Fear on the Air

To hear current and former WBUR employees tell the story of Jane Christo's reign as the public radio station's general manager, you'd think she was a Soviet-era despot. The language they use paints Christo as a modern incarnation of Ceausescu or Honecker. It's an absurd analogy, of course, but words like “fear” and “sycophants” and “fiefdom” are thrown about with such frequency that they conjure up absurd analogies. The sense of helplessness and anxiety is so palpable that when asked why no one ever complained to Christo directly, one assistant producer says desperately, “Have you ever met her?”

You just didn't face off against Jane Christo. She could go years without learning a staffer's name. She possessed a short temper and a vulgar mouth and was known for holding grudges, sometimes for years, waiting for the right moment to exact revenge. She surrounded herself with submissive managers, mostly men, who rarely questioned her. “Marshmallow men,” one employee calls them. “Dissension was considered mutiny. The atmosphere of secrecy and misinformation — it's all true.”

It was a love-hate relationship, though. WBUR employees admire Christo for transforming the Boston University-owned station from a blip on the dial when she took over in 1979 into the renowned NPR powerhouse it is today. They respect her programming decisions, such as installing an all-talk news format and developing nationally syndicated shows such as The Connection.

Still, they despised her management style and the “poisonous” environment they say she created. “If you were to interview 100 WBUR employees, 99 will tell you they were second-guessing managerial decisions,” says one producer. “Everyone was, and still is, disgruntled.”

At the first sign of weakness, Christo's enemies struck. That moment came in September, when Christo made the surprise announcement that two satellite stations in Rhode Island were to be sold. The proposed sale agitated the Rhode Island attorney general, which emboldened WBUR insiders to send an anonymous letter to Christo's bosses at BU containing a litany of accusations.

The university launched an investigation that looked into questions of nepotism (Christo's son, Zachary, was a WBUR web programmer) and the patronage hires of a dozen or so Albanian immigrants (Christo's husband, Van, runs an Albanian immigrant support agency). It examined accusations that Christo awarded a no-bid contract to a printing company where her stepson once worked and diverted WBUR funds and station-owned vehicles for her personal use. “I never bothered asking for a car because the cars were never available,” says one WBUR reporter. A few weeks later, Jane Christo resigned. To celebrate, a group of former employees threw a “Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead” theme party.

Even now, after Christo's fall, current and former employees are unwilling to speak openly about her or the station. From producers to reporters to receptionists, they're still worried about recrimination. Employees are also worried about job cuts. Last month, eight were let go. Interim general manager Peter Fiedler has warned the rest not to talk to the press. Christo and Fiedler both declined to comment for this article.

“Jane's story is a tragedy in a lot of ways, a classical Greek tragedy, Shakespearean,” says one former WBUR staffer. “She was a larger-than-life character, and she almost had to fall.”

In the late '90s, the thought that two little AM stations in Rhode Island would bring down Jane Christo was laughable. Even after all the negative press, she is still revered: She received a warm ovation at a WBUR dinner for former Morning Edition host Bob Edwards in November, a month after stepping down. Over her 25 years, she transformed a glorified college radio station with a $250,000 annual budget and 60,000 listeners into a $20 million operation with an audience of more than half a million. She replaced the penny-ante music shows and mom-and-pop how-to programs with high-rolling, far-reaching fare like All Things Considered and cutting-edge newcomers like This American Life. The station then developed original programs, such as the quirky sports weekly Only a Game and the erudite talk show The Connection.

Then, in a sort of public-radio imperialism, WBUR began expanding its reach. In 1998, the WBUR Group put up a reported $2.4 million to buy two stations in Rhode Island, WRNI in Providence and WXNI in Westerly. The Foundation for Ocean State Public Radio kicked in roughly $3 million, all raised publicly. The deal looked good for everyone: Rhode Islanders were promised locally based programming backed by the muscle and prestige of a nationally respected public radio outlet, and the WBUR Group got 4 million potential additional listeners.

An empire was taking shape. The homegrown shows were doing well nationally and accolades were pouring in, including the broadcast equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, the Edward R. Murrow Award. The dot-com boom spurred corporate underwriting to unprecedented levels, and Christo took advantage of the opportunities. In 1997, a state-of-the-art $2.5 million studio was completed with conference rooms renowned in NPR circles for their plushness. Fresh-cut flowers were regularly delivered, and free lunches were provided for the staff on Fridays, often on trade, meaning underwriters paid for airtime with them.

