Why So Much P.R.?: WYPR seems to routinely trade underwriting for air time. Is that a problem?

City Paper

At 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 10, the voice of John Hoey comes over the public’s airwaves on 88.1 FM, WYPR. The short segment—a monthly show Hoey says he does for free at the behest of station manager and president Anthony “Tony” Brandon—opens as a meditation on doing less to do more. Hoey cites scientific studies advising the harried and over-worked to relax and get better sleep. Then he shifts gears: “That’s why if you step into a Y today you will see plenty of space dedicated to the old fashioned arts of unwinding,” Hoey says, before concluding what sounds like a textbook, early 1960s-era commercial soft sell.

Hoey is president and CEO of the YMCA of Central Maryland, and has been one of the radio station’s underwriters for about three years. But Hoey’s show has nothing to do with underwriting. “I don’t even handle the underwriting,” he says. “That’s stuff in our marketing department.”

Hoey’s on-air presence is just a small part of a quiet revolution at Your Public Radio, Baltimore’s largest NPR affiliate. The station’s management makes no distinction between programming that is written and produced in house by its professional, paid staff or syndicated through National Public Radio, and that which is, directly or not, underwritten by the corporate host.

In this way, programming produced by a Johns Hopkins public-relations professional, the CEO of the National Aquarium, a pair of local restaurateurs, and a prominent local economist—all of whose corporate employers underwrite programming on the station—blend in with work by radio journalists and talk-show hosts with no other allegiance or means of support.

In another show on WYPR, David Warnock touts the good work of the recipients of grants dispensed by the Warnock Foundation, its subsidiary “Baltimore Social Innovation Journal,” and nonprofits he chairs. The Warnock Foundation, unsurprisingly, is David Warnock’s personal project. He donates more than $200,000 a year, which is part of his earnings as a senior partner and co-founder of the venture capital firm Camden Partners.

The show is called “Baltimore’s Future.”

Nothing on Warnock’s weekly four-minute show mentions his finance company or its many corporate clients; it is relentlessly focused on the good that Warnock grant recipients and others are doing in the neighborhoods of Baltimore, and—by subtle extension—the good David Warnock is doing. Until very recently, the show was underwritten by the Warnock Foundation.

But no longer. Warnock is no longer an underwriter for any WYPR shows.

“The last thing I want to create is conflicts of interest, or even implied conflicts of interest,” Warnock says over breakfast at Miss Shirley’s Café downtown. So when, two months ago, WYPR General Manager Tony Brandon told him one of his board members thought there might be a issue, Warnock says he told him there was no problem. “A whole host of people came out and wanted to fund the show,” he says. “So I am not sponsoring anything on WYPR.”

The show is now “made possible by Katherine and Larry Jennings.” Larry E. Jennings, Jr. is a money manager who advises the state pension board on investment strategies.

Warnock seems genuinely hurt and surprised that anyone would question his motives or that of his foundation. Both he and Hoey say WYPR management never briefed them about the station’s conflict of interest policies or FCC regulation.

Some observers don’t think Warnock’s original arrangement fits within the spirit of public radio.

“It’s really inappropriate for a public radio station to sell itself to an underwriter like that,” says Joel Kaplan, who until recently was the ombudsman for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Reached by phone a couple weeks before his tenure ended on Jan. 31, Kaplan urged City Paper to “find out what the arrangement is” between the station and underwriters like the YMCA and the Warnock Foundation. Such arrangements should not be a secret, he said, adding that if the station refuses to share them, “that tells you more than anything.”

That the Y and the Warnock Foundation are nonprofits doesn’t matter, Kaplan said: “There’s no difference between him touting his foundation and him touting his venture capital company or whatever.”

Warnock says he’s not touting anything.

“To imply that I am touting my foundation, or touting my private equity firm—I’m not trying to tout anything on my show,” Warnock says, “other than the people on it.”

Warnock says his show is not like some others on the station. “There’s a long list of people that funded a show that features their name,” Warnock says. “Transamerica is probably the best example.”

John Hoey (Courtesy of WYPR)

David Warnock (Jason Putsche/Courtesy of Warnock Foundation)

Tony Brandon (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)

The insurance giant spends $1 million per year funding a tiny nonprofit whose unpaid director co-hosts a show called “ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health and Wealth,” which dispenses advice for retirement planning. The nonprofit underwrites the show.

