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Influential donors to WBUR are exploring ways to make the station more independent, including a separate governing board or a “spinout” from the station’s owner, Boston University.
Discussions began immediately after the group, known as WBUR’s Board of Overseers, learned that WBUR General Manager Charlie Kravetz would no longer oversee daily operations of the station and would leave, officially, at the end of June. Members of the board, which has no direct decision-making authority, say they felt blindsided by the decision and ignored by BU when they protested.
BU leaders explained Kravetz’s departure as "an appropriate time for a leadership change" after the opening of a community events space Kravetz had championed, and a 73-3 vote to unionize station journalists.
Kravetz was not present when his departure was announced to station staff on March 11, and he has not been seen at the station in the weeks since.
Paul Gannon, who chairs the WBUR Board of Overseers, said in a March 12 email obtained by WBUR’s newsroom that the board "overwhelmingly supports" pursuing "the concept of a spinout" of WBUR into its own nonprofit. An email from Gannon a few days later, again to fellow board members, described a model in which "BU stays involved in certain ways, but a new fiduciary Board is inserted in the structure."
Gannon, a former chief operating officer at the hedge fund Baupost Group, and BU administrators declined interview requests, but issued a joint statement Thursday. It calls WBUR a cherished institution that both BU and community stakeholders want to see prosper.
It goes on to say: "Boston University and the WBUR Board of Overseers are exploring governance models for WBUR that might better leverage the commitment of both parties. Boston University has no plans of transferring ownership of the station; however, it is premature to comment about the possible outcomes of these ongoing discussions."
There are shared control arrangements, sometimes called public service management agreements, at other public radio stations owned by colleges and universities around the country, says Ernie Sanchez, an attorney who was the founding general counsel for NPR. He mentions the example of an independent decision-making board for a public radio station within a university structure.
“That could go on for a long time or it could turn into a sale,” Sanchez said.
As of now, fiduciary control for all BU operations — including WBUR — rests with the BU Board of Trustees. Any change in WBUR governance would require a vote by BU Trustees. WBUR’s Board of Overseers is a voluntary group with station oversight. Members are asked to “advance the sustainable future of WBUR,” which includes fundraising.
Three board members contacted for this story asked to remain anonymous to discuss confidential conversations. They stressed that a spinout is just an idea at this stage, one that would need careful study. Gannon said in an email to board members that he and BU are discussing shared consultant costs. A key factor, board members say, will be what’s best for station staff. Board members add that enthusiasm may be waning as they learn more about the generous benefits BU offers, including a retirement savings matching plan, many free BU classes for station staff and deep tuition discounts for family members.
Breaking away from BU may be a good idea, said one WBUR board member, but not just to “take out our revenge for whatever happened to Charlie.”
More and more cash-strapped colleges and universities are selling stations because the broadcast license can be a valuable asset, said Sanchez. But only about a third of public radio stations across the country are independent, according to NPR. The remaining two-thirds are, like WBUR, affiliated with or licensed to a college or university.
Any change in ownership of the WBUR license could not occur without approval from the Federal Communications Commission.
Kravetz’s departure followed a tumultuous period at the station that began when former On Point host Tom Ashbrook was placed on leave in December 2017, and later fired. An investigation determined Ashbrook had created an abusive work environment.
Editor’s note: WBUR’s Martha Bebinger reported this story, and WBUR’s Benjamin Swasey and Dan Mauzy are the story editors. Under standard practices for reporting on WBUR, no other BU or WBUR staff were allowed to review the story before publication.
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