Decoding New Jersey’s Public Broadcasting

The public radio station located in Philadelphia is no stranger to New Jersey, said Bill Marrazzo, CEO of WHYY, who spoke to the Princeton Regional Chamber today on the topic “Life after NJN: A Fresh Start for New Jersey’s Public Media. Much of what Marrazzo said was covered in the U.S. 1 Newspaper article of April 4, but here’s the gist of it.. 
WHYY covers 4 states (Pennsylvania, Delaware, northern Maryland, and New Jersey) and has been covering New Jersey for 50 years. It has always had a statehouse reporter and is indeed expanding its footprint after it buying four of NJN’s former radio stations. The deal closed on June 30, 2011, but WHYY had been broadcasting over those stations for several months.

And on WHYY’s website, Newsworks, New Jersey has its own“vertical.” Marrazzo issued an invitation to would-be correspondents – raise your hands if you want to contribute to it. One introductory meeting was held in Princeton earlier this week and two more, further south, are scheduled. 

Public radio: NJN owned nine radio stations, five were in South Jersey and four, including the one in Trenton, were considered to be in North Jersey. WNYC bought those four, including the Trentonone. WHYY wanted to buy the three stations on the barrier islands (to extend broadcast reach from Cape May to Manasquan). (The other two were already covered by WHYY’s existing footprint). “We wanted to buy just three, but your governor – a complete joy to work with as a business man – refused to sell them separately.” Though he did not say he subscribed to Christie’s political views, Marrazzo was frankly admiring of the way that Christie accomplishes his goals.
The most intriguing aspect of this talk, in terms of business knowledge, was how WHYY bought the 5 stations for $1.5 million without laying out cash.
  • WHYY bartered $500,000 with New Jersey by agreeing to contribute to the education of children in Camden. Children and teachers go across the river to WHYY facilities to work with the latest equipment and do broadcast journalism. 
  • $ 1 million came from a benefactor who offered one-third of that up front. 
  • A no-interest bridge loan for the remainder came from a board member. 
Meanwhile WNYC bought the four northern stations including the Trenton one. Several questioners wanted to know what we could do to help WHYY buy the Trenton station (presumably to improve the signal). Afterwards Marrazzo revealed that the New York broadcasters refuse to sell it. .
Public television: WHYY had declined to bid on the TV assets because it already had good penetration in New Jersey plus excellent access through cable. Also the New Jersey legislature flauted Christie’s wishes and refused to sell the assets outright. (Marrazzo suggested that legislators wanted assurances that they would see themselves on TV). A WNET management company, branded as NJ TV, has a four year agreement to run the TV assets. 
Politics: Marrazzo was realistic about the trend towards separating public broadcasting from government support. Fiscal conservatives feel the nation’s tax dollars should not be used for media and even non-conservatives must deal with the downturn. Governor Christie “wasn’t the first governor to (remove support), and he won’t be the last.” Ed Rendell, a big supporter of public media, was a Democrat, and he did that in Pennsylvania. 
Universal access: Every American should have access to some form of public media, everyone agrees. Half of Americans use public media regularly for information, creative expression, or the education of children. The other half want it to be available.
Public broadcasting, for the ninth year, was polled to represent the most trusted not for profit institution in America. PBS Kids is considered the safest educational resource for broadcast or website.’’
Personal: A runner, Marrazzo’s regular route is to take the Ben Franklin bridge into Camden and back. And his wife, Randi, is an opera singer who studied at Westminster Choir College. They met at the University of Delaware, where they both sang in the choir.

Finances: One questioner urged Marrazzo to sell ads. Aside from the problems that would cause with the FCC, Marrazzo said, he is concerned about compromising the quality of the brand. And sponsorships (growing wordier) are getting to be more similar to ads.
From the Princeton zip codes come the biggest source of support for WHYY, and for this Marrazzo is grateful. “We live in a culturally rich community with lots of needs, and we know you have made thoughtful choices.” With the addition of more stations, the total number of gifts rose 10 percent and the dollar amounts rose 18 percent.
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