A Very Civil War – WGBH – WBUR – Boston public radio stations – Jon Abbott – Paul La Camera

Thanks to a series of moves late last year by public broadcasting giant WGBH, the Hub is now home to two all-talk public radio stations. Let the battle for the hearts and minds of tweedy, tote bag–loving Bostonians begin.

It looms over everything: the Mass. Pike to the north, Market Street to the west, the whole of scruffy Brighton in its shadow. The headquarters of public broadcasting behemoth WGBH reaches six stories high and spans two city blocks—an industrial outpost that doesn’t quite fit in here. The station would seem better suited across the river in Cambridge, among the well intentioned and well-to-do, amid the futuristic R&D facilities that serve the region’s tech industry. That’s where WGBH was for years, of course, before its ambition outgrew Cambridge and then the 12 buildings it had purchased on Western Avenue in Allston. But two and a half years ago, WGBH moved into this two-building, 309,000-square-foot corrugated-metal leviathan. A connector 50 feet above the street links the two facilities, allowing staffers to stay within the complex at all times, keeping the hoi polloi of Brighton’s bodegas and dive bars at a comfortable remove.

Inside, the main building has enough room for not only the requisite television studios, but also a 210-seat theater and a soundproof recording space large enough for a full orchestra. The whole thing, in its immensity, has the feel of a factory. Indeed, the project’s architect dubbed it "the idea factory."

Rightfully so. It is hard to overstate the importance of WGBH in the world of public television. Fully one-third of PBS’s national lineup comes out of WGBH, and the station commands a budget of $170 million ($26 million more than that of the nation’s next-largest public station, New York’s WNET). The list of shows produced here—including Frontline, Nova, and American Experience—is as stunning as the number of awards garnered by these same shows: 19 Emmys in 2009, 16 the year before that.

The station is a baron of educational, cultural, and public affairs programming, and on the afternoon of September 21 last year, its employees gathered to learn that the colossus had just gotten bigger. That day, WGBH announced it had bought the classical-music radio station WCRB, a commercial venture that had struggled in the ratings for years. WGBH already owned a radio station, 89.7, but its ratings were marginal and its programming was a jumble: It aired news in morning and afternoon slots, classical music in between, and folk, jazz, or Celtic on evenings and weekends.

The 47-year-old president and CEO of WGBH, a fast-talking, easily excitable man named Jon Abbott, told his employees that the purchase meant that WGBH could give listeners the single-format stations they wanted. It would allow the company to better market itself across another medium, à la ESPN, and give its journalists a chance to explore new roles within radio.

But the gathered employees knew the deal would mean something else, too. It would permit the station to push all its classical programming to WCRB and transform WGBH radio into an all-news NPR affiliate, a move that would set the stage for an exceedingly rare event in the tweedy world of public broadcasting: a fight. WGBH radio, after all, would now be in direct competition with one of the most successful public radio stations in the country.

The headquarters of WBUR couldn’t be more different from those of WGBH. For one, the station doesn’t exist at its given address, 890 Commonwealth Avenue. There, you see only a small arrow staked into the ground, which points toward the abutting side street and directs you to a stairwell and door halfway up the block. On the third floor of that building, past the reception desk, sits WBUR’s newsroom—a drab cubicle farm with fluorescent lights, tiny windows, and computers perched on "desks" roughly two inches apart. The studios, located down a second hallway, are similarly cramped.

Paul La Camera’s office is slightly better. He at least has big windows and a long sofa. La Camera is the general manager of WBUR, and he seems the opposite of Jon Abbott in almost every way. He’s calmer, older, tanner.

But La Camera is just as ambitious. The son of a newspaper columnist—La Camera’s father, Anthony, was the dean of Boston television critics at the old Record-American—he started working as a copy boy at age 16, got mostly average grades at Holy Cross, and went on to earn a master’s degree in journalism from Boston University. He ultimately went to work for the TV station WCVB, where he was one of the four people who created Chronicle, the nightly newsmagazine that, 28 years later, is still on the air. La Camera climbed the ranks at WCVB, eventually serving as president and general manager for 12 years, from 1993 to 2005.

La Camera came to WBUR four years ago, at age 62, to save it from an autocratic boss who had, among other things, buried the station in debt. La Camera still dresses like a television executive—conservative suits, crisp white shirts—and still talks like one, too. When the subject of his new competition comes up, he leans forward and says, "I’m going to defend WBUR with everything that’s left in me."

In fact, the battle with WGBH is likely to be as fierce as anything La Camera saw in the world of commercial broadcasting. Boston is now only the second U.S. market to have two all-news NPR stations (the other is San Francisco). That means two otherwise genteel stations vying for the same listener support, for the same underwriting dollars. For both, the civility of serving a city’s public radio audience is tempered by competition, the cold reality of countering each other’s programming.

