Public Broadcasting Merger Should Inspire Competition and Innovation Across the Entire Media Market

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Courtesy of PBS

People across Providence and throughout Rhode Island expect to be two or three Kevin Bacons removed from their elected officials or the prominent business, civic, and nonprofit leaders who shape public conversations. In a state of just a bit more than one million people, it’s not uncommon to run into Congressman Gabe Amo at a Seven Stars or a sitting or former Governor on Atwells Avenue or Sand Hill Cove.

But the reality is that our elected officials have always felt closer to us because, for decades, we have been blessed with a vibrant foundation of local reporting that covered elected leaders on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, that foundation has been threatened in recent years by hedge fund-backed takeovers of the once dominant Providence Journal, national control of the once locally owned local TV newsrooms, and a general decline of investment in local publications. To put the impact in perspective, simply look at the daily circulation of the Providence Journal which now reportedly falls below 20,000 daily subscribers. Citing its own data, the daily circulation Journal had been near over 70,000 in 2015, over 160,000 in 2005, and over 200,000 in the early 1990s.

None of these threats or impacts are unique to Rhode Island.

  • Newspaper circulation across the country, according to Pew Research, has declined from approximately 44 million daily subscribers in 2011 to less than 21 million in 2022.
  • Over the last two decades, more than 2,600 local newspapers have closed or merged.
  • Gannett now owns over 100 daily newspapers and 1,000 weekly papers in 44 states across the country.
  • The ideologically conservative and Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcasting, which owns WJAR-Channel 10, owns close to 300 local stations in 89 markets across the U.S.
  • Cumulus owns more than 400 radio stations in 85 markets across the country. I Heart Media now owns more than 865 radio stations in the U.S.

No engaged consumer of news can argue that these trends benefit local communities.

However, despite these threats to local control of local media, Rhode Island continues to be well-served by a strong and capable class of local reporters:

  • Venerable reporters like the Journal’s Kathy Gregg and Rhode Island Public Radio’s Ian Donnis have helped keep broad audiences engaged on the complex inside workings of the State House.
  • Established, seasoned millennial journalists like the Boston Globe’s Dan McGowan, WPRI-TV’s Ted Nesi, and jack-of-all-things Bill Bartholomew have forced pundits and the chattering class to expand their worldview beyond Smith Hill and give attention to trends, best practices, and emerging topics that are taking shape in other industries or – heaven forbid – in parts of the region with 508, 617, or other area codes.
  • And newcomers like Alexa Gagosz, Nancy Lavin and Raymond Baccari, Jr. are bringing a welcome perspective from Gen Z to the table that has helped shine a light on topics like housing, education, transportation, and health care that need to be addressed to ensure that we can attract and retain young professionals as our state’s population continues to age.

These individuals are prospering in spite of the circumstances that exist in our local media market. And that’s bad for the future of Providence and the future of the rest of the state. If the Providence region is to build and sustain the kind of economy, community, and inclusive culture we aspire to create, we need a reliable, sustainable, and locally accountable media landscape.

The recent merger of Rhode Island PBS and The Public’s Radio, the state’s two largest and most prominent public media outlets, along with the purchase of the Beacon papers on the West Bay by Joy Fox, a lifelong Rhode Islander and former cub reporter with the Warwick Beacon, should be viewed as a needed step in the right direction and a signal that there are Rhode Islanders willing to secure that foundation as investors in media and local news. The public media merger especially has the potential to elevate long-form reporting and bolster comprehensive coverage of topics, individuals, industries, and communities that often get overlooked in a more condensed media environment.

Realizing this potential, however, will not be easy and it certainly is not guaranteed.

