NJN and Public Radio in New Jersey

Earlier this year, Governor Christie indicated his desire to transfer operation and ownership of NJN, the state’s public broadcasting network, from the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority, a state agency, to a nonprofit organization derived from the NJN foundation. CWA, the union representing most NJN employees, has vehemently opposed this plan, which would see many of its members laid off. The legislature has created a task force to study the issues surrounding NJN and make its recommendations by October 15. Therefore it is timely that yesterday, New Jersey Policy Perspective released a report on the past, present and future of NJN and public media in New Jersey that I co-authored with Princeton Professor Paul Starr and Micah Joselow, a current Princeton student. This post will address the first part of that report, which examines the lack of a strong, New Jersey-based public radio news network and explores the possibilities for expanding public radio in New Jersey.

Blue Jersey readers: Do you listen to the radio on a regular basis? What about public radio? If so, which stations? If there was a public radio “foil” for New Jersey 101.5, would you listen to it?

NJN was created in the early 1970s, during the Golden Age of Network Television. It was built to be and it remains a 20th century television broadcaster equipped with 1970s and 1980s technology. NJN continues to operate under the “news by appointment” model epitomized by its nightly newscast. The network’s inability to quickly adapt to the digital age has seen its private contributions decline over the last five years. It should be clear to supporters and opponents of privatization alike that NJN must undergo radical change if it is to succeed in the future.

NJN’s biggest failure has been its inability to establish a strong, New Jersey-oriented public radio network. Public radio has defied the trend of declining audience that predominates in almost all other traditional news media. Newspaper circulation has dropped over the past decade, particularly in the past few years, and network news viewership has been falling for more than a quarter century. NPR’s audience, by contrast, has risen steadily since its creation in 1970. Few organizations in news media have a brighter future. NPR’s noncommercial business model has helped innoculate it from the drop in advertising prices driven by the essentially unlimited supply of advertising space on the internet. Unlike many other “old media” outlets, NPR has adapted to new technology and consumption habits.

Today, NJN owns 9 stations and has a construction permit for a tenth, but most are located in sparsely populated parts of the state and none has a particularly strong signal. Consequently, they are of little use to commuters, who represent a large share of the radio audience.

Furthermore, because it creates very little original content for radio, NJN does not take advantage of what little radio coverage it has throughout the state. The format of NPR’s shows allows member stations to integrate a significant amount of local news throughout the day, but NJN lets most of these opportunities fall by the wayside. The network runs local hourly newscasts only half of the day on most days, and these newscasts are generally of poor quality and of the rip and read variety. NJN does run its nightly newscast on the radio, but only during the evening, when relatively few people are listening.

It is no wonder, then, that public radio listeners in New Jersey listen—and give their money—to out-of-state stations like WNYC and WHYY. Whether it will be privately or publicly run, NJN must quickly work to expand both its radio network and programming. If it can’t do this, it should sell its licenses to a broadcaster who will do a better job.

Comments (15)

  1. denniscmcgrath

    all six presets on the FM portion of my car radio are set so that I need never be without some form of public radio.

    preset 1: 89.1 WWFM, the Classical Network out of Mercer County Community College – best classical station in America, bar none.

    preset 2: 89.9 NJN out of Manahawkin. Useful for when WHYY finally drops below the horizon while I’m headed to the shore.

    preset 3: WRTI 90.1 Classical during the day, jazz at night – useful for when WWFM drops below the horizon as I drive into Philly. At home I listen to their HD-2 classical programming all night (literally – I sleep with the radio on).

    preset 4: WHYY – NPR coverage for almost the entire central/south jersey region

    preset 5: WWFM’s repeater station at 91.1 out of Toms River

    preset 6: 93.9 WNYC for those forays above Mercer County when I can no longer get WHYY (and a much preferred station to WHYY, but when you move to Philly, you pay the price).

    Point is: If NJN offered me more of what I want – classical music, traffic reports (which WRTI and WHYY do), and original reporting – and I do not count audio broadcasts of the NJN nightly news as “original reporting’ – I might listen more, but there is a wealth – A WEALTH – of public radio options open to me so that I rarely need to go to NJN to get anything. 101.5 isn’t its competition – the other public stations are.

    And I give my money to WWFM.

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  2. Matthew Jordan

    and I don’t even commute to work, I work from home.  I usually listen to the live stream on the WNYC website.  

    There is topical programs, innovative features, and objective analysis of current affairs, which one can rarely get in today’s media age.  

    NJN and New Jersey public radio needs to get with the times to survive, but NPR’s non-profit model has definitely been a success and is one that should be emulated.  

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  3. denniscmcgrath

    I’ll need to give it a more thorough read, but particularly the part you wrote Scott about NJN’s various stations and transmitters and their reach was very interesting.

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  4. Hopeful

    I listen all the time in the car, which is over an hour a day, and occasionally in the house, and listen to a lot of AM and FM stations. I live and work in the Philly/Delaware markets but I can get the old, powerful NY AM stations.  

    But I don’t listen to NPR very much, I find it extremely irritating in style. I do listen to WRTI at night when it plays jazz, and probably should give. I only listen to NPR on a cross-country drive when the alternative is country music or religious stations.  I also listen to Rowan Radio mainly for music.  

    Otherwise, it’s sports talk (660AM out of NY, or 610 out of philly), baseball games, music, or newsradio (Delaware’s 1150 or New York’s 880).  I like the various shows on the R&B stations (Michael Baisden, Steve Harvey, Tom Joyner) which sometimes have some politics.  

    I somtimes choose conservative AM talk radio (i.e., 1210AM). The only time I listen to NJ101 is when I have to drive the length of the Turnpike and want the traffic reports, or something special like a debate.  

    I suppose I would look to Delaware’s 1150AM as a good model, though I don’t think it’s public.

    I don’t even know what station WHYY radio is, but I do like and support WHYY TV, and I’ll complain again I can’t reliably pick up NJN TV here in Salem County. Yes, I am too cheap to pay for cable TV.

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  5. Scott Weingart (Post author)

    I usually listen to public radio when I’m in the car. Usually that means WNYC, unless I’m headed south, when I listen to WNJT (NJN’s Trenton station) or WHYY.

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  6. Babs NJSD

    NYC for news. I was pleasantly surprised to pick up a few good public classical stations this past weekend on a trip to Rehoboth Beach Delaware including one from Maryland.

    When WQXR went public and swapped its signal from 96.3 to 105.9 it has now a much weaker signal… so now I do listen for local NJ stations as I drive.

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