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Photo: John Whipple

Finding Her Niche

Local public radio and TV fixture Susan Arbetter is part of a new movement in public broadcasting that’s happening in Syracuse—and she doesn’t have to leave Albany to join it

By Shawn Stone

It’s a recent afternoon at the Daily Grind on Lark Street in Albany, and Susan Arbetter, distracted, stops in the middle of answering a question: “I know that person.”

Of course she does. It happens again later on in the interview, too; everyone seems to know Susan Arbetter. Over the course of 13 years at public-radio powerhouse WAMC, she conducted hundreds of hours of interviews, hosted a variety of panel and call-in shows, and rattled off that ever-lengthening list of WAMC affiliates in countless station identification spots. Her voice became as identified with the station as that of its president, Alan S. Chartock.

She reaches out and taps the man on the shoulder as he and his companion are about to walk out of the café; they recognize each other immediately and fall into conversation. He’s with a local theater group, and had been a repeat guest on WAMC’s The Roundtable. This was once upon a time in a radio universe that seems long, long ago, when Arbetter was still the morning show’s co-host with Joe Donahue; before she left WAMC public radio for WMHT public television almost two-and-a-half years ago.

Now Arbetter has moved again, this time to WCNY, the public radio and television station in Syracuse. She’s not physically moving to Syracuse, however. She’s setting up shop as a full-time reporter covering politics at the New York state Capitol. There, she’ll be getting in on the ground floor of an expanding news operation, on both TV and radio.

“I started working with this station out in Syracuse in November of 2008,” she says, “for a town hall meeting with Gov. [David] Paterson. They didn’t have any political reporters, so they asked me to do it.”

The event went well.

“I met this team of people that I felt very comfortable with, and I knew I wanted to work with them,” she says.

“You don’t usually look to work for another station unless you’re going to move there,” Arbetter explains, “and I had no intention of moving there. Their president, Bob Daino, was interested in having me on their team in any way that I could be on their team.”

Robert J. Daino, a software entrepreneur with no broadcasting background, has shaken things up since being named president at WCNY almost four years ago. For one thing, he eliminated pledge drives. As Daino wrote on the station’s Web site recently, this month “marks our second year pledge-free. Of the 365 member stations across America, WCNY is the only station to go pledge-free.” They’ve made a go of this partially by creating new revenue streams, including a TV production-services company; now he wants to build on this success by becoming a primary Central New York news source.

“He’s a ‘get it done’ kind of person,” Arbetter says, “the way Chartock is a ‘get it done’ kind of person. There’s no meeting to have a meeting to have a meeting. I love that entrepreneurial spirit, which is what I grew up with at WAMC.”

WCNY, which has FM signals in Syracuse, Utica and Watertown, reaches 19 counties, an area roughly from Geneva in the west to Herkimer in the east, and from Watertown in the north to Ithaca in the south. The station’s territory is to the west and northwest of WAMC, and is borded on the south by WSKG radio and TV, the public radio source for the Southern Tier. WCNY’s TV reach, including both digital broadcasting and cable slots, is around 800,000 viewers.

“I’m working [to create] a live, daily radio show on state politics—and I’m feeling like I bought Park Place on the Monopoly board,” Arbetter says. “In 2010 all of the statewide offices are up for election,” she says, and the prospect of being in the thick of it all clearly has energized her.

“What I hope my show becomes is a program that reaches the NPR journalistic threshold. It’s not going to have any editorial slant. It’s going to have newsmaker interviews, analysis. . . . I would like to have some debates. A fun, intense, interesting, compelling program.”

“I’m not sure a good reporter can cover the Capitol really well without being there at least most of the time,” she says. “This move will allow me to spend almost every day at the Capitol.”

Talking with Arbetter in person is just like bantering back-and-forth with her on the radio. Which brings me to the full disclosure that I’ve been a regular guest on The Roundtable for years. And it was Susan Arbetter—with Joe Donahue—who recruited me.

This interview, however, is the first time I’d ever met her in person. Longtime WAMC listeners, and viewers of New York Now, the show Arbetter hosted on WMHT-TV, can be assured that she’s exactly the same in person as she is on the air.

Asked about her time at WMHT, Arbetter laughs. “You know that saying ‘It’s not you, it’s me?’ ” She says that, with WMHT, “It’s not them, it was me.”