Despite Rhode Island PBS’s financial security (built from its 2017 $94.5 million digital spectrum sale), Channel 2 (Boston’s WGBH-TV) is still the dominant PBS station in our market. Despite the fact that it’s a Boston station, WGBH is on the same channel guide page as WPRI (CBS), WJAR (NBC), and WLNE (ABC), the dominant local news stations. Channel 2 (WGBH) also airs PBS content in real time. Rhode Island PBS, on the other hand, sits all the way down the dial at channel 36 on Verizon (amidst public access channels and Capitol TV streams) and channel 8 on Cox between Ion TV and the CW Network, stations best known for airing sitcom reruns and LIV Golf. Rhode Island PBS’s channel lineup challenge is compounded by the fact that it is a secondary PBS station, which means it does not air the main PBS feed in real time. While WGBH/Channel 2 is airing first-run episodes of NOVA, Frontline, Masterpiece and other shows, Rhode Island PBS viewers need to wait more than a week to see new episodes of those series on the local station.

This reality creates challenges to build and sustain an audience: why would someone wait more than a week to watch their favorite shows if they can watch or stream in real time on Channel 2 or gbh.org? This challenge can be addressed head on with a meaningful investment in local programming and content that’s adaptable for multiple platforms.

Meanwhile, The Public’s Radio also needs to reflect on the challenges it faces.

Listening habits are hard to break and the state’s only NPR-affiliated station struggled for years with an unreliable signal, forcing many Rhode Island NPR listeners to save 89.7FM (GBH) or 90.3FM (WBUR) into their station presets in their cars. While the signal challenge has been largely addressed and the station has invested in local newsrooms across the region, the branding that the once aptly named Rhode Island Public Radio rolled out as it built out its signal (The Public’s Radio) makes no direct reference to the Ocean State, a missed opportunity to convince longtime NPR listeners to reset their station preferences to 89.3FM.

The Rhode Island public media merger, which gives the radio station the kind of financial stability it would never otherwise be able to achieve, should provide The Public’s Radio’s board and leadership with the confidence they need to add more hours of live, daily, local content and build a newsroom that can break news on-air and online in real time (not only on Twitter), tell stories on varied platforms, and – hopefully – rethink its brand story.

Engaged audiences should feel bullish about this merger. It has the potential to push other radio and television newsrooms in the market to innovate in a similar way that the Boston Globe’s arrival in Providence a few years ago forced the daily and weekly print outlets in the state to do some long overdue self-reflection. Strong competition from public broadcasting demands that for-profit broadcasting elevate their standards. That’s been true in markets across the country – most notably Boston, Washington, San Francisco and Pittsburgh – that have built and sustained vibrant public radio and public television stations over the years.

For any of this to be successful, Rhode Island PBS and The Public’s Radio will need to build an audience that is much broader (and, frankly, younger and more diverse) than their respective loyal followings of Baby Boomer Masterpiece fans and Smith Hill staffers and insiders. Both stations have a responsibility to the public they serve to grow their audience and rethink public broadcasting in the Ocean State. And that means putting real dollars into marketing, talent acquisition, production quality, and – most importantly – timely content that’s published on both terrestrial and digital platforms on a daily basis.

That kind of market transformation isn’t going to happen miraculously. The “Field of Dreams” approach to media – “if we build it, they will come” – no longer works. Today’s media consumers not only get to choose which channels to engage with, they can hand-select the platforms they prefer, when and where they’ll watch, listen, or read, and which content they’ll share with their own curated and trusted audiences.

The folks leading the transformation in public media must build a growth strategy that understands how people consume media in 2024, and from the public statements they’ve made, it appears that they do.

If done well, the new multi-media collaboration between The Public’s Radio and Rhode Island PBS could one day serve as proven inspiration for a return to local ownership at the flagship papers, television, and radio stations. But if it falls flat and simply preserves the new status quo, I question if there will ever be a viable appetite for local investment in daily news, commentary, and analysis.

Mike Raia is the founder and president of Half Street Group, one of the state’s top-ranked strategic public relations firms. He served as then-Governor Gina Raimondo’s communications director from 2016 to 2019 and oversaw local public relations and marketing for WGBH-Boston from 2013 to 2015. He graduated from Providence College in the early 2000s and lives in Barrington with his family.