Listeners are not alerted to any difference between shows like “ClearPath” and more conventional shows like Maryland Morning, hosted by WYPR employee and longtime journalist Sheilah Kast, despite the Public Media Code of Integrity, posted on WYPR’s website, in which the station pledges in part to set “careful boundaries between contributors and content creators.”

Some staffers, present and past, say “careful boundaries” are exactly what WYPR general manager Tony Brandon seeks to avoid.

“He wants to cede his control to his donors so they’ll make more donations,” says Sunni Khalid, who served as managing news editor before he was fired in 2012. “That is Tony’s world. He wants to blur the line.”

Brandon has been doing this from the beginning of his tenure, according to Marc Steiner, the station’s co-founder, who worked with Brandon and a group of six others to purchase the station from Johns Hopkins University.

In 2003, shortly after WYPR launched, Steiner was quoted in The Sun saying that then-new focus on creating programs specifically to attract underwriters put WYPR “on the cutting edge.” But he assured the newspaper then that programming integrity would remain.

Brandon pushed Steiner out in 2008. He now has a talk show on WEAA, and says he lost the fight to keep the lines between programming and underwriting clear.

“The very first battles we had at the station,” Steiner says in a phone interview, “as soon as we bought WYPR . . . he put on one of his lawyer buddies and gave him his own show. And he paid for the time. So I’m outraged and obsessed with getting him off the air. Because it violated every tenet of public radio—besides being bad fucking radio. So it was a big battle. It took us five months [to get the show off the air].

“The lines were constantly being blurred,” Steiner says. “He would push to put someone on the air because they underwrite it.”

Steiner and Khalid pushed back, they say, and some current employees at the station, who asked not to be named because they fear reprisals for speaking out, back their stories up. But Brandon has consolidated power and gets his way far more often then he once did, the insiders say, and lately these minishows that are so closely tied to their sponsors have taken new prominence. “The stuff that comes on that isn’t content from journalists from WYPR—or journalists from anywhere—those shows fucking kill me,” says one employee who recently left the station. “They’re so fucking bad. The aquarium show is unlistenable. The Transamerica show is unlistenable.”

Marc Steiner (Courtesy of Marc Steiner)

Joel Kaplan (Doug Wonders/Courtesy of Newhouse Syracuse University)

Sunni Khalid (YouTube)

The problem, the former employee says, is that turnover at the station is so high, no one has the tenure or power to challenge management.

“There is no workplace democracy,” says Jason Loviglio, chair and associate professor of the department of Media and Communication Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Loviglio is writing a book about public media and plans a chapter about WYPR. To that end, he says, he has interviewed many of the station’s staff.

“As you know, it all a came to a head when the workers tried to form a union—this was a big thing,” he says, speaking of Brandon’s blurring of the line between underwriters and content creators. “It wasn’t better pay or more trips to the bathroom. They were worried about this.”

The issue of whether such blurred programming conforms with the ethical standards of NPR and its parent Corporation for Public Broadcasting took on new urgency last summer, when station management added to its roster of “employees” several people who either underwrote programming or owned their own firms and did radio as a sideline. “They did not have the same interests” as the station’s full- and part-time staff, one union supporter said. The station prevailed at the NLRB and the union drive failed.

City Paper hoped to sit down with Brandon to discuss his philosophy and the station’s policies. For more than a month the station’s management ignored the newspaper’s questions. Finally, City Paper sent an email to all staff at the station, and Brandon replied.

“With respect to grants made to WYPR for underwriting, the financial details of each grant are confidential and WYPR does not release that information,” he wrote.

There followed a back-and-forth in which City Paper asked specific questions and Brandon insisted that he had already answered them.

City Paper tried one last time, using the National Aquarium’s show, “A Blue View,” to stand in for the general issue:

“Tony, you’ve really not answered any of my questions clearly,” an email to Brandon read in part. “I will try to be more clear:

“You are saying ‘A Blue View’ is editorial content of the station, right? The responsibility for the content is yours and your board’s?

“Again, then, if ‘A Blue View,’ were not underwritten, would it be on the air?

“Do you and does the board make any distinction between content produced by WYPR’s reporters and content produced directly by underwriters?

