A Very Civil War
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.
In the beginning—back in the mid-1950s—WGBH had the feel of a theater troupe. Its producers thought up local shows, came together for 13 weeks to air them, and then brainstormed new ones. Money was tight in those years, the staff young. But the ideas were boundless.
One of the biggest ideas, in the mid-1970s, wasn’t for a show. It was more of a credo by which WGBH might thrive. The station had experienced some success producing Julia Child’s The French Chef, which had been picked up by scores of PBS stations across the nation. The idea was to try to replicate that success, to come up with shows with such universal appeal that they could launch as television series, airing season after season. No one today remembers whether this idea came from then–general manager Michael Rice or his successor, Henry Becton, or whether someone else suggested it and everyone just sort of adopted it as company policy. But this idea is how WGBH came to produce Masterpiece Theatre, Nova, and This Old House. “That,” says Chris Pullman, a former VP of design who worked at the station for 35 years, “really changed the self-image of ‘GBH.”
It didn’t change its spirit, though. WGBH was wildly entrepreneurial—a word not often associated with public broadcasting. By the 1970s, it had Club 44: a “wacky” show, Pullman says, in which newsmakers and entertainers gathered in a barlike setting, debating, drinking, singing, and generally expanding the boundaries of what an evening talk show could be.
Almost anything was worth trying in the 1970s. The Victory Garden, one of the first do-it-yourself shows, has had a great run despite the fact that it was first taped on the largely barren ground behind the WGBH studios. Nova came about when a young producer named Michael Ambrosino said, essentially, “You know, they have this science series in London. We should have one, too.” WGBH invented the idea of pledging, and membership drives, and sponsoring shows. In every pursuit, “that entrepreneurial spirit was there,” Becton says.
Because WGBH had built a track record of producing quality content, PBS came to the station in the early 1980s with the idea of doing an investigative news show. Frontline was born. And because, as Becton says, “people want to work where other interesting, creative people are,” Ken Burns found a production team for his films at WGBH.
The company also capitalized on the rise of personal technology, distributing segments of Nova and American Experience to any science or history teacher who wanted them. And because of the possibilities presented by the Internet, and squabbles with PBS over digital rights, WGBH began looking outside the public realm to produce certain shows: Peep and the Big Wide World, for instance, premiered on Discovery Kids, with a large component of the production being an interactive website. “By the beginning of the 2000s, we were definitely the 900-pound gorilla of public media,” says Pullman.
The ascension of WBUR from mangy college radio station to public radio powerhouse began, like WGBH’s ascension, in the 1970s. But WBUR’s rise was due almost entirely to the tempestuous brilliance of one woman: Jane Christo. She came to WBUR in 1974, an account executive at an advertising agency who was looking for a different career. Within five years, she was the station’s general manager.
Though WBUR is under the auspices of Boston University, Christo left no doubt that the station was hers. Gone were the how-to programs, the women’s programs, and the jazz, Latin, and alternative music hours of the pre-Christo era. In their place was news, which she saw as the means to distinguish the station and elevate WBUR’s status in the minds of Bostonians. WBUR was among the first to pick up the NPR news show Morning Edition when it launched.
Christo was also big on informed entertainment. She had the nervy foresight to think that two brothers from East Cambridge, who called themselves Click and Clack, could be a hit with listeners just by telling them what was wrong with their cars. She picked up lots of other programs before they were public radio favorites, such as This American Life and Talk of the Nation. And Christo launched WBUR’s own nationally syndicated shows, including Only a Game, The Connection, Here & Now, and the aforementioned Car Talk.
The station’s listenership tended to spike when big news happened: the Persian Gulf war, 9/11. But WBUR continued to reap the benefits long after those events had played out, as huge swaths of the new audience got hooked on the station. WBUR became a cultural icon of Boston, as indispensable as the Red Sox.
At Columbia University, Jon Abbott “basically lived” at college station WKCR, says Maria Hinojosa, who worked there with him and is today a journalist for PBS and NPR.
After getting his M.B.A. from Stanford and working for five years at KQED, the San Francisco public broadcasting station, Abbott moved to DC in 1992 to run PBS’s fundraising arm. There, he helped create a digital database of the network’s donors that was far more complete than the disparate, largely analog repository then in use. The new database called for donor information—age, income, show preferences—to be shared across stations. “I remember just being overwhelmed by him. He was talking so fast,” says PBS president Paula Kerger, whose introduction to Abbott was the meeting in which he pitched his database idea. She came away from that meeting thinking he was one of the smartest people she’d ever met.