That’s not to say the stations are on equal footing, though. WBUR is on many days number one in morning drive-time (astounding for a public radio station) and consistently ranks in the top five Boston stations for the coveted 25-to-54 demographic.

Yet La Camera is taking no chances. Within a week of WGBH radio’s all-news launch, he altered WBUR’s weekend schedule. He shifted two shows that had aired later in the day—Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me! and This American Life—to air at the same time as on WGBH. "[The move] is one that, you know, I didn’t necessarily relish," La Camera says. (Neither did the audience: The story on WBUR’s website announcing the programming change quickly became the most commented-on in its history, and almost all the feedback was negative. La Camera says he stands by the decision.)

La Camera also recently sent 33 of his 120 employees on a three-day retreat to hash out a strategy for the station in the wake of WGBH’s announcement. "It was very rewarding—and very successful," he says.

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  • Mike

    Nicely written article, I look forward to a few more on this subject. Two points, both regarding the same subject: Ms. Rivero, when delivering the news of the acquisition of WCRB to staff, did so in such a surprising (and dare I say “uncaring”) fashion as to elicit a wide range of emotions. There was a smattering of polite applause, but there were many gasps and mumblings. It should be noted though that it was Rivero’s prompting of the young woman who’s initial response was “What?” that brought out the rest of the confounded outcry. There was no sobbing involved. To be blunt, it was a poorly handled announcement – one that Ben Godley took over almost immediately.

    To Emily Rooney, who was not in the room at the time of the incident, and is in fact a manager herself, how dare you suppose anything in this instance!

    Both instances show just a small part of the WGBH disconnect, one that starts with its employees and extends out to the communities it is mandated to serve.

  • JC

    I agree wholeheartedly that the response to Ms. Rivero was inaccurately portrayed. There was no sobbing and no swearing. Just a response of, “what?” “how can you justify this purchase in the midst of the many cutbacks?” But this woman was professional in her handling of it and had every right to question it as did the many others who also expressed their concerns. Emily Rooney has no right to comment on something she was not privvy to.

  • kp

    Although a long time ‘BUR listener/contributor, I was interested to see what ‘GBH might add to Boston radio and did not necessarily see their expansion as detrimental. It hasn’t been long enough and I haven’t heard enough of GBHs new programming (though I will be sure to miss Ms. Rooneys showwhat an unattractive attitude) to know if the competition will enhance the over all reporting and programming availabe to the Boston market yet, but I do know that BUR’s website is far more user friendly, well designed, graphically appealing, and loaded with information about their programming thats easy to find. So far, the same cannot be said for WGBH’s 89.7 site. In this era, there is no excuse for such a dismal site. Let’s hope the station that prides itself on content makes it easier for listeners to access some from it’s website.

  • Scott

    The old WGBH studio campus mentioned early in the article weren’t in Cambridge, either. They were on the Allston side of the Western Avenue bridge. The original WGBH studios were indeed in Cambridge, but those went away in a fire in the 1960s.

  • Dan

    I believe that Seattle is a third market where there are two NPR affiliates with news/talk formats. One of the stations is KUOW. I don’t know the call sign of the other one. If I am wrong, I will be happy to be corrected.

  • Sam

    Seattle does have two NPR stations but they are not both news/talk formats. KUOW does all news/information. KPLU (in nearby Tacoma) does All Things Considered and Morning Edition (and a few other news/information programs) but is all jazz otherwise. In general, markets that have completely differentiated public radio formats have higher shares of listening. Minneapolis, Portland, and Washington, DC are perhaps the best examples of where things are working extremely well.

  • Kathy

    Huh? WGBH has not been in Cambridge for 40+ years. It was in Allston (Boston) for many years. I’m pretty sure that’s where I drive to work — the south side of the Charles River. And WBUR does have a daily local news show — it’s called “Here and Now” with Robin Young. How did this author get away with such gaping errors?

  • peachy

    Very telling of how the public station (for the people)runs it’s self!

    I hope that WBUR give those folks at One Guest Street a real run for their money – well if they have any left after the long time employee stole from them right under their noses for 10yrs., and then there HR nightmare – how mich will that cost them??? Inquiring minds want to know?

  • Noah

    Kathy,

    Here and Now is not a “local news show.” WBUR syndicates it to dozens of other stations, and there’s nominal coverage of local issues.

  • Crystal

    Well I live in Worcester and WBUR (Although the station I give money too and volunteer at the pledge drives) doesn’t always come in clear. Where as WGBH I can get almost anywhere within Mass/NE Connecticut and RI.
    There are programs I like on both. I love to listen to the Take Away early in the AM and then ONPOINT while at work. I believe both stations serve the community in many important ways.