“Should listeners make no distinction between content produced by WYPR staff at a cost to WYPR and content produced by or in cooperation with underwriters that WYPR is paid to air?

“If not, why not?

“If so, please explain how they are to do that, given the policies you have outlined?”

Brandon’s response:

“Again, thanks for your interest in Wypr. Sorry if you feel as if I have not answered your questions but I am confident that I have responded to your questions in previous emails.”

With underwriting, “there are supposed to be no strings attached,” says Kaplan, the former CPB ombudsman. “This appears to be strings attached.” As the parent funder of NPR, CPB would have the power to act on violations of its policies, he says—but “there’s a code of ethics and it’s not really binding.”

One of Kaplan’s last columns as ombudsman, published Jan. 6, slammed NPR’s “lack of transparency” regarding its finances. The annual reports were hard to find on the NPR website, and had not been updated for several years.

A spokeswoman for NPR says the network updated the information after Kaplan’s column appeared. The idea that underwriting might give the appearance of conflict is a live one among NPR staff and member stations. Last year the network commissioned a poll to find out whether “embedded underwriting” within some national programming—that is, commercial messages heard during a show segment—were bothering listeners as much as they did some station managers and NPR staff.

The answer was no. But about a third of listeners surveyed did have a negative reaction to some of the practices.

As for whether WYPR’s in-house practices are acceptable to the mother network, NPR does not comment on or involve itself in the internal policies of its member stations, the spokeswoman said.

John Sutton (Courtesy of Emodus Research)

Tom Pelton (Courtesy of WYPR)

“There is a general trend in public radio towards creating more favorable context for underwriting announcements,” says John Sutton, a consultant to radio stations. “The reason is simple. Public radio is a mature industry in an increasingly competitive marketplace that makes it more expensive to do business. So public-radio networks, stations, and producers are creating underwriting ‘products’ to sell. The old underwriting model is nearly maxed out and, in the view of some, outdated given the advertising options now available in the digital space. That can only mean one thing. You have to give up more to get more.”

Sutton says the important thing is maintaining audience trust—the concern NPR hired a consultant to check. “Having done quite a bit of primary research I can tell you that no survey or focus group can predict how far is too far on an issue such as commercial influence,” Sutton says. “That is only learned when the line is crossed.”

It is unclear where the line is, ethically and legally.

The Federal Communications Commission has the power to sanction public radio stations for misusing underwriting, but appears to be focused exclusively on narrowly defined violations of the ban against underwriting messages that contain a “call to action”—i.e., “come on down to Bob’s Discount Used Cars”—like a regular commercial. In the past five years it has fined three noncommercial radio operators a total of $24,500 for violations that include allowing a car dealer to announce sales events.

City Paper called and emailed the FCC’s media office for more detail but did not hear back.

Even the members of WYPR’s Community Advisory Board (CAB) have little to say about the programming on air, and less still about underwriting policies. “It’s not really what we’re tasked to do,” says Carry Montague, echoing the remarks of several members of the board. The station’s critics hoped the CAB would be a management watchdog when they forced it to be reconstituted in the wake of Steiner’s 2008 ouster, but it has not been. “About the station’s inner workings,” Montague says, “we know as much or less than you do.”

At the CAB’s Jan. 28 meeting, discussion runs toward boosting the station’s reach among young people by hosting events. Wearing a cream-colored sweater and moving with deliberation, Brandon enters with the aid of a walker, having recently injured his hip and knee. He is every inch the executive, though, in command of the meeting even though he is there only as an observer and presenter. His depth of radio experience—he is still chairman of American General Media, a chain of 28 commercial radio stations in three states—is unmatched by any other three people in the room.

Discussion turns to “ascertainment”—a process by which people with something to say might get on WYPR’s air. This is an old radio process, Brandon says. Someone brings a person to meet the CAB and show and tell. There was a three-hour meeting earlier in the day wherein “someone brought beer” (“Can we have them back?” Dale McArdle, the longtime CAB chairman, jokes) and someone taught the rudiments of the didgeridoo.

“The producers of our content cannot be out in the community to touch every base,” Brandon says, “so we are constantly looking out . . . to expand our rolodexes. All of these people should have access to WYPR, so they can be spoken about.”

