A highly regarded national environmental radio network is among the latest casualties of journalism downsizing.

As of June 4th, “The Environment Report,” (TER) which not long ago had hopes of becoming a regular nationwide program, is being scaled back from a network heard on 123 stations to a program aired only on Michigan radio.

In pursuit of corporate underwriters to replace dwindling foundation support on which it had long depended, TER had tried to broaden its focus to be aired in major markets throughout the country.

“We knew it was a risk, but we just took a shot at it,” said Mark Brush, TER senior producer. But the risk didn’t pan out, and the project was unable to secure sufficient underwriting.

The program, launched as The Great Lakes Radio Consortium in 1995, had been funded by a variety of foundations. It provided a weekly feed of environmental stories to participating stations, many without their own reporters to cover the environment or simply seeking more coverage of the issue. Over time, the program became known for producing original and high-quality reporting on all aspects of the environment.

“We constantly asked ourselves, ‘How can we cover this story in a way that brings it home to the listener?,’” Brush said. The emphasis was on the personal aspect of environmental stories, including those dealing with climate change.

Rebecca Williams, a reporter and producer for TER, said the network provided unusual angles on climate change — such as one report on Native Americans losing land to climate change and another on a climate-change-related kitten boom.

Helping Audiences ‘Make a Difference’

Its “greenovation” stories attempted to satisfy listeners’ appetites for knowing how they could make a difference, offering advice, for instance, on how to reduce their carbon footprint.

Despite having won a number of awards for its coverage, however, foundation support began to dry-up with the sagging economy. A consultant suggested seeking corporate underwriting — a scenario likely only if more national stations in major markets would carry the stories.

So two years ago, the name was changed to “The Environment Report,” and programming took on more of a national focus. TER produced a four-minute daily show, run on 29 stations, and it increased its feed of stories from weekly to daily. That effort also hiked budget requirements from $350,000 to between $450,000 and $500,000.

Michigan Radio has contributed to TER in the past, but its portion has substantially increased. It had counted on TER to get roughly $300,000 from foundations this year, but that support dropped to $75,000, leaving Michigan Radio carrying the balance.

Listeners’ Judgment: Important, but not Essential

Testing the value of its investment, Michigan Radio earlier this year conducted a listener survey on overall station programming, drawing more than 1,500 responses.

Listeners said that TER was an important program, but they didn’t find a daily show essential and they wanted more state and local coverage. As a result, Michigan Radio decided to scale-back TER to a Michigan-only version, to be run by Rebecca Williams, a TER producer and reporter. Brush will stay on to run the station website, and long-time reporter and senior editor Lester Graham will start a new investigative arm.

“We were spending a lot of money on a national environmental service and our Michigan listeners wanted more statewide coverage. It was clear what we needed to be doing strategically,” said Tamar Charney, Michigan Radio’s program director. She also said that improved environmental coverage on public radio shows such as American Public Media’s Marketplace and on National Public Radio provided stiff competition for TER.

“And if national shows are doing it really well with their resources, there are other things we can do with local resources,” she said.

At the same time that TER is scaling-back, another regional program, The Ohio River Radio Consortium, was launched in January 2010 to cover environmental issues throughout the Ohio River Valley. Its founder, Donovan Reynolds, had helped start The Great Lakes Radio Consortium, TER’s predecessor.

Reynolds said he easily secured $100,000 in foundation funding for the new effort. (A report on this new show and on other regional environmental programming initiatives will be included in an upcoming posting to The Yale Forum.)

The Modules Challenge: ‘I Don’t Carry Modules’

Graham points to the broader environmental coverage by public radio programs and the dismal economy as key factors that spelled demise for the nationwide push. He says the four-minute show, a “module” that can be placed within an existing program, had also been a sticking point. He says he pushed for that approach because these shows are more likely to be aired during popular drive-time broadcasting, while half-hour or hour programs often are relegated to graveyard shift times with smaller audiences.

But he says radio program directors, particularly in the current economic climate, are risk-averse and reluctant to cut into national programming.

“I don’t carry modules,” said Christine Dempsey, chief content officer for WHYY in Philadelphia, one of the stations that TER had approached. She said airing those brief modules cuts into possible local coverage, or announcements to thank underwriters, which are crucial to maintaining their funding sources.

Steve Edwards, director of content development at WBEZ in Chicago, said he had carried TER from its start, and “was a fan of what they were trying to do.”

But he agreed with Dempsey that it is tough to find appropriate places for airing modules. And he underscored that the tight funding climate increases pressures to succeed right off the bat, a tough job when it takes time to build an audience. “TER was only given a year-and-a-half and that’s not a lot of time,” he said.

Funding Challenges Confronting ‘Science Friday’

Programmers appear to agree that the climate for adding new shows can hardly be more challenging. Ira Flatow, host and executive producer of NPR’s “Science Friday” for the past 20 years, now heard on 300 stations, says his program too is facing unprecedented challenges.

The show is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation and by a few individual foundations. But two years ago, NPR, which long had taken the lead in securing corporate underwriting, said it would no longer do so.

Flatow said in a telephone interview that he increasingly finds he has to spend time doing fund-raising rather than working creatively on the editorial side. He said those fund-raising activities cut into science and environment coverage at a time when he thinks his audience wants more of it.

“The Environment Report” was clearly a victim both of the sagging economy and of the pressures facing specialized programming, and stations that had carried it will feel the absence.

News Director Mark Scott, at WBFO in Buffalo, New York, for instance, had aired the program and its daily show. With a small newsroom and limited resources, “it was nice knowing that if there was an issue involving the Great Lakes or invasive species, that Lester would be on top of it.”

Rebecca Williams says she is pleased that she’ll have the chance to continue hosting the program’s Michigan show, but she acknowledges the limitations of the more targeted effort. “I like to think we were making a special effort to tell really relevant stories. We had a unique product.”

Julie Halpert

Julie Halpert is a freelance journalist with more than two decades of experience covering the environment. Her work has appeared regularly in dozens of national publications including Newsweek, The New...