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 Callous, often withdrawn, always intense, she wanted more than anything to see her ambitions for the station fulfilled.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each station, which made WGBH radio’s mixed format—news in the morning, classical in the afternoon, jazz at night—as outdated as a Studebaker.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

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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.