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New Jersey getting out of the “Soviet” public radio business

Sandwiched between the large media markets of Philadelphia and New York City, New Jersey has always had a tough time staking out a unique media identity. Of particular concern has been the ability to have good news state news coverage not dominated by the two adjacent metroplexes.

The state of New Jersey has had a state-wide public television network since 1971 when WNJT-TV first went on the air in the state capitol of Trenton. It would be another twenty years before the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority got into the radio business, putting WNJT-FM on the air at 88.1, also in Trenton. Today there are nine stations state-wide.

On Monday governor Chris Christie announced that the state would be selling off all of its public television and radio stations to public broadcasters based in New York City and Philadelphia. New York Public Radio, which operates flagship station WNYC, is taking over the four stations based in the northern half of the state for $1 million cash, and $1.8 million in non-cash compensation. These stations are WNJY FM 89.3 Netcong, WNJP FM 88.5 Sussex, WNJT FM 88.1 Trenton and WNJO FM 90.3 Toms River. Philadelphia’s WHYY, home to the long running program Fresh Air, will take over five southern New Jersey stations: WNJM FM 89.9, Manahawkin; WNJN FM 89.7, Atlantic City; WNJZ FM 90.3, Cape May Court House; WNJB FM 89.3, Bridgeton; and WNJS FM 88.1, Berlin.

The New Jersey Network television operation will be taken over by Newark based WNET-TV. While the station’s transmitter is in New Jersey, its studios are in Manhattan, and so it has generally been considered more of a New York serving station. WNET promises to continue offering 20 hours per week of New Jersey focused programming on the newly acquired network.

In announcing the sale of the stations, Governor Christie said that having a state-owned and operated broadcast network,

should have ended with the Soviet Union…. It’s ending here in New Jersey a little later than the fall of the wall in Berlin. But we’re getting there.”

On the flip side, using a state-owned helicopter to attend your kid’s ball game is still just fine by him.

Of course, the real concern with the sale is maintaining a focus on New Jersey news and information on these stations. I grew up in New Jersey and definitely observed the drop in local and state coverage on the radio, in particular, during the late 80s and early 90s. As local stations dropped their news departments residents increasingly had to turn to the bigger news stations in NYC in Philly, which provide much less Jersey coverage. It’s my opinion that the lack of good broadcast news covering New Jersey represents a market failure that the state felt it had to correct.

With regard to radio New York Public Radio says it will keep its new stations New Jersey focused, with a “Garden State bureau.” While just one bureau for a state of 8.7 million people hardly seems sufficient, it is fair to acknowledge that NJN radio doesn’t appear to broadcast any New Jersey-specific programming aside from simulcasts of several NJN television news and public affairs programming. The rest of the schedule is made up entirely of syndicated NPR programming and some jazz from the independent public jazz station WBGO in Newark. So, it is possible that the new arrangement might increase radio-specific coverage of New Jersey, but it’s too soon to tell.

So far there is no word that WHYY will do anything but use the new NJ stations to extend the reach of the flagship station.

I actually volunteered at the first NJN public radio station, WNJT, in its first year on the air while I was attending college in Trenton. This was before the eight other stations had been acquired and before the mission of the station was absolutely clear. At the time the station broadcast a somewhat eclectic mix of music and talk programs out of a tiny studio located inside the WNJT television studios complex. I believe all the station staff were volunteers. My responsibility was to engineer the radio simulcast of New Jersey Network News once per week, punching in radio-specific spots on carts (yes, carts) during the station breaks.

I left at the end of the school year. I did not return in part because the direction of the station was becoming a political battle within NJN and I’d already been courted by both sides. As it was my college station had significantly more power and reach, so I decided it wasn’t worth my time and effort to get caught up in the politics at WNJT. I left New Jersey in 1993 and didn’t really think about the station again until I heard about the public radio station network coming together in the late 90s.

I have mixed feelings about the state disbursing its broadcast stations. I’m most concerned about the 120 NJN employees who likely will lose their jobs. The legislature still has to approve the deal, so there will definitely be a fight there. Sen. Frank Lautenberg has promised to bring up the issue with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski on Wednesday when he already had a meeting planned to discuss concerns over Secaucus-based WOR-TV not providing insufficient Jersey-centric programming. The issue of New Jersey being underserved by the TV stations licensed in the state has been addressed by the Commission in the past.

When I lived in Jersey I always thought New Jersey Nightly News was a very good program that filled an important gap in broadcast news coverage. I had greater hope for the radio network, but I don’t think it ever distinguished itself much from the bigger public stations in NYC and Philly.

If WNYC and WNET follow through on continuing, and possibly expanding, New Jersey coverage then the transfer might indeed be a good thing. It may be to the networks’ advantage to lose such strict dependence on the political vagaries of state funding. However, the state will still provide $4 million a year to WNET to help fund television coverage. Furhtermore, WNYC and WNET themselves are subject to the political vagaries of Congress and CPB funding, which might threaten their service to the provinces of Jersey. Again, only time will tell.

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One Response to New Jersey getting out of the “Soviet” public radio business

  1. Richard December 3, 2011 at 8:08 pm #

    Glad I left Communist police state NJ years ago.

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