Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Whatever Happened to the B-HAGs?

They weren't just goals.

They weren't just big goals.

They were Big Hairy Audacious Goals.

Like Bigfoot, they used to be spotted all over public radio land. Like Bigfoot, they are seldom spoken of anymore.

When we had our swagger in public radio, we talked of doing all sorts of great things. We committed to goals. Seemingly impossible goals.

But we believed that if we set the goal, a real and measurable goal, we'd find a way. And if we didn't quite get there, we still be better for trying.

The B-HAGs are coming back.

They will be too big to ignore.

Watch out.


Blogger Aaron Read said...

Actually, reading between the lines, Paul La Camera has turned WBUR around...achieving DOMINATING ratings and a big uptick in underwriting/donation...mostly by getting AWAY from B-HAG's and focusing more on core issues of localism and fiscal responsibility.


WBUR up on LaCamera: Station’s ratings soar
By Jesse Noyes
Thursday, May 18, 2006 - Updated: 12:20 PM EST

It hasn’t been easy for WBUR.
In recent years, there have been top-down shake-ups, allegations of mismanagement and the abrupt cancellation of one of the National Public Radio affiliate’s best-known programs.
Despite past public struggles, WBUR-FM (90.9) is again emerging as a dominant force in Boston’s media landscape - rivaling top commercial broadcasters’ ratings and climbing its way out of debt.
WBUR’s General Manager Paul LaCamera, 63, describes the station as a revitalized entity with a re-charged staff. “Seeing (the employees) firsthand every day - they’re back,” he said.
Only eight months after the former general manager for Channel 5 (WCVB-TV) took the helm, the Boston University-owned station is seeing big ratings.
The most recent ratings put WBUR in a tie with sports talk station WEEI-AM (850) for the number one spot among 25- to 54-year-old listeners, according to a side-by-side comparison of commercial and non-commercial figures by Arbitron.
The last time WBUR saw those kind of ratings was in the run-up to the war in Irag, more than three years ago, said Sam Fleming, WBUR’s managing director of news and programming.
“It was somewhat of a surprise because usually you can point to a specific news event,” Fleming said.
Fleming has a couple of theories for the ratings spike. The first is a recent rise in resources at NPR, after it received a $230 million donation.
The other factor: Howard Stern.
When Stern jumped to satellite radio, the bulk of his subjects didn’t follow, leaving a large base of listeners looking for an outlet.
“It has always been true that there is pretty significant overlap of Howard Stern” fans and NPR listeners, said Scott Fybush, editor of NorthEast Radio Watch.
And cutting on-air fund-raising time in half could have played a role.
Ratings are not the only thing on the rise at WBUR. After operating for years in the red, which led to some staff cuts and the cancellation of the long-running show “The Connection,” the station is now expecting to post a $1 million surplus this year, said station manager Corey Lewis, adding corporate sponsorships are expected to reach $8.7 million.
The station needed to re-establish trust among its donors, LaCamera said.
“We’ve been very transparent and very open in sharing that with our supporters,” he said. “WBUR is a not-for-porfit. This place needs to look and act like a not-for-profit.”
Only a couple of years ago, former General Manager Jane Christo resigned amid allegations of financial mismanagement at the station, many of which were later found by BU not to be credible.
As the brand ambassador for WBUR, LaCamera’s experience, visibility and deep community ties are major assets to the station.
“I’m out carrying the flag of Boston University and WBUR,” LaCamera said. “It’s my style and my contribution to the station.”
It’s also likely his last job, he admits. For LaCamera, who spent 33 years at WCVB, working at WBUR is a way of closing his career on a high note.
The job is “not dissimilar to a college president who decides he wants to come back to teach,” he said.

11:16 AM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

That's an interesting interpretation of this article given all the big numbers that are thrown around in it. Are you suggesting that raising more than $8 million in corporate support and meeting membership goals while cutting on-air fundraising by half happened by accident?

There's one other interesting note here. Both WBUR and WUNC had terrific Arbitron surveys... just 6 months after dropping The Connection. I'm not saying it is causal, just pointing it out.

8:14 PM  
Blogger Aaron Read said...

Not by accident, but it wasn't achieved by BHAG's either. It was achieved through painful cuts, period.

The Connection's salary load alone was somewhere between $300-$500k. WRNI used to have 20-30 people three years ago, now it's 4 or 5. Many staff members have been laid off or quit, and replaced with cheaper salary requirements. Or positions were eliminated entirely.

Granted, WBUR *has* done a better job recently of improving their corporate underwriting but it's still a pale shadow of what it was in the late 1990's and early 2000's (around $12-$15mil). Are the salespeople now better/worse than they were then? No, not really...they're just as good. It's more that underwriting is less about the skill of your account executives and more about the overall health of advertising market; which happens to be getting better. And also the political climate & disgusting state of commercial news outlets quite favors NPR news these days.

And let's not forget, Boston is a mighty "blue state" town. Public radio news is a very big deal here. I'm not saying it doesn't take skill to big in lots of fundraising dollars...but it's a helluva lot easier to do it here than most other places.

And ya know, John, if you're pointing it out...you're implying casuality. And I'm calling "BS" on you for that one. Two hours does not a total Arbitron make, and six months does not a casual trend in Arbitrons make, either. Besides, WUNC already has Dick Gordon on the air again with "The Story", so how does fit into that equation?

11:49 AM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

Aaron -- I can't find any data showing WBUR making $12-$15 million per year in underwriting. Could you provide a link to your source on this?