Henry Becton was impressed, too. Then the CEO of WGBH, Becton tried to hire Abbott away to oversee station development. But Abbott didn’t want another fundraising job. A few months later the general manager spot came open, and Becton called again. This time Abbott accepted, moving his wife and two daughters to Boston.
One of Abbott’s first ideas for WGBH was something he dubbed “the Big Footprint.” When Abbott arrived at the station, he didn’t think all the wondrous work that WGBH did was receiving proper treatment. Staffers spent months working on a show, sometimes at the cost of millions of dollars, and then it would be broadcast once. Abbott liked what HBO was doing with its original series on World War II, Band of Brothers: promoting the show well before its debut, then airing it multiple times on multiple HBO stations. ‘GBH could do this, Abbott thought.
It helped that WGBH owned two channels: 2 and 44, which had previously served to counter each other’s programming. Abbott’s idea was to take a labor-intensive show and air it on 2, and maybe the same day on 44, then air it again later that week—or month. Thus: the Big Footprint, a phrase still used around WGBH. Though some at the station initially balked, the ratings showed the mark that the Big Footprint could make. Ken Burns’s Jazz, in 2000, was among the first to get the treatment. A series that normally would have reached 10 percent of Boston’s cumulative audience instead reached 36 percent.
As the years progressed, the Big Footprint evolved. Abbott pushed for signature shows to have a strong Web presence, so a program could be “almost like an art exhibit,” he says, something viewers could experience at any time.
In 2007, Becton stepped down after 37 years at the station. Under his watch, WGBH’s budget had grown from $6 million to $200 million, its staff from about 200 employees to 900. It was a good place to work—creative, respected by its broadcasting peers. Many employees had spent their whole careers there.
Abbott was seen as a capable steward in changing times, and he was unanimously approved by the company’s board as the next CEO. He immediately started thinking about how he could extend the Big Footprint.
For all of WBUR’s dominance and Jane Christo’s brilliance, the woman was widely seen as a tyrant. Callous, often withdrawn, always intense, she wanted more than anything to see her ambitions for the station fulfilled. Many people feared her. She would go years without learning some of their names; if a staffer wronged her, she could go years more holding a grudge, employees say.
In 2004, it was disclosed that under Christo the station had amassed a debt totaling $19 million, largely the result of imperial overreach and a foundering dot-com economy (though an alleged misuse of grant money—of which she was ultimately cleared—might not have helped matters). She resigned soon after. Peter Fiedler, a former television exec and assistant vice president at BU, came on as interim general manager and cut staff, killed The Connection, and put another show, Inside Out, on hold.
His replacement would be Paul La Camera. Disillusioned by the ADD culture of television news, La Camera left WCVB in 2005 and joined WBUR as general manager. He sought out the post as much as he was recruited for it. He’d admired the station for years. The work it did was as good as WCVB “in its best years,” La Camera says.
Since many of the hardest decisions had already been made, La Camera’s job was to soothe away bad memories and foster ingenuity. “Paul has created a great environment for people to thrive,” says Sam Fleming, managing director of news and programming at the station. “It’s very easy right now, under Paul.”
Eighteen months ago Abbott, WGBH chief operating officer Ben Godley, general manager for radio and television Marita Rivero, and a few other executives on the radio side met to consider the future of the station’s radio outlet, 89.7. Data clearly showed that listeners wanted to know exactly what they were getting from each station, which made WGBH radio’s mixed format—news in the morning, classical in the afternoon, jazz at night—as outdated as a Studebaker. WGBH considered altering the format of 89.7, but hesitated to make the switch. As a public broadcasting outlet, it saw its primary responsibility as being to the audience—however paltry—that enjoyed its different offerings.
When WCRB was put up for sale, WGBH executives saw their opening. The station had been on the auction block before, in 2005, but the price tag had been too high (Greater Media Inc. was rumored to have paid $90 million for it at the time). Four years later WCRB was under the control of New Jersey–based Nassau Broadcasting, which wanted to dump it as quickly as possible. WGBH was able to pick it up at a fire-sale price: $14 million.
