Public Broadcasters Form New Partnership In Western Mass.

Apr 11, 2019
Originally published on April 11, 2019 2:15 pm

The two big names in public radio and public television in western Massachusetts are joining together. New England Public Radio and WGBY will soon become “New England Public Media.”

The partnership reunites two media companies that have a common history. NEPR was started as WFCR in 1961 by the Boston-based WGBH.

Ten years later, WGBH launched WGBY to provide public television to the Springfield area.

Now, the two stations will join up to form an independent non-profit, which is slated to come online this summer around July 1.

Martin Miller, CEO and general manager of New England Public Radio, will become president of the new organization, which will be called, “New England Public Media.”

“Our goal is to expand our journalism because we think it’s critical to our communities,” Miller said.

Miller said over time, he expects NEPR listeners will hear more news in core programs like Morning Edition and All Things Considered. There are also plans for a new daily news radio show.

But Miller said for the programs that are on the air now, people will not notice any changes.

“We’re not overlooking the other things we do, which are music and cultural programming,” Miller said. “They will still hear classical music. They will still hear jazz. They’ll still hear Jazz Safari. Tertulia.”

Anthony Hayes, general manager of WGBY in Springfield, said the partnership won’t result in any immediate changes to that station’s TV offerings.

Hayes said the station’s five-day-a-week flagship program, “Connecting Point,” will remain on the air and that its schedule won’t change. But he said the pairing will expand WGBY’s imprint in other ways.

“I think it would allow the staff that we currently have to do more,” Hayes said. “Staff that’s currently assigned to just WGBY television will now be able to have more content. Learn more about digital opportunities and do more with radio.”

Combined, WGBY and NEPR have 78 employees. Both stations are located in downtown Springfield.

Hayes said some staff may move offices as a result of the consolidation. But Miller and Hayes both said the changes won’t cause any layoffs or adjustments to salary and benefits for current employees.

Miller said both stations will continue to refer to themselves on air by their current names: “WGBY” and “NEPR.”

NEPR has a long affiliation with Massachusetts colleges. Its flagship station call letters, “WFCR,” actually stand for “five college radio,” a consortium including Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith colleges. It also includes UMass Amherst, which purchased the broadcast license from WGBH back in 1967.

Right now, UMass employs 24 NEPR workers. That arrangement won’t change, according to John Kennedy, a vice chancellor at University of Massachusetts Amherst, who will also be on the board of New England Public Media.

“All of the UMass employees will continue to receive the same level of benefits that they always have,” Kennedy said. “Nothing material will change for the employees, in terms of their benefits and their compensation.”

Current WGBY employees will be paid by the new non-profit, New England Public Media.

New England Public Media’s new boss, Martin Miller, will report to a new board of directors, UMass, and to WGBH in Boston.

UMass will continue to hold the broadcast license for WFCR. And WGBH will retain control over the TV broadcast license.

UMass Amherst’s Kennedy said while other media mergers have gutted local content, he believes this will do the opposite.

“It allows our regional news operation to access the resources of WGBH in the eastern part of the state -- to bring news from the eastern part of the state out west, and vice versa,” Kennedy said.

Sam Hudzik is the news director at NEPR. He spoke as a member of the station’s employee union.

“I think as a member of the union some of us are concerned about merging with an organization that’s not represented by a union,” Hudzik said. “And what that means for worker protections for us and for employees who are hired in the future.”

He said workers in his newsroom were promised NEPR will remain free of editorial influence from WGBH in Boston.

“That’s certainly our hope that that’s how it works out,” Hudzik said. “We feel strongly that we were hired to serve this region first.”

As part of the partnership agreement, WGBH will invest $6 million over six years into the new venture.  

Jon Abbott, WGBH’s president and CEO, said the hope is those dollars will help jumpstart investment in new journalism and community outreach programs in western Massachusetts.

“What we’ve found in Boston is that by committing to new services, if they’re well conceived, they engender audience attention and support,” Abbott said.

Abbott said the majority of support for New England Public Media will still come primarily through listener donations and grants.

“We’re not built as an enterprise that has to rush to sell eyeballs to advertisers and have a big audience at any one moment in time,” Abbott said. “The convenience and access that audiences have to choosing to embrace our programming on all these digital platforms -- that, I think is going to enhance our reach, enhance our impact, and hopefully our value.”

“Philanthropists like big ideas, and I think this is a big idea,” said incoming NEPM-head Martin Miller. “It’s a big idea for our region. And I would hope that it could be a model for the rest of the country to look at. Because I think we have to strengthen public media across the country.”

NOTE: Connecticut Public Radio reported and edited this story independently at the request of NEPR. No NEPR staff or leadership had oversight or reviewed the story before publication.

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