betting he won’t. If he does, the station better hope that the guy is willing to pay for his Marketplace served hot off the satellite feed.


  1. Ken Bader on June 22, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    I disagree with your description of Eric’s and Steve’s programs as “lifeless and old-fashioned.” I find them energetic and timeless. And what do you mean when you complain that WGBH’s jazz programming failed to use “technology to convey the beauty of jazz and its history?” Eric and Steve have been using the technology of radio to do exactly that for decades. This listener will dearly miss them.

    • Bill Marx on June 23, 2012 at 6:39 am

      I agree that “lifeless” was inaccurate and harsh to boot. I have replaced with “tired.” As for technology, I meant that as news and arts coverage moves to the web, shows such as “Eric in the Evening” will have to make changes — use social media, video, encourage interactivity on the web — to expand on the broadcast experience. (See what NPR is doing with its site.) Eric’s and Steve’s shows are priceless — but to remain compelling to audiences new and old their vintage wine has to be poured into new bottles. Habit and inertia is not only the enemy of art, but of coverage of the arts as well.

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