WGBH officials boasted that the move “preserved” classical music for the Boston radio listener. True, but the purchase also saved the station from having to make a difficult choice: which format to cut. Now, all of WGBH’s classical music can be heard on WCRB. On WGBH radio itself, the all-news selections from NPR means the Big Footprint has reached another medium.
Many WGBH employees weren’t thrilled by the switch, however. The acquisition came at the end of a dismal year for the station. Local corporate sponsorship was down by as much as 35 percent; viewer and listener support by as much as 15. In April 2009, Abbott announced a one-week furlough for all nonunion employees in order to close a $3 million budget gap. It wasn’t enough. The unions representing WGBH workers were asked to forgo regular wage increases for a year and retirement matches indefinitely. That wasn’t enough, either. By the end of August, 33 employees had been laid off and five more had seen their salaries cut from full time to part time, says WGBH union representative Joe Montagna.
A few weeks later, Abbott announced that the company had purchased WCRB. “Amidst all this talk of doom and gloom, suddenly they come up with $14 million?” says WGBH union president Jordan Weinstein. What’s more, Weinstein and Montagna didn’t even know about the acquisition until 15 minutes before it was announced. “They pulled us aside and basically said, ‘Hey, this is going to happen,'” Montagna says. He and Weinstein were stunned.
So were others. On the day the purchase was made public, about 100 local radio and TV employees gathered to meet Marita Rivero. When Rivero, who had risen through the WGBH ranks alongside Becton, delivered the news, one woman sobbed and, according to numerous accounts, screamed something at Rivero to the effect of “Jesus, you’ve got a lot of nerve! I can’t believe this has happened.”
This wasn’t just fury over the company’s financial state. It was also the creeping clash between the old culture of WGBH and the new, between the way things had been and the way things would need to be. Abbott, of course, personified the new. Unlike Henry Becton, who had started as a producer at ‘GBH in 1970 and was a founding member of one of the unions, Abbott was a Stanford M.B.A. who’d come from the outside and started as an executive. However effective his ideas were for improving the company, each new mandate implied that the current way was inferior.
He’d hired Ben Godley, for instance. Whatever vitriol employees may have for Abbott (“He’s a slick guy…I don’t trust him,” one says), many really don’t like Godley, the company’s financial guru. He started at WGBH a year and a half ago, a marketing exec turned monetary adviser to—gasp!—Mitt Romney, during the latter’s tenure as governor and his presidential run. Godley sticks out like, well, a rich Republican at a liberal nonprofit. Many employees feel Godley is behind the initiative to ask longtime staffers below the ranks of management why, exactly, they aren’t climbing the company ladder—an initiative seen by many as an attempt to force people out. This is anathema at WGBH. Similarly, employees have balked at Godley’s request to have each division of the company pay for itself. For 50 years the books were always balanced without such a provision.
Godley seems to know that his reputation precedes him. In person, he hesitates before offering his bio, but is otherwise expansive on the minutiae of financing the WCRB deal. He explains how the $14 million needed for the purchase is being raised through a capital campaign that won’t affect the company’s operating budget. “We’re getting really nice support and strong commitments already [for the capital campaign],” Godley says. He expects the money to be raised well before the 10-year limit he imposed.
In the end, the acquisition is likely to even create jobs—a new station will bring new underwriters. “We’re cautiously optimistic,” Montagna admits. The announcement may have come at an inopportune time, but in truth there have been many inopportune times for many companies during this recession.
“Part of the problem with ‘GBH is there’s a culture of mollycoddling where everyone’s treated the same, and everybody’s patted on the back,” says Emily Rooney, host of Greater Boston on WBGH and The Emily Rooney Show on WGBH radio, one of the new local products. “Nobody’s feelings are ever going to be hurt. That’s nonsense. And that actually kind of has to stop.” Long before WGBH, Rooney was the news director at Channel 5, and says if that sobbing, shouting woman from the day of the WCRB announcement were her employee, “I would have fired her.”
