Media Watch: WNED and WBFO fans play the waiting game
Music, theater, and news lovers might have felt like they were involved in an edition of NPR’s popular quiz show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me when they attended an October forum at WNED-TV.
They were gathered to give input to Western New York Public Broadcasting Association [WNYPBA] officials about what they want the new configuration of WNED-AM and WBFO-FM to be now that the WNYPBA is about to own both stations. Or as Donald Boswell, the president and chief executive officer, put it, “How do we take public radio to another level? What things can we build on?” So let’s play along in the spirit of Wait, Wait, the quiz show which asks listeners to determine what is real and what is made-up news.
What did WNED and WBFO officials tell some of the seventy-five passionate public radio fans in attendance? a) We realize it is our duty to save the local music industry. b) We realize it is our duty to save the local theater industry. c) We realize it would be a crying shame if WNED-AM was sold. d) We have to find the best way to serve listeners under budgetary restrictions.
Wait, wait, don’t tell me. That’s way too easy, right? The answer the attendees didn’t want to hear from Boswell is d). It had to be a little tough to hear, even if it is understandable in these tough economic times, that listener demands and the bottom line have to be compatible. Many of those attending weren’t happy about the $4 million sale of the University at Buffalo’s radio station, WBFO, to the public broadcaster that already owns a station that carries several of the same NPR programs—including Morning Edition and All Things Considered—that WNED-AM carries.
It didn’t make anyone feel any better when Mark Vogelzang, who has been running UB’s station for two years, said the sale of the station founded in 1959 is part of “a trend in many universities across the country.” Some of the attendees got a little irritated over semantics, wondering why the officials referred to the sale as a merger. “We never said it was a merger,” said Boswell. “We always said it was a sale. I’ll make it clear: It is a sale.”
What isn’t clear is whether the input at the forum was representative of what the silent majority in the community favors. And no question, the forum didn’t bring as much noise as WNED and WBFO officials expected. The normally diplomatic Boswell created a stir at meeting’s end when he noted “we were hoping to have three times as many people.” Some attendees then complained that the forum was “a pretty well-kept secret.” (Sort of like jazz in Western New York.)
Nicole Pegg, a musician who brought her young daughter to the forum, didn’t know what to make of it. “I thought that some people [on the forum panel with Boswell] really do have WBFO listeners in mind,” says Pegg. “[But] some of us felt it was a little more for show.”
Seamus Gallivan, a concert promoter who also promotes good things going on in the community via his website, thegoodneighborhood.com, says “It seemed the passion in the audience was directed toward things the powers-to-be didn’t want to hear.” He heard “a collective groan” when Boswell noted that he expected more people to attend the forum. “It was kind of insulting to the people who did come,” says Gallivan. “We took it to mean they were hoping other people would come to talk about different things.”
Many people with vested interests came to advocate for their favorite shows. Music lovers seemed ready to stage an Occupy Lower Terrace if they didn’t get to at least keep their blues, and expand local jazz offerings that had been cut over the years.
Rachel Aquino, a fan of the blues show hosted by Anita West, noted: “As a child, I was exposed to the blues by my grandfather. … I heard stories from someone who was there for it. I didn’t get that for a long time. But I get that every Sunday from Miss West. She talks to us. She gets people that I’ve never heard. She interviews them well on the shows. I couldn’t picture my Sundays without that show. It’s got to stay.”
Jack Callahan, a General Motors retiree, is also a member of the Anita West Fan Club. “I don’t even listen to the Bills games on Sundays,” said Callahan. “I can watch the Bills games and listen to the blues.” Now that’s a metaphor any long-suffering Bills fan can understand.
And then there is Pegg, a jazz lover. “I really enjoy hearing the stories from Jim Santella and Anita,” she says. “It makes me think of a time other things were simpler. I have a two-and-a-half-year-old, and I ask her, ‘Do you want to watch cartoons or listen to jazz?’ She says, ‘Let’s listen to jazz.’ We need more of that, and we need more local music.”
People with moving personal stories seemed more effective than the people who came with axes to grind, or those who feel public broadcasting has an obligation beyond serving listeners. They demonstrate what the two stations have meant to Western New Yorkers over the years. Some WNYers who’d left Buffalo and came back were especially effective in delivering the pro-music message. Gallivan, who moved back to Buffalo from Texas two years ago, noted the disconnect between the music scene and local radio.
“The music scene is very strong here, yet the state of local radio is pretty pathetic,” he said to applause. “There is very little voice for the local musician, very little voice for the independent musician, very little local voice. WBFO should be that voice, especially when there is a void along the rest of the dial.We want to know that WBFO cares. We want to help you guys help us.” The message from Gallivan and others was that independent music artists pass over Buffalo because there is no radio station to reach out to, and that gives the public stations an opportunity—and an obligation—to fill that need.
Theater lovers also say they need help. Constance McEwen Caldwell, the director of communications for the Theater Alliance of Buffalo, was understandably concerned about the future of a show that highlights the local theater community, Theater Talk. “Please don’t lose that,” she pleaded. “Without that, I don’t know how the word gets out.” Noting that she is married to a world-class jazz musician, she added that Buffalo needs a great jazz radio station: “If you go into any cool city, there is always a jazz station that is really good.”
There also were shouts from news lovers after Boswell confirmed that the sale of WNED is a possibility. “That’s one of the options,” he said. “It is not something we are running away from at all.” One of the reasons for a possible WNED sale is that WBFO’s signal is stronger. George Kappelt, who lives in Niagara County, was horrified by the thought of WNED being dropped. “Please take selling 970 off the table,” he pleaded.
A musician was concerned that WNY would suffer if it was decided to have WBFO cater to Canadian radio interests, as WNED-TV has done with some programming. Boswell has confirmed the WNYPBA wants to put WBFO on a Canadian cable system that currently carries WNED-AM and eventually plans to expand the station’s Canadian reach through high definition radio. However, he said he hopes to build Toronto listenership without taking away from WNY: “We are looking for a stronger news interest in both places.”
Boswell agreed that there are great local music stories to tell and great talent here, but wait, wait, tell me: “What is it going to cost?”
The inevitable debate is whether or not all the music lovers will be singing the blues once Boswell’s team decides how the stations eventually will be configured. What did passionate folks at the forum expect to come out of it? “That’s the $64,000 question,” says Gallivan. “I wish I had a better idea. I want to think they are going to respond to passion for more local programming. I want to believe they will listen. They asked for feedback. I’m not convinced they want it enough to listen.”
In early November, Boswell said it probably would take until spring for the deal to buy WBFO to get through state and federal hurdles. His management team expects to have a plan ready to present to the WNYPBA board by its January 25 meeting. He heard the passion from the forum loud and clear about their hopes for programming. “Not all of it can be done by public broadcasting,” Boswell says. He knows it won’t be easy to please everyone, but expects most people will be happy with the answers. “I don’t think there will be as many people disappointed as they think there will be.”
Everyone will have to wait patiently until spring to hear the final answers. And as any Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me fan knows, the strangest and most unexpected answers can end up being the right ones.
Alan Pergament is the former TV critic for the Buffalo News. He blogs at stilltalkintv.com.