  • Abe

    Maybe someday the Globe will get clued in to the real stink wafting out of that place – the rampant misuse of funds through the Executive friends and family network of consultants that get flown in from all corners of the earth and put up in opulent digs at Foundation expense. Some of these folks aren’t even legal to work in the US! I wouldn’t give them a penny.

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Abbot should be thinking about the new blood he’s brought into his organization. All their family and friends getting contracts to do work that has already been done, flying them in from all over the place. Sad state of affairs I’d say.

  • Larry

    I don’t see ‘BUR as the underdog. From a business perspective I think ‘BUR has the larger radio audience and probably more advertisers etc. It’s good to get some alternative programming even if it a majority is NPR. The new shows from ‘GBH are actually quite good. Competition is good. Emily Rooney’s daily is something that we need locally.

  • Silva

    Look past the nitpicking and you see two great institutions with very dedicated people producing great programs. Non-profits are messy organizations; always plenty to improve or complain about. BUR and GBH both have the numbers (and awards) to show they’re the best at what we need them to do. The competition will be healthy. Kudos to both CEOs for playing the game. Can’t fault them for trying some new things. We’ll wait to see what comes from this!

  • Mac

    Emily Rooney’s comments strike me as contemptible. Her lack of emotion and humor on air must be an accurate reflection of her character. She would have made a great French Queen…off with their heads. I can do without listening to her on the radio and viewing her bottomless “good will” on TV

    Nice to know that in times of true economic duress a WGBH talking head shows such concern for her fellow man/woman

  • Carl

    I am surprised to read the folks at WBUR think local programming gives them a competitive edge. I always felt people listen to NPR for the long form in depth news & information. Not what is happening at City Hall. Both stations have the ability to continue to serve listeners well. The listeners ultimately could be the real winners, as BUR and GBH compete and are forced to up their game and do their best work for their audience. Boston is lucky to have them both.

  • Kate

    I’m not sure what to believe here. For starters, the article begins with a ludicrous characterization of WGBH. Since when is it wrong in America for an organization to outgrow its original hoi polloi digs and aspire to grandeur? And WBUR as “a drab cubicle farm”? Come on. WBUR’s space IS limited by its location on a college campus, but it was an absolute state of the art broadcast facility when built in the late 1990’s – and is laid out so that almost every spot in the building gets natural light. I’d suggest Mr. Kix find other flames to fan.

  • Lee Ann

    Closer investigation would show that the New WGBH Building was paid for with the sale of its old facilities and a capital campaign to supplement the rest of the needed funds. It is almost certain that the purchase of WCRB is financed in such a way that is does not take revenue from the operating budget,either. WGBH does and will continue to provide exceptional public media services that need viewer and listener support, and deserve it. Do not begrudge them a building that isn’t dilapidated. They were in 10 buildings, most of them dilapidated, for many years before the new building.

  • Joseph

    WGBH Radio has had a nightly/overnight jazz block for years.

    Don’t be surprised if sometime later this year, jazz is eliminated abnd WGBH’s news/info format is extended around the clock.

    They could add CBC Radio’s “As It Happens”, and repeat “The World”, Emily Rooney and Callie Crossley, among others.

    The reason is money: News/info brings in the big pledge $$$. Music programming doesn’t.

  • Jim
  • Tammy

    When was this article published/released? I don’t see it on the story at all. Trying to find it… am I looking in the wrong place?

  • dan

    How the mighty have fallen. WGBH is doomed with crippling overhead and radio programs that sound like Geraldo Rivera on home-made whiskey.

    Who in the WORLD are these consultants, and who actually pays for this insane advise?

  • peggy

    I feel something close to grief in the abandonment of music on GBH. I learned so much from Robert J in the mornings and from Ron della Cheasa (sp?) on Music America. Eric in the Evening is now on too late to be my dinner companion anymore. CRB just isn’t the same.

  • b

    Emily Rooney was known at WCVB as “The Blowtorch” for a reason. She has always been cold and nasty. She fits perfectly with Abbott’s vision of the new WGBH. Morale is at an all time low and the pla

  • b

    Emily Rooney was known at WCVB as “The Blowtorch” for a reason. She has always been cold and nasty. She fits perfectly with Abbott’s vision of the new WGBH. Morale is at an all time low and the pla

  • Joe

    The results are in. Both are failing in presenting decent programming. ‘BUR’s early drive time with local items is unlistenable and self-serving (hunting for a Peabody Award?). On GBH’ “The Take Away” is ironic beyond coherence. For both what formerly was to some degree of “educational radio” has become attitudinal, self-serving, repetitive, and worst of all – boring. If ‘GBH drops Eric’s jazz, I am leaving.