There's good news for all those who are hungry for more local news: WJHU-FM (88.1 FM), the public radio station owned by the Johns Hopkins University, has quietly embarked on ahalf-million-dollar campaign to fund a local news desk.
The two-or-three person shop, supplemented by a stable of free-lancers, would represent just the second such operation on radio in the region.
"Clearly, there's a need for local news reporting on radio," said Ray Dilley, WJHU's general manager for the past 3 1/2 years. "The question that we've wrestled with for some time is, what's the best approach?"
As envisioned, the station would air longer pieces - five to 10 minutes - that would be woven into WJHU broadcasts of National Public Radio's marquee shows "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." Following the model of larger stations such as WAMU-FM in Washington and WBUR-FM in Boston, correspondents' stories will likely focus on education, politics and other topics important to the city.
"I'm glad to see it," said Mark Miller, the news director of WBAL (1090 AM), currently the city's only significant source of original local news on radio. "Public radio stations have made their reputation doing things that commercial radio stations don't do. They handle issues differently, often in a more in-depth way."
Diane McCloud, WJHU's business manager, and Terry Terouyet, the program director, are betting that the increased expense will ultimately be offset by increased donations from a greater listening audience.
"It's very reflective of what public radio can do," Terouyet said of his hopes for the news program. "You've got an audience that is highly educated. They are very active, community-wise, and moving into very influential positions."
Before they commit concretely to the new programming, Dilley's staff is soliciting some $400,000 to $500,000 from foundations and corporations to pay for the first three years of the news operation. The finances are crucial to the effort. Although the station is owned by the Johns Hopkins University, it is supposed to be self-sustaining. But four years ago, after it abandoned classical music to shift to a news format - "We had tried to be all things to all people," Dilley says - the station lost many members.
In the next few years, WJHU is scheduled to repay Hopkins $640,000. But, for the first time in quite a while, the station appears likely to finish the fiscal year (ending June 30) in the black, with a modest surplus of $12,459. A small sum, to be sure, but it beats the $33,000 annual deficit that station officials faced a year ago.
And other numbers have improved as well. Money from members for the most recent year is expected to top $800,000 - up from $736,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1999. Corporations and foundations are projected to have contributed $953,000, a major increase from the $740,000 of the previous year.
The creation of a news desk is not without its risks, as WJHU veterans well know. In 1986, the station started a half-hour morning news show with a six-person bureau. "What we were trying for, at the time, was to capture the nubbiness of the Baltimore region, the texture," said former WJHU reporter and acting news director Bill Toohey.
But the grand schemes of Steven Muller, then Hopkins president, were not always realized. As money ran dry, the station cut four of the six news positions. Toohey left after two years to become a spokesman for the city housing agency under Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, and the sole remaining staffer was reduced to reading news headlines from the Associated Press wire service.
Under Miller, WBAL runs a news department of nine reporters, at a cost of more than $1 million a year. "I don't view them as anything of a direct challenge," he said. "We concentrate more on spot news, breaking news, though we do some feature stories. It's just a different tone, a different flavor."
It should also be interesting to see how the station handles news involving Hopkins, which has one of the largest private workforces in the state.
An event in Washington Monday night provides a peek at the celebrity nature of the television news business, a dynamic that troubles many outside observers and not a few insiders. A "dot-com" start-up - com standing for commercial - sought to attract hundreds of college administrators to the launch party for their new for-profit Web site, which provides financial aid advice.
So the company, called collegexit.com, brought in ABC News' Sam Donaldson as a speaker to attract the college administrators who would be potential clients. "He was terrific - he spent excessive minutes letting people take pictures with him, making the rounds. People were eating him up," said Michael Blattman, a publicist for collegexit.com.
Big name. Big hit. Big bucks. Donaldson's remarks about the Internet and his responses to questions from the 400-person audience took about 45 minutes. His take for the evening? Probably somewhere in the five figures. (Blattman and an ABC spokeswoman said they didn't know, while Donaldson declined to specify in an interview.)
"It's not uncommon at all for well-known TV personalities to get in the $15,000 to $45,000 speaking range," said Gary McManis, vice president for Keppler Associates, a booking agency that represents many prominent newscasters, although not Donaldson. "Generally, the speakers who do the most work tend to be your political pundits or talking head-type speakers."
In recent years, such speaking engagements have sparked much criticism from media commentators such as James Fallows, former editor of The Atlantic and U.S. News and World Report, and Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post and CNN. These critics ask: Why should a journalist be paid by a for-profit corporation, which may seek favorable coverage from media outlets, or a trade association that lobbies government agencies?
But Donaldson, the longtime newsman and co-host of ABC News' "This Week," known for his impertinent questioning of the powerful, offered a spirited defense of his activities.
"I speak for a living - that's what I do," Donaldson's familiar baritone rumbled during a telephone interview yesterday. "I'm not a bricklayer. I don't know the first thing about composing a piece of beautiful music. What I do is talk."
Donaldson said he abided by ABC News' policy on outside speeches, which sets guidelines about possible conflicts of interest.
This particular fee, he said, he was donating to work done by the melanoma specialist at the National Cancer Institute who treated him several years ago. But he said he thought his activities were entirely appropriate.
"As long as there's no conflict with my work as a reporter for ABC, I see no problem whatsoever," Donaldson said.
Questions? Comments? Story ideas? You can reach David Folkenflik at 410-332-6923 or firstname.lastname@example.org.