NEPR staff question independence in new WGBH partnership

  • New England Public Radio’s studios in Springfield. NEW ENGLAND PUBLIC RADIO/Joyce Skowyra

  • The inside of New England Public Radio’s Springfield studios. NEW ENGLAND PUBLIC RADIO/Joyce Skowyra

Staff Writer
Published: 6/6/2019 9:06:56 PM

SPRINGFIELD — When New England Public Radio and WGBY public television announced in April that they were partnering to create a new multimedia organization, New England Public Media, both stations said it would be an “independently run organization.”

But the organizations recently filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission to transfer of control of a station licensee, and the term sheet included in that filing has some questioning the level of control that the Boston-based WGBH — which holds the broadcast license for WGBY — will have over the new partnership.

The creation of New England Public Media represents an expansion into western New England for the WGBH Educational Foundation, which, in addition to WGBY, holds the broadcast license for the state’s other PBS member station, WGBH television, and oversees the Boston NPR affiliate WGBH radio.

The term sheet signed by leadership at WGBH, NEPR and the University of Massachusetts Amherst is not legally binding; it lays out the three parties’ understanding of the terms under which they agree to “evaluate and potentially pursue” the establishment of New England Public Media. UMass Amherst holds the license for WFCR, which, together with sister station 640 AM WNNZ, has been referred to as New England Public Radio since 2011.

Under the conditions in the term sheet, New England Public Media would become a subsidiary of WGBH. This would mean that WGBH would need to approve, among other things, “significant corporate actions” such as mergers or bylaw amendments; New England Public Media’s annual budget; and the hiring or termination of the organization’s president.

The term sheet also states that if New England Public Media experiences “financial stress,” WGBH will have the ability to cut staff or make changes to the budget after discussion with UMass and the new organization’s board.

That board, which will manage New England Public Media, will consist of 25 voting directors, according to the term sheet: the UMass Amherst vice chancellor for university relations, the president and CEO of WGBH, the New England Public Media president, the executive director of Five Colleges, Inc., and equal members from WGBY’s and NEPR’s current boards.

As for any future members of the New England Public Media board, WGBH would have the “reasonable authority” to veto a board nominee after first consulting with UMass and the board’s nominating committee.

Uncertainty, concern

Those terms concern some employees at NEPR, including Karen Brown, a senior reporter who has worked at the radio station since 1998.

“I was just very surprised at how much say WGBH will have over the operations of the new entity, and I don’t really understand why we were not told about that explicitly,” Brown told the Gazette. “We obviously knew that WGBH would be at the top of the food chain as far as the new organization was concerned, but I was assuming that New England Public Media would have complete autonomy, and now that doesn’t really seem like that’s the case.”

Sam Hudzik, the news director at NEPR, said that when the announcement of the partnership was made, there were public promises that NEPR would have autonomy from WGBH in Boston.

“These public documents call that into question,” he said of the FCC filings. “Even with that uncertainty in the background, reporters here are going to stay focused on our mission to tell the stories and cover the issues of our region.”

In a statement, WGBH spokeswoman Jeanne Hopkins said that, as the FCC license holder for WGBY, WGBH has been supporting WGBY for almost 50 years.

“In the same manner that WGBY has always operated, New England Public Media will operate independently, making editorial decisions autonomously, as well as decisions around programming, marketing, staffing and operations,” Hopkins wrote. “WGBH will have one seat on NEPM’s independent Board of Directors.”

Martin Miller, the CEO and general manager of NEPR, echoed those sentiments in his own statement to the Gazette. He also said UMass and the NEPR Foundation have provided the same level of oversight for WFCR and NEPR.

New England Public Media, Miller said, “will operate independently, with an autonomous board and retaining editorial and operational decision-making responsibility for the station.”

Brown said she was glad to see local autonomy addressed in the term sheet, which states that New England Public Media will have control over editorial decisions, programming, scheduling, marketing, staffing, staff salaries and operations. But she said it makes her nervous to see “some of the other aspects of control being in the hands of another organization other than ours.”

“I certainly want to think that all of this is being worked out in good faith,” she said. “But we just don’t understand why the information is being trickled out the way it is being trickled out. It just makes us nervous.”

In response to questions about transparency, Miller said that, since announcing the new organization, NEPR has shared information with staff and will continue to do so.

Also concerning to Brown is the fact that WGBH employees are not unionized. Brown is among around 20 staff at NEPR who, as employees of UMass, are unionized with the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

“Does this change our protections as union members?” Brown asked. “I just don’t know.”

Union issues

Risa Silverman, the co-chair of the Professional Staff Union at UMass, said that it remains unclear how the unionized UMass employees will work side-by-side with non-union counterparts performing the same jobs.

“It’s super problematic,” she said. As an example of potential problems that could arise, she imagined an employee applying for a job that is considered a promotion but not a union position. What does that mean in terms of that employee’s union status? she asked. “It really has to be figured out from A to Z.”

The union filed a demand to bargain with UMass Amherst on Wednesday. Silverman said the goal is to ensure that there are no changes in the terms and working conditions of union members’ employment until those changes can be negotiated.

Miller said that NEPR management has consulted with the union “every step along the way” and that it remains in “complete adherence” with the collective bargaining agreement.

“Going forward, our union members will continue to maintain their current union benefits, rights and protections,” he said. “Today, both WGBH and NEPR have union and non-union employees, who work side-by-side in the same positions. We look forward to bringing the two organizations together and creating one high-performing, productive workplace.”

UMass spokeswoman Mary Dettloff said in a statement that the university has responded to the bargaining demand and is complying with its obligations. She said one meeting already has been held, with another to follow in the coming days.

“NEPR employees who are currently University employees and union members will continue to be UMass employees and will remain union members, retaining all of their union benefits, rights and protections under the agreement,” Dettloff wrote.

If New England Public Media hires additional staff, she said, those employees will work for the new organization.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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