Conference Finds NJ Public Radio and TV Faring Well in New York, Philadelphia

Lee Keough | January 23, 2013 | More Issues, Politics
The state may have sold off its public radio and TV stations, but their New Jersey audience continues to grow

A year and a half after the state turned over its public radio and TV stations to organizations in New York and Philadelphia, station operators said they have seen New Jersey audience and membership grow to varying degrees.

What’s more, the public radio stations are investing in news about the state. And NJTV, the new TV station operated by WNET/Thirteen, said it is on the forefront nationally of finding ways to deliver news economically, a necessity since it is working with a budget two-thirds that of its predecessor, WNJN.

Those reports were given at a forum hosted earlier this month by the Eagleton Institute of Politics and the Rutgers Institute for Information Policy & Law. The group, with the support of the Community Foundation of New Jersey and the Wyncote Foundation, is monitoring the progress of the state’s decision to sell its radio stations to WNYC in New York and WHYY in Philadelphia, as well as the creation of NJTV.

The forum also showcased research about how New Jerseyans obtain their news and how NJTV compares with commercial stations in terms of New Jersey coverage.

A third panel, led by NJ Spotlight chair Ingrid Reed and included founding editor John Mooney as one of the participants, discussed efforts to collaborate in developing and delivering news about the state.

The first of three panels at the forum unveiled recent research on public media. A quantitative study was conducted by Monmouth University Poll. Dr. Matthew Hale, Master of Public Administration and associate professor at Seton Hall University, did a qualitative study comparing NJTV against the largest commercial stations in New York (WNBC) and Philadelphia (WPVI). The studies included findings about where people get their news and what kinds of news each of the stations broadcasts.

NJTV delivered far more election and public affairs programming than either of its competitors, and predictably offered the most New Jersey news. (The period studied was the month of October through November 6, which coincided with the elections and Hurricane Sandy.) Other than Hurricane Sandy, crime tended to dominate New Jersey news. WNBC also focused on traffic, while WPVI focused on local interest in addition to weather and sports.

According to research conducted by Monmouth University, 34 percent of New Jerseyans said they get their news about public affairs in the state from television; 27 percent said they got it from newspapers; 28 percent said the Internet; and 6 percent said radio. The major change since 2005 is that use of Internet news has jumped from 6 percent to 28 percent, while newspapers have dropped from 48 percent to 27 percent.

The same study showed that fewer people in the state are aware of New Jersey Public Television than in previous years. Only 5 percent of respondents could name NJTV, but 25 percent said they watched the public television channel in the past month.

In general, respondents to the poll [49 percent] said NJTV was performing about the same as its predecessor, WNJN; 17 percent said they perceived coverage as getting worse and 10 percent said better. Commercial local cable news outlets News 12 and FIOS1 were rated somewhat better than NJTV.

Neal Shapiro, president and CEO of WNET, said he was gratified to learn that the audience did not necessarily see a drop in quality since it was operating on a much-reduced budget. By necessity, he said, the station was a pioneer in using small Internet cameras based at college campuses around the state. The station has also invested in live units that are contained in backpacks, instead of the expensive satellite trucks that were used previously.

“We want to concentrate our firepower on reporting and products that we want to produce,” Shapiro said.

Laura Walker, president and CEO of WNYC and New Jersey Public Radio, said her operation’s investment in New Jersey has been rewarded by an increase of 40 percent of New Jersey paying members. In addition to expanding the news operation on the four New Jersey stations, it has doubled the presence of New Jersey on its main station, WNYC. This year, WNYC plans to double its reporting staff In New Jersey to four people.

WHYY of Philadelphia has created a New Jersey page on its website and has also doubled its on-air coverage of New Jersey.

Kyra McGrath, chief operating officer of WHYY, said New Jersey membership has increased by 2 percent and underwriting sponsorships for the five local New Jersey radio stations it purchased has increased dramatically. However, McGrath noted that her organization is grappling with a reduction in government support for the station from Pennsylvania and Delaware.

NJ Spotlight is an active partner with both radio stations, as well as with NJTV. Mooney spoke about NJ Spotlight’s efforts to partner with other news organizations around the state.

Molly de Aguiar, director of communications for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Matthew Frankel, associate director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University, explained the efforts of the NJ News Commons to facilitate the growth of media in New Jersey.

Dodge, along with the Knight Foundation, is funding the effort, which is hosted at Montclair State. All public media, including NJ Spotlight and other commercial publishers are members of the Commons.