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.