Not so fast: New shows still in talking stage at WBEZ

Chicago Public Media bosses are proceeding with an ambitious five-year plan to add more original local programming during middays Monday through Friday on WBEZ-FM (91.5).

But they disputed a report by Crain’s Chicago Business this week that the station’s flagship morning newsmagazine, Eight Forty-Eight, will “take a month off” while the future of that program and the international affairs talk show Worldview are being reviewed. Crain’s attributed its report to unnamed sources.

“The Crain’s reporter was looking for a conclusion that we are weeks — if not months — away from reaching,” Torey Malatia, president and CEO of Chicago Public Media, told me. “All that happened was that we started a discussion about a very important plan to add original local production. It’s going to take some time to know what we’re doing. And I don’t know why there was this desire to assume that whatever starts out in the discussion is the end of it. Why would we have any more meetings if that were true?”

As first reported here in August, Malatia presented a strategic plan to the board of Chicago Public Media that would boost significantly the output of news and information between the drive-time fixtures of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered on WBEZ over the next five years. One scenario involves replacing Eight Forty-Eight, which now airs at 9am weekdays, with two new programs — one to air in the morning and the other in the afternoon.

“The idea here is to add hours — not to take away hours,” Malatia said Tuesday. “We have two hours now [Eight Forty-Eight and Worldview] that we do Monday through Friday. We’d like to add one more before the summertime, and we’d like to add one or maybe two next fiscal year, which is from July 2012 through June 2013. Over a period of time, we want to add hours and do more live, original talk during the day. It’s not in our interest to go backwards. It’s in our interest to add.”

Eight Forty-Eight typically takes the last two weeks of the year off, with original programming replaced by “best of” shows and other specials. When asked hypothetically at a staff meeting Monday whether that hiatus might be extended if a new show were to be launched in January, Malatia said his response was: “If that’s what we need, that’s what we’ll do.” But he added that he would consider such a move undesirable and unlikely.

“We talked about shooting for February to see if we might get something together. Then we talked about March. Then we talked about whether we could do it sooner in January. It was all over the place. So to say that anything definite came out of that would not be right.”

Basic questions about format, hosts and producers are still under discussion, according to Malatia, who said: “We mainly talked about how we could coordinate this with Internet, what we could do online and on air, and how we could make maximum use of producers. When you do a magazine, it’s a production-intense format that requires 100 percent effort from everybody to fill the segments. What we’re trying to do is to find a modified way of doing discussion programming that incorporates more product that has been pre-produced from the reporters and the city room, as well as what the bloggers are doing, and use some of that material for broadcast.”

When pressed for a prediction, Malatia said he doesn’t expect any new programming to be launched until March.

(Full disclosure: I worked for Chicago Public Media as a blogger last year.)

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)