The process “goes back in broadcasting 75 years,” Brandon says. “When we were all deregulated it went away. I brought it back because I thought it was a good idea. We are a public radio station.”

Later in the meeting Brandon says WYPR has been losing listener share. He does not go into detail about it, but recaps a meeting with a high-level NPR strategist. “We are participating in Project Spark” (an NPR marketing scheme which puts house ads on NPR programming). “I’m critical,” Brandon says. “You can’t increase cume [cumulative audience] by advertising to your existing audience.”

So Brandon says WYPR is spending $25,000 to advertise elsewhere, including Maryland Public Television and on billboards.

Anirban Basu (Courtesy of WYPR)

Cindy Wolf (Courtesy of WYPR)

Tony Foreman (Courtesy of WYPR)

That is not petty cash for WYPR. The station’s total budget is about $5 million, 52 percent of which came last year from underwriters, 31 percent from listener donations (most of the rest was from foundation support). Underwriting revenue increased markedly in the 2013 tax year, according to the station’s form 990, for the first time bringing revenues above $5 million after years in the $4.8 million range. In 2013 WYPR operated at a $400,000 surplus.

By comparison, NPR stations nationwide get about 19 percent of their funding from corporate underwriting and another 8 percent from foundations.

Staff complain of low pay, and turnover has been high at the station. “I never made 60,” Khalid says meaning $60,000. “The [pay] disparity between upper management and lower management is by far the greatest in the nation for that market size.” Brandon earns $150,000, according to the station’s tax form. (Khalid, who now lives in northern California, is facing a first-degree assault charge in Harford County after stabbing his estranged son in a fight on Halloween night, 2013. Khalid says he acted in self-defense.)

“He’s trying to suborn the talent at WYPR . . . to work on behalf of the donors,” Khalid says of Brandon. “And he’s being remunerated handsomely.”

While untangling the relationships between public relations professionals, on-air talent, and underwriters proved a challenge in some cases, Tom Pelton, the former Sun reporter whose commentary, “The Environment in Focus,” has run since 2007, was eager to make his show’s lines of authority clear.

“I have a guarantee from [The Environmental Integrity Project] that they will have nothing to do with the show,” Pelton, whose day job is Director of Communications for The Environmental Integrity Project, the nonprofit that underwrites his show.

Pelton emailed a copy of the agreement to City Paper. Dated April 23, 2014, it says EIP is paying WYPR $12,000 per year for two years to underwrite The Environment in Focus. It specifies that after each broadcast, the announcer must say “Made possible by the Environmental Integrity Project: Holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health.” EIP also gets its name, logo, and web link on WYPR’s The Environment in Focus website. The agreement states that “Tom Pelton will retain editorial control over the program.” Handwritten next to that it says “Subject to approval by WYPR.”

Pelton’s show illustrates how, in the changing makeup of journalism careers and underwriters, appearances of conflict may arise. When the show launched in 2007, Pelton was a full-time reporter for The Sun; the show was a side gig, he says. Then he left The Sun. His radio show’s underwriter has changed several times since its debut. Pelton says that when The Nature Conservancy underwrote his show, the same rules applied: “They underwrite. You go on air.”

Pelton says the underwriter—now his employer—pays the station, “and I get paid a freelance fee [from the station]. It’s been the same for seven or eight years . . . they pay; I get half or something like that.”

But the underwriter cannot have any influence on what is broadcast, Pelton says, because of the agreement. “It says I personally, Tom Pelton, have authority over the program with the approval of the station. They don’t even see or hear the show before it goes on the air,” he says. “It’s news to them.”

Pelton says he enjoys doing his show, which now airs on Wednesdays mornings and afternoons and is actually an opinion piece.

“The bottom line is public radio doesn’t pay much,” Pelton says. “A lot of people—[Baltimore Choral Arts Society music director] Tom Hall; [Sun Columnist] Dan Rodricks—you gotta have two jobs to make it work. I’ve always had two jobs.”

Hosts of some other shows say they are unpaid. Elizabeth Tracey’s “Medical Minute” (sometimes called the “Health Minute”) is offered to the station free of charge. “There is no money changing hands,” she says in a short voicemail. “I guess that’s all you need to know.” The show is syndicated—having begun on Voice of America, according to its website. Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health underwrites  programming on WYPR, but Tracey does not return a call back asking for more detail.

