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.
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 Callous, often withdrawn, always intense, she wanted more than anything to see her ambitions for the station fulfilled.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each station, which made WGBH radio’s mixed format—news in the morning, classical in the afternoon, jazz at night—as outdated as a Studebaker.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."