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.
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.