WBFO, WNED Get Earful from Public
by Buck Quigley - posted 6:04 pm, October 5, 2011
About 50 people gathered at WNED studios Tuesday night to express their opinions about programming at WBFO once the private, not for profit public broadcaster completes its purchase of the SUNY-owned station that has served the community since 1959.
On hand to listen to the feedback were Joseph Brennan, Associate Vice President for University Communications; Donald Boswell, President and CEO of WNED; and Mark Vogelzang, Interim General Manager for WBFO.
The vast majority of comments were in support of the popular weekend blues shows, more local music, and other segments oriented to local interest like “Theatre Talk,” hosted by Jim Santella and Artvoice Theatre Editor Anthony Chase. Jazz programming also had its share of supporters.
Across the board, people spoke out against duplicate programming. Yet, since January, 2010, as negotiations went on behind closed doors to transfer ownership of WBFO to WNED, the university station’s programming picked up more and more of the shows that were already running on WNED. Then, that same “duplication of services” was held aloft by deal-makers as a reason that WNED should take over the station—thus addressing a problem they’d intentionally created themselves.
If the sentiment expressed Tuesday night is honestly considered by those in power, western New Yorkers can look forward to an invigorated radio station broadcasting a healthy mix of localized programming including talk, blues, jazz, Americana, and more.
Unfortunately, there are many reasons that scenario is a long shot.
Contrary to the spin promoted by WNED and UB, this is not a case of two public radio stations “joining forces.” It is an outright sale of one station to another. It was spearheaded by former UB Vice President for External Affairs Marsha Henderson (who has since resigned but continues to serve as a consultant to UB President Satish Tripathi) and Boswell, who in addition to his role at WNED, served on the board of the UB Foundation for years before resigning that position shortly before the sale was announced in July—to avoid the appearance of impropriety in the deal.
WBFO’s signal reaches into Canada, and that is the reason it has been coveted by WNED for so long. In an August 8 interview with Current, a bi-weekly newspaper about public TV and radio, Boswell explains that acquiring WBFO’s 50,000-watt FM signal “gives us the totality of what we need to grow into the Canadian marketplace.”
A little known fact in Buffalo is that 68 percent of member contributors to WNED-TV are Canadian.
According to Boswell, there are no plans to convene a similar feedback session on Canadian soil, but it’s safe to say that programming focused on Buffalo will not be a major draw to a listener in Hamilton.
Also under consideration is the sale of WNED-AM, since that station’s footprint is smaller and falls entirely within the broadcast reach of WBFO.
If that weren’t enough of a shock to local listeners of public radio, consider this: Not only does the sale of the state-owned WBFO to private, not-for-profit WNED represent the private takeover of what had been a public resource for over 50 years, but it also includes a little union-busting for good measure. According to Brennan, three NYS employees will be experiencing retrenchment when the deal goes through.
Kelli Bocock Natale has worked PR for the station since 2003. Bert Gambini is WBFO music director and host of Morning Edition. David Benders is the Assistant General Manager and Program Director of WBFO, and has been with the station since 1969.
According to Brennan, those moves are working their way through SUNY labor relations and the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations. United University Professions is none too pleased.
Moreover, as a border town, we already have access to many stations that broadcast from our neighbors to the north. Canadian content laws have been in place to protect and advance Canadian culture for half a century. It’s a major reason why so many Canadian bands can build an audience along the American border. Thanks to our State University of New York at Buffalo, WNED will be free to offer programming aimed at a Canadian audience from WBFO’s tower located in Amherst, NY.
Quoting Brennan from the same Current article: “WNED is in a position to invest in the station and has expertise in public broadcasting. We have expertise in running a university, so this makes sense.”
The sale is still pending FCC and NYS approval, but is expected to close by the end of the year.