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Radio Silence

Western New York public radio stations end transmissions to the press

One reason the military imposes an order of “radio silence” is to avoid disclosing sensitive information to the enemy. For the past year, or, according to some sources, the past several years, covert plans have been ongoing between the State University of New York at Buffalo and WNED to forge a “collaboration” between the university’s FM station, WBFO, and the Western New York Public Broadcasting Association (WNYPBA)—the organization that owns and operates the television and AM and FM radio stations that broadcast under the call letters WNED.

WBFO, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009, served as the launch pad for some of the most nationally recognizable names in public radio broadcasting, including Terry Gross (host of Fresh Air), Ira Flatow (host of Science Friday), and Bill Siemering, who became the first director of National Public Radio, and invented the All Things Considered program. The full list of talented personalities that have passed through and continue to work at WBFO would be an article unto itself.

Originally a teaching tool for the University of Buffalo School of Engineering in 1959, the 100-watt station and all-volunteer staff broadcast just three hours a day on weeknights. In 2008, thanks to a new broadcast tower built with money from their largest federal grant ever ($223,500), plus matching funds from the Wendt and Baird Foundations, underwriters, and listeners, WBFO now has a total reach that encompasses 1.25 million listeners from across the Southern Tier thanks to repeater stations near Jamestown and Olean, and into southern Ontario.

Up until February 2010, WBFO had been branching off to include more local music, while also bringing aboard guest DJs to broaden the musical genres it offered. This was thanks to a $160,000 grant from the New York State Music Fund to support their HD2 radio station that developed the On the Border concert series. For a long time, WBFO’s bread and butter had been a lot of jazz, sprinkled liberally with news. Blues shows on the weekend for dessert.

Over the past year, the local music accent has dried up like the state grant. WBFO has tweaked its programming to such an extent that it now broadcasts a number of news programs that you can also hear on WNED radio at different times of the day.

Suddenly, in other words, there is a duplication of services. That appears to be the reason talks are under way behind closed doors to “collaborate” with WNED. However, one source told Artvoice that WNYPBA CEO Donald K. Boswell had spoken of acquiring WBFO as long as six years ago.

Recently, WBFO News Director Mark Scott announced his retirement, as did Mark Wozniak, local host of All Things Considered. The remaining staff has been anxious. Rumors had been building all summer that change was imminent. In the radio business, there may be no more chilling words than “See me after your shift” coming from the boss. To allay fears, WBFO and WNED issued a public statement on September 15 to clear the air. The statement explains, “Over the past several months, management and board members from WNED and WBFO have been exploring potential ways to strengthen public radio in Buffalo. The talks have been cordial and collaborative, and they are ongoing.” Topics include providing better service to the listener, and how to make better use of limited resources provided by donors and taxpayers. The statement ends, “We will provide additional details after our talks are concluded.”

The next day, September 16, the Buffalo News ran a story about it. According to UB spokesperson Joseph Brennan, the university is exploring ways to save money. “These budget cuts force us to look at everything we do very carefully,” Brennan said.

What hasn’t been reported is that on September 14—one day before WBFO and WNED issued their public statement, and two days before the Buffalo News article—an internal email was sent to 25 WBFO staffers by General Manager Mark Vogelzang, with copies of it sent to UB spokespeople John DellaContrada and Joseph Brennan. Here is the email:

Hi folks,

A reporter from the Buffalo News, Steve Watson, is working on a story about WBFO, and the discussions between WNED and the University. He’s already been in touch with a few of you, including approaching some by Facebook messages, rather than using work emails. We don’t know when the story is going to come out, or what the reporter is looking for.

However, as always, the policy here is to not discuss this with the reporter either on or off the record, and refer any questions to our department spokesperson, Joe Brennan, who is the authorized official to handle discussions with the reporter and take care of a response to any inquiry or prospective story in the media or other press.

As a journalistic organization, this could be somewhat difficult, but thank you for understanding on this particular issue. Please let me or Joe know if you have any inquiries from Steve or other journalists.

One can imagine the strain among the staff. WBFO’S “Statement of Principles for Editorial Integrity” reads, in part:

The University at Buffalo supports the principle of academic freedom as a concept intrinsic to the achievement of its institutional goals as first articulated years ago by Chancellor Samuel P. Capen. The University also recognizes those same freedoms as an integral component of the public airwaves. In serving this principle and the public’s “interest, convenience and necessity” (as required by the Federal Communications Commission), WBFO-FM must assure its listeners that news decisions, presentations and other programming are free from outside pressures, including those from underwriters, donors, members and the University.

Further, “WBFO-FM does not sacrifice editorial judgement for the political, financial or promotional goals of any individual or organization.”

I’ve spoken with Vogelzang, and also briefly (and curtly), with WNED COO Michael Sutton, who referred me to Brennan for more information, but it seems clear that not much will be forthcoming until some kind of deal is hammered out.

Meanwhile, since the News article ran, WBFO ran a record fundraising drive between October 12-18, raising over $230,000, according to Vogelzang. WNED AM also just wrapped up their latest fund drive. Listeners were offered the usual thank-you gifts for their donations, but they were not treated to any information unfolding behind the scenes that will determine the future of the radio stations they were calling to support.

buck quigley

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