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Boston University is agreeing to share control of WBUR with a station board whose members have, until now, been advisers and donors with no decision-making power.
The deal outlined Wednesday would give a new executive committee the authority to hire and fire the station’s general manager and oversee its finances.
The committee, however, would report directly to BU’s president. (BU owns, and would continue to own, WBUR’s broadcast license.)
"WBUR deserves to have an oversight structure that's really engaging with the community that it serves and that is really invested wholeheartedly in the mission of ‘BUR. That’s not to say BU is not," BU President Robert Brown said in an interview. "But it’s not something that our Board of Trustees can ever spend much time on in this big $2.6 billion research university."
Paul Gannon — who chairs the WBUR Board of Overseers, and would chair it as the renamed Board of Directors -- says WBUR needs governance that can be more focused on helping the station adapt to changes in the threatened news industry.
“You have to have this 200-person organization that's thriving,” Gannon said. "It needs to continue to transform. It needs to take risks — measured risk. It needs to be more nimble. It needs quicker decision-making [and] less bureaucratic processes."
The change was announced at an all-staff, off-the-record meeting, during which Brown and Gannon took questions for two hours. Most of the discussion, according to several employees, was about ensuring that the board does not use its new authority to influence station coverage.
“It’s less about support or opposition — we have no choice in the matter — and more about, can we make sure that we protect what is sacred, what is important about this place during yet another transition at WBUR,” said Max Larkin, a reporter and one of six stewards of a recently formed union of station journalists.
Larkin says staff asked Brown and Gannon for a written agreement that establishes a clear editorial firewall between the Board of Directors and station staff. A spokesman for Brown says there's consensus on crafting that statement.
In the interview before the staff meeting, Gannon said the executive committee would review broad, not day to day, priorities for the station.
“We’re all involved in this because we love the mission. We respect the mission,” Gannon said. “We’re just trying to get to a better place with respect to how to govern that mission.”
The governance change comes more than two months after BU announced that General Manager Charlie Kravetz would step down as of June 30. Kravetz has not been at the station, in his role as GM, since mid-March. BU said his departure came at an appropriate time, shortly after station journalists voted overwhelmingly to form a union and just after the opening of a community events space that Kravetz envisioned. The union drive came amid a tumultuous period at the station, marked by the firing of longtime On Point host Tom Ashbrook.
Some members of WBUR’s Board of Overseers said they were angry that BU arranged Kravetz’s departure without consulting the board. Gannon, a former chief operating officer at the hedge fund Baupost Group, floated the idea of a “spinout,” in which the station would become an independent nonprofit. But many station employees pushed back against that idea because BU offers a generous package of benefits. And Gannon says a consulting group hired to review oversight options concluded that severing ties with BU would not be in anyone’s best interests.
Under the new governance structure, WBUR staff would remain BU employees.
The new arrangement has not been finalized, but Brown says it has been vetted by members of BU’s Board of Trustees. If finalized, BU’s president would appoint two members to the new WBUR Executive Committee. The majority, five to seven members, would be from the WBUR Board of Directors. (All members of the committee would be unpaid.)
The arrangement is unusual in the world of public radio, says Ernie Sanchez, the founding general counsel of NPR.
“BU's decision to create this new ‘hands on’ board is a bold step to increase public participation in WBUR's operation. It is also a very smart business decision,” Sanchez said in an email. “You can't expect the public to fully support a public station if the public is kept at arm's length by the station's license holder.”
Brown said the change is not about money or about BU growing tired of the turmoil at WBUR.
“We see [WBUR] as a crown jewel of things Boston University does in the community, and we're trying to find a structure where you get the best of both worlds: the stability offered by the university and the oversight and guidance by a group of highly invested, very smart people from the community,” Brown said.
The search for a new station GM has been on hold while Gannon and other Board of Overseers worked with BU to work out the new arrangement.
A nationwide search for a permanent GM is expected to take the better part of a year.
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.
This article was originally published on May 29, 2019.
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