“It was like growing up in a subversive, red-diaper baby household and marrying into the Reagan family,” she says, though the difference between WAMC and WMHT as institutions isn’t actually political, but cultural. Each station does things very differently.

“Both of them have a very, very good and useful place in the Albany market,” she says, “and Albany is lucky to have both.”

But Arbetter was concerned that hosting a single weekly public-affairs show, however fine an experience it was, had dimmed her visibility in the media world.

“The first week I was at WMHT,” she says, “I went over to Debbie’s Kitchen [in Albany], and Debbie said, ‘What happened? Why are you not [at WAMC] anymore?’ ”

She was also concerned that she didn’t have enough to do: “I can do more than 25 minutes on-air a week.”

“The two-and-a-half years I spent at WMHT were exceptionally challenging,” she says. “Without that experience, I could not do what I am doing now, developing a radio show from the Capitol. New York Now was my crash course in covering the Capitol.”

It was something of a learning curve for Arbetter, going from covering a variety of arts and news-related subjects from around the entire region, to just covering state politics in Albany.

“There are several people at the Capitol who have influenced how I view news reporting, especially political reporting. Number one among them is [Gannett’s] Jay Gallagher,” she explains. “On more than one occasion he walked me through budget briefings and budget books to find meaning behind the numbers.”

“It also helped considerably that I worked closely with former Inside Albany shooter”—that’s news-speak for videographer—“Mike Melita, who is as generous with his political knowledge as he is fearful of ‘dropping dead at the Capitol’ during the 953rd committee hearing on ethics reform.”

In addition to the radio show, Arbetter will also be on TV, on a live, nightly newscast from 6:30 to 7 PM called Central Issues.

“We’re not going to spend 30 seconds one story and then 30 seconds on another story; we’re going to do 10 minutes on one thing and 10 minutes on another thing,” she says, “with reporting and analysis. It’s the kind of thing commercial TV news doesn’t do, because it can’t.”

Yes, a smaller-market PBS station is going have a locally produced news broadcast.

Part of the reason WCNY is moving into local news so aggressively is the astonishing fact that one of the commercial TV stations in Syracuse, CBS affiliate WTVH-5, was absorbed by the NBC affiliate WSTM-3—and the entire news staff was let go. There’s still a “Channel 5” broadcasting CBS shows, but they simulcast news from the other station.

For 50 years, local commercial TV stations were, so to speak, a license to print money. Not any more.

A few weeks ago, Arbetter blogged (at her Times Union.com community blog) a breakdown of how she would be covering the Capitol as opposed to the Capital Region-based public broadcasting services. It listed: “Radio shows & reports—WAMC Northeast Public Radio,” “Radio show—Susan Arbetter,” “TV reports—Susan Arbetter” and “TV show—WMHT Educational Television.” It raised some eyebrows and, well, got her in trouble; Arbetter says it was taken the wrong way.

“I wanted people to understand that I’m not competing against any of my public-broadcasting brethren. I’m filling an available niche,” she says.

WCNY does hope, however, to syndicate the daily radio show across the state. And though it’s left unsaid, one wonders if and where the show might be broadcast in the Capital Region. But negotiations, as they say, are ongoing, and everything is undecided and nothing is likely to happen right away. In the meantime, Arbetter is focused on getting her studio up and running at the Legislative Correspondents Association Press Room, which is located on the third floor of the Capitol, and getting her show started.

“The new WCNY Syracuse Public Broadcasting studio,” she explains, “will be located in the decrepit plywood hut formerly occupied by the staff of the New York Daily News.” (The Daily News staff, Arbetter says, has been increased to four reporters, and they’re now located to the left of their former hut.)

“The plywood hut,” Arbetter says, “is considered ‘prime real estate,’ and I am very fortunate to be allowed to use it.”

She may not be completely in love with the aesthetics of the plywood hut, but the press room is another matter entirely.

“If you were going to remake The Front Page (or His Girl Friday), you could film it here without touching a thing,” she says. “ It’s straight out of 1931, except for the Blackberries.”

It’s a good thing she likes the place; she’s going to be spending a lot of time there.

“I’m going to have to learn to do a lot of technical stuff,” Arbetter says, “because for a while—just for a while—I’ll be pretty much a one-man band here.”


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