The National Aquarium underwrites “A Blue View” and has a larger relationship with the station, hosting fundraising events, for example. The show has aired since the summer of 2012, and its host CEO John Racanelli did not respond to the paper’s request for comment.

Greg Tucker (Courtesy of PBS)

Jason Loviglio (Courtesy of UMBC)

Economist Anirban Basu has presented a short economic commentary for years. His for-profit firm, Sage Policy Group, has long underwritten other programming on the station, though not his own show, the Morning Economic Report, which usually discusses a small tidbit of economic news or research, keeping Basu’s name in the ears of WYPR listeners. The station suspended the show during Basu’s recent stint on Governor Hogan’s transition team, but it returned after his inauguration. Basu did not respond to City Paper’s request for an interview about his radio work.

And on Mondays at 4:44 p.m. “ClearPath —Your Roadmap to Health and Wealth” dispenses advice to people thinking about retirement.

“ClearPath” is hosted by Greg Tucker, whose day job is senior vice president, Americas Corporate Communications, Transamerica. For years when he was the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s main P.R. man Tucker did a show called “Backstage With the BSO,” which no longer airs.

Tucker usually hosts “ClearPath” with Catherine Collinson, who is identified as president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies and the Transamerica Institute.

The show is underwritten by The Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit which is funded solely through the Transamerica Life Insurance company, where Collinson is senior vice president of strategic planning for Transamerica Retirement Solutions.

Collinson’s job, like Tucker’s, is in support of their employer’s profit motive. She appeared in April 2014 at The Milken Institute Global Conference, hosted by the 1980s junk bond felon, Michael Milken. Her panel discussion: “Aging: The Next Global Investing Opportunity.”

Transamerica offers retirement planning and money management, and the “ClearPath” show offers tips on mundane and obvious matters of financial literacy. (Feb. 24 show: “Set your goals, make a plan and SAVE!”) In conclusion of that one, Tucker says, “numbers don’t lie.”

But the show says nothing about what numbers people need to pay attention to: How much do you need to retire? What rate of compounded interest will you need? How can you assess the fees a money manager—usually buried deep in your 401(k)—extracts? Of this, “ClearPath” says nothing.

And this is ironic, since Transamerica was itself sued last month, allegedly for charging its own employees four to five times the going rate to manage their retirement nest eggs. The company says the suit has no merit.

Tucker did not respond to an email sent to the show’s address.

Chefs Tony Foreman and Cindy Wolf, local restaurateurs whose brands—Charleston, Johnny’s, Bin 604 Wine Sellers, Pazo, and Petit Louis Bistro restaurants and others—have underwritten WYPR, host their own “Food and Wine” show on Sundays. They did not respond to City Paper’s invitation to talk about how their show came to be, whether it relates at all to their underwriting, or how it fits in their business’s overall marketing plan.

WYPR listeners could be excused for thinking that Foreman and Wolf are on the air to promote their brand, just as Tony Brandon might argue that “Foreman and Wolf on Food and Wine” furthers WYPR’s mission to “broadcast programs of intellectual integrity, cultural merit and educational and charitable purposes within the meaning of Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.”

But Brandon has declined to discuss just how these shows further that mission—and his apparent failure to train some of his underwriting talent on the basics of radio law and practice.

On Dec. 2, 2014, listeners heard about Jennifer “who had recently lost 100 pounds at the Y,” as YMCA of Central Maryland CEO Hoey informed them. “Today, Jennifer and her whole family stay active together, socialize with other families at the Y, and have a new, more balanced lifestyle,” he continued, adding that the nonprofit corporation that he helms is working with local hospitals to help those with chronic diseases find their way to a healthier lifestyle. “Jennifer and her family are discovering the tremendous rewards of a healthier life through the Y,” Hoey concluded. “Her journey is possible for so many more.”

Hoey says he mentions his corporate employer at every opportunity for a good editorial reason: “People may wonder why am I talking about this. So it’s to tie it back to the work of the Y,” he says. “Not everyone may know that that’s something we work with. It’s not a commercial message. But it’s so people know we can have credibility on this subject.”

Hoey thinks a moment, and adds, “I think there are a diversity of voices on YPR beyond just underwriters.” 

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