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    Sunday, February 25, 2024

    OPINION: Criticism of its stories on Westerly beach access forces NPR station to leave United theater

    In this Day File photo, a crew from Poyant Signs of New Bedford, Mass., installs the marquee Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, on the facade of the United Theatre in Westerly.

    The Public’s Radio, the NPR member station in Rhode Island, which has been operating a news bureau and studio in a storefront at the restored United theater in Westerly, is planning to leave because of continuing criticism by theater board members of its coverage of beach access conflicts in Watch Hill.

    Torey Malatia, chief executive officer of the public radio station, said Thursday the station proposed some new programming and tried to improve its collaboration with the theater and stay, but that criticism of its beach access news stories from certain board members has created too much tension.

    The theater has not charged rent for the space, which is equipped with a studio with $60,000 to $70,000 worth of equipment provided by the Champlin Foundation.

    “Some members of the board of the theater did not like the association with the station because we report on things like public access to the beach,” he said. “There’s been a longstanding kind of tension.

    “It’s an important story and we are committed to it …. It is better to distance ourselves.”

    The board of the nonprofit theater, which has been developed and nurtured by philanthropist Chuck Royce of Watch Hill, is populated by many Watch Hill summer residents who are also involved in organizations fighting the town over access to the shoreline in their neighborhoods.

    Both the Watch Hill Conservancy, a nonprofit, and the Watch Hill Fire District this year filed a lawsuit against the town to challenge the legal access to the unspoiled beaches at Napatree Point that the public has enjoyed for decades.

    Both the founder of the conservancy and its current chairman currently serve on the United Board. The attorney for the Weekapaug Fire District, which has also been in litigation with the town on beach access, is also on the theater board.

    Another public access rift between the town and Watch Hill organizations involves a contest over ownership of the Watch Hill Lighthouse ― declared federal surplus ― which is being sought by both the town and the rich Watch Hill nonprofit that has been managing it for the Coast Guard.

    The town says it will continue public access. The nonprofit, which had refused to make public its application for the property, said in it that it could not promise continued public access, according to the excellent reporting by the Public’s Radio, which obtained the application through a Freedom of Information request.

    The station also revealed, through an FOI request, that the Watch Hill Fire District had been paying the former president of the Westerly Town Council tens of thousands of dollars to monitor politics in town. The president eventually resigned after threatening during an executive session to go outside and fight another councilor, a beach access advocate.

    Another theater board member is a Realtor who specializes in Watch Hill mansions, having boasted last summer of selling a $9 million house in less than two hours.

    And another is a photographer whose website says his work focuses on “revealing portraits of American elites,” with many of the photos shot in grand locations in Watch Hill.

    Several of the photos in his book are of “elites” lounging around a swimming pool that looks down at the lighthouse and the road through mansions that is part of the controversy of maintaining public access there.

    When I asked the theater to comment about the radio station’s decision to leave, I got an emailed statement from Royce.

    “I have been in ongoing conversation with Torey Malatia on the future of NPR’s use of the United space.  At no point did I or the board ask NPR to relocate,” he wrote, saying the theater is assessing the use of all of its space as it grows.

    “I remain committed to NPR’s mission and its location in downtown Westerly and am meeting with Torey on Friday.  If NPR decides to relocate, I will aid them in any way I can to find a new location.”

    Malatia said the station is very committed to its coverage in Westerly and South County, with plans under way to use a new transmitter located in Richmond to better serve the region. It will simulcast the programming now on 89.3 on a new frequency, 89.5.

    “We love the theater. We care about it, and we want to keep a good relationship,” said Malatia. “Maybe some people on the board just don’t know what journalists do.”

    This is the opinion of David Collins.


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