Jul 26, 2012

WGBH, the top producer of PBS programs, now owns Public Radio International

In a move signalling its ambitions to extend its clout and influence in public radio, Boston's WGBH has acquired Public Radio International, the Minnesota-based program distributor of radio programs such as This American Life, The World and The Takeaway.

Financial terms of the deal have not been disclosed, but the sale will help to stabilize the nonprofit program distributor PRI, which ran an operating deficit of $2 million in 2011, according to PRI spokesperson Julia Yager.

"This is a deal borne out of shared visions," Yager said in an interview with Current. PRI began examining its options last year as its leadership considered the implications of various funding scenarios for public media.

PRI looked for partners to help it continue distributing radio programming and found that WGBH was best aligned with its own mission and values. The sale was not triggered by the BBC World Service's decision to end its distribution contract with PRI, Yager said.

WGBH, the leading producer of PBS programs, is repositioning itself within the public radio system with the purchase. The Boston pubcaster has significantly expanded its radio footprint with local audiences over the past few years, and it's now poised to play a bigger role in production and distribution of national radio programs. WGBH produces PRI's The World and is an editorial partner with The Takeaway, the morning drivetime show that's being revamped as a midday program as grant funding winds down. New York's WNYC co-produces the Takeaway with PRI and other editorial partners.

The sale transaction, which closed today, establishes PRI as an independent nonprofit affiliate of WGBH. By remaining operationally independent, PRI is able to maintain its existing relationships with program producers and affiliate stations, Yager said.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this post cited PRI's 2010 tax form in reporting that the program distributor ran operating deficits of $3.6 million and more during the recession.The losses on PRI's IRS Form 990 for 2010, $3.6 million for the fiscal year that ended in July 2010 and $4 million in 2011, were changes in net assets and covered in part by temporarily restricted grants, according to Yager. PRI's operating deficits for those two tax years were $335,000 in 2010 and $2 million in 2011.

1 comment:

Aaron Read said...

I don't know enough about the specifics...most of which are not public really deem this as a "good" or "bad" thing. But I do have some thoughts on the issue:

1. PRI spokesperson Julia Yager tells trade-mag Current that the "sale was not triggered by the BBC World Service's decision to end its distribution contract with PRI." True or not, that smacks of B.S. You can't possibly expect anyone to believe that whopper without providing more proof.

2. Unremarked in this story is how the recent decision to end The Takeaway's run as a morning show, and instead re-position it as a mid-morning or mid-day show. I don't see how that ISN'T related to WGBH's acquisition of PRI, since cross-town archrival WBUR produces mid-day staple "Here & Now" which is currently distributed through PRI, but I rather doubt that'll stay that way past whenever the existing contract ends. I think ending TT's morning run was a decision made by PRI's $2mil operating deficit in FY2011 coupled with TT's relatively low carriage (only 55 stations in almost three years). But I think positioning it as a mid-day show means H&N's days with PRI are numbered. Granted, I can easily see how my analysis here could be totally flawed...but I'll bet five bucks that I'm right.

3. NPR's Charter specifically forbids it from owning or leasing broadcast facilities. If NPR went out and bought stations to air its content on, member stations would be throwing a giant fit over it. And not without justification, given NPR's naked moves to appeal directly to listeners via the web and bypass member stations. Yet somehow member stations have given a collective yawn to APM and PRI doing essentially the same thing.

It's an inherent conflict of interest; one that, so far, has not really reared its head with APM and is reasonably unlikely to do so with PRI, either...the only likely conflict would be WGBH trying to block WBUR from airing "This American Life" (or Ira Glass's ME fundraising bits) which would probably have a limited impact on WBUR while simultaneously annoying the heck out of Ira himself.

But imagine if PRI still had the rights to the BBC World Service? I could see WGBH wanting to block WBUR from airing that; it makes up a major part of WBUR's schedule. The potential for matter how very, very real.