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.

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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.