When Chris Christie became governor in 2010 it was immediately clear that New Jersey Network, the state-run public television and radio network, was on his hit list. And by the time he compared the state’s involvement in media with Soviet communism, NJN’s fate had already been sealed.
Last June the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority (NJPBA) Board voted to cease operation of NJN and distribute its television and radio operations to private interests.
WNET assumed control of NJN’s television stations for a five-year term under a new nonprofit entity called Public Media NJ. The television network was renamed NJTV, and the deal was contingent on a slew of legislative strictures mandating New Jersey-focused content. The deal did not include the station licenses, which were retained by the NJPBA.
NJN’s radio network was divided between two existing private companies: New York Public Radio (owners of WNYC-AM-FM in New York and Newark-licensed WQXR-FM) acquired four stations. Philadelphia-based WHYY-FM obtained the other five. WHYY has used the stations to expand the reach of its existing radio service.
The stations acquired by WYHH were: WNJN-FM, 89.7, in Atlantic City; WNJS-FM, 88.1, in Berlin, WNJB-FM, 89.3, in Bridgeton; WNJZ, 90.3, in Cape May ; and WNJM, 89.9, in Manahawkin.
WHYY President Bill Marrazzo says that while programming on NJN’s radio outlets was not nearly as focused on New Jersey as the television arm, WHYY’s new radio reach has set it up as the dominant public entity in the lower half of the state.
Marrazzo will present “Life After NJN: A Fresh Start for New Jersey Public Media” at the Princeton Chamber’s monthly luncheon on Thursday, April 5, at 11:30 a.m. at the Princeton Marriott. Cost: $65. Visit www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.
The messy divorce between the state and NJN created at first a licensing agreement that WHYY operate its newly acquired stations on the state’s behalf. WHYY took full ownership on February 28. Marrazzo says WHYY has “seen a nice uptick” in its market share, though the network already held a strong hand in southern New Jersey.
Not necessarily the news. NJN-TV’s flagship product was its New Jersey Nightly News broadcast, which ended with the demise of NJN. It was the state’s farthest-reaching New Jersey-only news broadcast. But, Marrazzo says, NJN’s radio outlets did not survive on New Jersey news alone.
In fact, NJN’s former radio stations were (and still are) affiliated with National Public Radio. This, says, Marrazzo, means that programming has a broader focus than just New Jersey (although the same held true for NJN-TV, which as part of the Public Broadcasting System aired many non-New Jersey programs).
The result is that WHYY has had fewer constraints to maintain New Jersey-centric programming. Nevertheless, Marrazzo says, WHYY’s existing foothold in the state was forged with a healthy understanding of who its customers are. The network maintains its New Jersey cultural programming on its stations, including its coverage of the southern New Jersey arts scene.
Digital media and real money. WHYY radio has not abandoned news. In fact its method of news delivery to the state underscores the network’s nod to that which has crippled many news outlets — the Internet.
Newsworks.org is WHYY’s news website. It provides coverage targeted to Philadelphia, Delaware, and New Jersey, depending on which tab you click. And Newsworks is, unlike so many online news outlets these days, staffed by actual journalists.
But WHYY’s approach to its news outlet belies the realities of running a public media enterprise. The advantage NJN had over almost every other public broadcasting organization was that the state of New Jersey funded so much of it. In the typical set-up, public stations have to make do with donations and grants.
For WHYY, Marrazzo says, money still comes in from the state of New Jersey in the form of grants. But the network still has to operate like any other business. Marrazzo states the challenge of the public broadcaster’s existence this way: Public broadcasting is held to a higher standard. Unlike commercial media outlets, public broadcasters are tasked with reaching every member of the community at all times. Programming is to be educational, inclusive, and safe from the whims of advertisers and programming trends.
“But it’s also very expensive,” he says. Public broadcasting is given a set of lofty aspirations, but has to struggle for money and “make do with whatever seed capital we can get our hands on.”
Newsworks, which has picked up a good share of the state’s former New Jersey Nightly News audience, does not make its own money. While it is able to deliver its content in a way that younger news consumers prefer, the site itself is maintained as part of WHYY’s overall budget. Which means, Marrazzo says, that it must stay within its allotment.
The advantage WHYY has over NJN’s TV newsroom is that at NJN union contracts restricted what its employees could do. WHYY’s journalists, Marrazzo says, are not bound by a union and are, thus, required to do reporting for the network’s radio, Internet, and television spots in the Delaware Valley. It is an example of efficiency in its operations, he says.
Marrazzo earned his bachelor’s in chemical engineering from the University of Delaware in 1971. That year he joined the Philadelphia Water Department as an engineer. He was named water commissioner in 1979 and remained in office until 1988, when he joined the environmental consulting firm of Roy F. Weston Inc. in West Chester as a divisional vice president. Two years later he was named COO and in 1991 he became president and CEO, remaining there until 1997, when he took over WHYY.
Though it might seem a strange leap from environmental engineering to public broadcasting, Marrazzo says it all makes perfect sense. As an engineer coming out of college in the early 1970s, when the country first awoke to the realities of pollution and environmentalism, he was taken by ways to use science for the public good.
Marrazzo’s first jobs were exactly that — he did wastewater studies to help Philadelphia clean up its water and its image by applying new technologies. Later he took the same approach toward cleaning up Superfund sites. So by the time he got to the late 1990s he was comfortable finding ways to use new technologies to solve problems in the public sphere.
Marrazzo’s timing on the public broadcasting scene coincided with the federal mandate to begin switching analog broadcasts to digital. And as time has marched on and the Internet has proven its staying power, he says, his career has had to keep pace with the realities of technology as both the obstacle and solution to public issues.
“I’ve been lucky enough to back into a career template,” he says. “I’ve been able to use my technology background to solve real problems.”