WHYY announced yesterday that Delaware's only statewide, local nightly TV news program, Delaware Tonight, will have its finale on July 17 after a 46-year run - a move that prompted concern from Gov. Jack Markell.
"WHYY's decision to leave the daily airwaves leaves a critical hole for viewers and raises significant questions about their commitment to Delaware, which is where their FCC license is granted. I hope that WHYY's new model keeps that commitment," Markell said in a written statement.
The announcement follows other belt-tightening at the station, including laying off 17 workers in April. Other public stations are also facing difficult economic times.
WHYY's new model, aimed at a late-summer debut, will feature a weekly Delaware-focused TV news magazine and increased state news on the public broadcaster's Web site and 91FM radio news programs, officials said.
Chris Satullo, WHYY's executive director of news and civic dialogue, said the station has no intention of abandoning Delaware or Wilmington, where the program is produced.
"There will be journalists in Delaware covering news in the state of Delaware," he said.
News, he said, will be filed daily to the Web and WHYY's local radio programs. The station's morning show has seen a rise in listenership, according to the latest Arbitron ratings (see "Inqlings" on E2).
"This change will enable us to allocate resources to provide much more news online and to enhance the WHYY-FM news service with additional reports from Delaware," WHYY CEO William J. Marrazzo said in a statement. "The growth of the news on the Web is an irreversible trend in the media marketplace."
The station also is selling its studio in Wilmington (asking price $1.7 million), finding smaller, less expensive space in that city to cluster its statewide operation, and closing its Dover news bureau, which opened in 2007.
In a 2005 news release, WHYY, whose headquarters are on Independence Mall, touted the prospect of the Dover bureau after receiving a $1 million grant for it from the Longwood Foundation. According to the release, "the bureau will enable WHYY to be more effective and efficient in covering" news in the state.
WHYY's latest moves are part of a new operational strategy that puts much greater emphasis on using the Web. Shaky economic conditions also are part of the context: WHYY could lose $1.1 million in funding from the state of Pennsylvania and about $500,000 from Delaware. Satullo previously said the Delaware news operation cost $1.6 million annually.
Though station officials emphasized their continued commitment to Delaware, the cutbacks drew disappointment and consternation from people in the state.
"There won't be any regular news for Delaware on the television at all, which is a shame," said Elizabeth Perse, chairwoman of the communication department at the University of Delaware. "It's a shame that they're not going to be covering the area to which they're licensed as much as they used to with television - which is what the license is for, not for the Web."
FCC rules state that television stations must locate their main studios within the community of license, within 25 miles of the city of license, or at any location within its principal coverage area.
FCC spokesman David Fiske said he did not know whether WHYY's closure of its Delaware studio or the replacement with a smaller facility complied with that regulation. "It is up to the licensee to comply with that rule," he said.
In a joint release, U.S. Sens. Tom Carper and Ted Kaufman, Democrats from Delaware, reacted with sadness to the closing of the Wilmington bureau and the cancellation of Delaware Tonight.
"WHYY is a public broadcasting station, but it's hard to find their commitment to the community in this action," Kaufman said.
The public announcement came yesterday after Satullo met with staff in Wilmington. The staff was told about the show's end, which had been rumored.
Satullo said the show's staff would have the first crack at applying for jobs created because of the station's effort to strengthen its Web presence, he said. Most of the 13 full-time and three part-time staffers will move into new and existing jobs, the station said.
"They're sad," Satullo said. "These people poured a lot of spirit and a lot of skill into this show. It was a good show that had a good run and it's not a reflection of the work people were doing."