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.
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.