In the four years since La Camera took over at WBUR, the station’s annual budgets have all carried a surplus, even as they have slowly increased (last year’s was $20 million, roughly equivalent to those in the fat times of Christo’s reign). La Camera has chopped the station’s debt to about $11 million, and managed to add staff. That was his big push when he signed on: getting more people to do more local reporting. Christo had wanted a local news element, too, but now there are eight full-time reporters at WBUR, a commitment matched by few other public radio stations. La Camera has also added a weekly newsmagazine/talk show called Radio Boston, which has its own staff of five. The WBUR website was recently overhauled to reflect a local bent, and more staff has been hired there. (All told, there are now 120 employees at WBUR.)
Initially, La Camera wanted an increased emphasis on local news because that’s what WBUR listeners said they wanted: Station polling showed that their interests were split evenly among local, national, and international affairs. But now the local element is also a way for WBUR to distinguish itself from its new competition (though WGBH is looking to hire a handful of local reporters, too).
WGBH executives repeatedly say they’re not in competition with WBUR, but it’s hard to imagine they actually believe that. For one, WGBH now bills itself on-air as “Boston’s NPR Station,” which is basically how WBUR has touted itself for decades. (“Pretty ballsy” is how WBUR online editor Andrew Phelps described the move in a recent tweet.) Second, after a WGBH anchor says, “You’re listening to WGBH,” often what the listener hears is that signature snippet that airs at the end of a WGBH-produced TV show, when the station’s call letters are displayed in their late-’70s red and yellow font: that vaguely synthesized/computerized melody that climbs quickly across the upper registers and explodes in a high note, just as the call letters themselves glow yellow. Jordan Weinstein, who in addition to being the union president is a WGBH radio anchor, calls the little riff a “brilliant” addition. It extends the brand of a great television station to another medium—the Big Footprint’s audible signature.
WGBH has also added two local news hours at noon and 1 p.m.: The Emily Rooney Show and The Callie Crossley Show. WBUR, despite all its reporting strength, doesn’t have a daily show. Local content is dropped into Morning Edition or All Things Considered or saved for Radio Boston. While the lack of reporters at WGBH may make the station’s midday shows just another series of yak-fests, ‘GBH’s pitch is clear: We’re offering local content at the same time, every day. (La Camera admits he’s considering a daily local news hour to better compete with WGBH.)
The most immediate benefit for WGBH, though, may be in new fundraising opportunities. Owning WCRB means WGBH can now seek underwriters for two stations that serve broad chunks of Boston’s listening audience—and behind those stations, the resources of the nation’s largest public broadcaster. “If I’m WBUR, I’d be looking for a partnership with another station right about now,” says Bruce Mittman, president of the ad agency Mittcom and owner of eight radio stations in upstate New York.
La Camera sniffs when he hears that. “Advertisers buy by demographic,” he says. In the most coveted demographic, 25 to 54, WBUR’s November listener share consistently outranked those of WGBH and WCRB by more than 5 full rating points, which is pretty much the difference between the top and the bottom of the market. “So, no. I’m not worried.”
WBUR also recently finished its best fall pledge drive, raising $1.2 million. The station has more than 600 underwriters—more than at any other public radio station—and despite what’s happened to the rest of the media industry, its underwriting dollars have held steady.
In early January, weeks after La Camera said he had little reason to worry about his station’s preeminence, the December ratings came out. He still needn’t worry. In the 25-to-54 demographic, from 6 a.m. to midnight, the station’s listener share ranked 10th overall. (WCRB and WGBH were 21st and 23th, respectively, out of the top 30 stations.) For morning drive-time for that same demographic, WBUR’s share was one-tenth of a percentage point shy of ranking first in the market. Corey Lewis, station manager for WBUR, says these numbers are so formidable because “they’ve been built up over time.”
But time is all WGBH has. The intent isn’t to wallop WBUR next month. Abbott freely admits he sees WGBH’s programming as only a “complement” to WBUR for the foreseeable future. Still, WGBH is too large, Abbott’s thinking too restless, the ambitions too grand, for the station to remain an also-ran forever. It may have grown through an entrepreneurial spirit, but WGBH these days makes few decisions lightly.
It’s not going away, in other words. And it has too many resources at its disposal to be taken for granted as a competitor. Paul La Camera knows this, and that’s why he’s sending out staff on retreats and tinkering with WBUR’s schedule. “The fact that we have such a head start, does that mean we’re untouchable?” he says. “That’s not my attitude.”