As for your statement "six months does not a casual trend in Arbitrons make," I agree. So how can you call one Arbitron survey "dominant ratings?" That would make a lower book a fall from dominance.

Third, a prudent manager would note the cooincidence of higher ratings for WBUR and WUNC without the Connection and study it further. So, yes, it is legitimate to point it out without suggestion causality.

A finally, what's wrong with commiting to achieve something big for all of public radio? Are you saying we shouldn't try to better ourselves in a big way?

6:42 PM  
Blogger Aaron Read said...

1. Well, I may have to stand corrected on that $12-$15mil underwriting figure. I did manage to find this pretty easily thru Google:

FY 1979: $28,500
FY 1990: $348,732
FY 1996: $1,894,289
FY 1997: $2,501,722
FY 1998: $3,196,067
FY 1999: $4,468,769
FY 2000: $7,132,980

But anything after FY 2000 is well-hidden. I remember repeated news reports & anecdotal stories that until the downturn in late 2001, WBUR's budget was roughly half-n-half; a little under 50% was underwriting, most of the rest was fundraising. After the downturn the percentage that underwriting made up plunged, of course, as the underwriting dollars dried up. But that still leaves FY 2000, FY 2001 and possibly part of FY 2002 (I don't know exactly when their FY is, I think it rolls over July 1st).

I do vaguely remember reading that WBUR's annual budget at the peak was north of $20 million...but not over $25 million. If it had been over $25mil, I believe that would've topped WBZ 1030AM and that would've been a bigger deal.

Assuming for a moment that the "more news / less fundraising" concept was achievable in no small part thanks to increased underwriting revenue...and assuming that meant underwriting was a greater percentage, that could account for underwriting being around $9-$12 million in 2000/2001. Probably more on the low end of that.

Admittedly that's a lot of assumptions and it's not the $12-$15mil I originally was thinking (which also calls into doubt my other memories on the subject). One potential way to solve this - all CPB stations do have to file annual reports that include their budgets, right? Isn't that info supposed to be publicly accessible? I can't seem to find it on CPB.org though...

2. Ah, I see the confusion...it's not just this past survey. WBUR has been in the top 3 stations, flirting with #1, in the 25-54 demo for several years now. It's just that this book had them at #1 for the first time (I believe) since LaCamera took over.

3. Touche. :-) Although I strongly suspect the reason there hasn't been a big dip there, at least with WBUR, is simply because OnPoint was moved into its place. Definitely a show with a different flavor, but it's still a two-hour call-in talk show heavy on the NPR style. I don't know if WUNC did something similar. And of course, OnPoint wasn't getting great ratings at 7pm mostly because after 7pm is kind of a wasteland ratings-wise for public radio; it always has been AFAIK. So even if the ratings drop on WBUR was 50% for 7-9pm, it wasn't a big total number to begin with.

4. I think there is a "problem" with trying to "go big"...it's that the little things, the "bread and butter" of public radio if you will, end up ignored. It's not about bettering ourselves in a big way, it's about better ourselves in the eyes (ears?) of the listenership. It's also about exactly what is the mission of public radio? I'm not quite a bleeding heart liberal (more like a shoot-them-through-the-heart liberal :-) but it concerns me how many pubradio stations are dumping their classical and jazz (or any music format, as opposed to news) listeners by the wayside without working to find a way to make that music more relevant to a wider audience.

11:49 AM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

Hey Aaron,

Thanks for being such a thoughtful contribtor to the blog. The dialogue is terrific.

One point of clarification. I'm talking about big goals for the industry. Sure, stations should think big too, but my main point is our industry has no defined goals. We talk about all the things we want to become and no one is willing to commit to a measurable outcome.

It's easy to succeed when you get to define success after the fact.
There's a lot of that type of thinking today in public radio.
I don't think it serves us well.

On another note, this is the third time since 1990 that WBUR has embarked on a "less fundraising" campaign. I'm not criticizing it because I'm a strong advocate of it. In fact, I helped with the first two efforts. But it is worth pointing out that the station cuts the drives, experiences fundraising creep, and cuts the drives again. I'm actually stunned that the Boston media missed that.

It reminds me of the advertising for Jerry's Sub Shops here in the DC area. For nearly a decade, Jerry's would run an ad campaign at least once a year touting "50% more steak in the steak and cheese." By my calculations, the cheese steak should have been 38 times larger after 10 years. But it never worked out that way.

1:01 PM  
Blogger Aaron Read said...

MMMmmm....steak. :-)

I see your point about not having "big goals" at the NPR level, as opposed to the station level. Come to think of it, it seems the stations have bigger goals than NPR does. Like WGBH & Open Source's bold blogosphere experiment, and WBUR's expansion into Rhode Island, and WUMB's early embrance of HD Radio, and KUOW's pioneering work in HD Radio multicasting. Those are just a few off the top of my head.

I think this reflects the increasingly antagonistic relationship NPR has with its affiliates and vice versa. NPR (and APM, and PRI) knows they can't force huge new ideas down the affiliates' throats, especially not radical ones. And look what happens when they try! Pop Vultures anyone??

Unfortunately I don't see a real solution here. I wonder if stations would be willing to trade significantly cheaper NPR member fees in exchange for NPR having ultimate authority over X number of hour(s) daily on an affiliate? My hunch is probably not but if it could be made to work it might be very beneficial; it'd tie the fortunes of network & affiliate closer together. Something sorely needed these days.

3:05 PM  

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