But troublesome vapors hung in the air: a doomed unionization movement and the controversial firing of producer Ken Bader for insubordination in 1997 (he bristled at reading an ungrammatical on-air promo). Then the dot-com bubble burst. Corporate underwriting for WBUR plummeted from $8.6 million in 2001 to $5.7 million in 2002. Between 2001 and 2003, the station racked up more than $12 million in debt; between 1999 and 2003, WRNI alone bled $9.4 million.

The money problems amplified Christo's managerial transgressions. Vendors, including freelancers, consultants, even the phone company, were paid late — sometimes up to a year late. Insiders think this was done to push the costs into the next fiscal year. One producer warned freelance reporters about the late payments and was told by a manager to stop because releasing such information “gave the station a bad reputation.” “I told him, 'No, not paying them gives the station a bad reputation,'” the producer recalls.

Christo's public spat with Christopher Lydon, the well-liked host of The Connection who she ousted when he asked for ownership of the program and a greater share of revenues, solidified her heavy-handed image, even though many observers agree that she was in the right. Others, however, hammer Christo for firing business journalist Steve Tripoli. The official line, says Tripoli, is that he was sacked for “economic reasons”; he was one of the station's highest-paid reporters. But Tripoli claims it was actually retaliation because he questioned the firing of Ken Bader. “I wrote a letter to Jane,” he explains. “I was summoned to her office. Jane was pacing. My letter was on the glass table. She abruptly stopped pacing and said, 'You know, if you fuck with me, there will be no place you can hide.' That's what passed for professional management at WBUR.”

Meanwhile, WBUR staffers say, more and more Albanians were being hired. Up to a dozen were on the staff when Christo resigned. “Why lay off Steve Tripoli, a business reporter, just when the biggest economic story of our lifetime is under way?” asks a producer, referring to the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks. “And you're hiring two Albanians to deliver the mail?”

On Friday, September 17, Jane Christo walked into the WRNI studios in Providence and announced to some of the station's biggest donors that WRNI and WXNI would be offered for sale on the following Monday. She further shocked her audience by claiming the sale wasn't for financial reasons, saying the local community should take over. But she gave that community only a weekend to react.

“She thought we'd just roll over,” says Gene Mihaly, president of the Foundation for Ocean State Public Radio. “To say there was outrage is to put it mildly. We grabbed the press and called the attorney general and the governor.”

Very quickly after the WRNI explosion, Christo's carefully controlled world unraveled. Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch asked BU to delay the WRNI sale until he could look into it; BU complied immediately, and the sale remains on hold. Then the anonymous letter showed up. “When you run an autocracy, like Jane did, lots of people hate your guts,” Mihaly says. “When you have a fissure, people get brave.”

The university's investigation into WBUR was completed in six weeks. The official report has not been publicly released, but a summary did its best to dismiss the allegations. It stated, among other things, that there had been “no misuse or mismanagement” of gift funds, a finding Lynch calls “shocking.” The investigation found only a “very limited number” of no-bid contracts and that only one unnamed employee had inappropriately used WBUR vehicles. It found “nothing illegal” about the station's hiring practices, though it did indicate that WBUR was not in compliance with the university's hiring policies. WBUR is one of only two departments at BU with its own human resources director (the med school is the other), and BU officials say the university's new policies had not yet been implemented at the station.

Many employees wonder whether BU was at least partially responsible for the Christo affair in the first place. After all, BU officials signed off on the budget deficits each year and covered WBUR's losses through loans to the station, some of which have to be repaid with interest. Christo's hiring of her son was okayed by BU Executive VP Joe Mercurio. Reports of her iron-fisted management style are not new: A 1997 Boston Globe profile in the wake of station layoffs called Christo an “aloof, devoted, intense, insensitive, shy, tyrannical perfectionist.” The ousters of Lydon and Tripoli hinted loudly at the repercussions of crossing her.

“Why did BU let her do this?” wonders one current staffer. “If you do, aren't you at least as culpable?” Yes, according to Christo's lawyer, Max D. Stern, who says most of her business decisions were made “with the full knowledge” of BU.

Mercurio says the station's autonomy, which was put in place deliberately to ensure its journalistic independence, kept BU officials out of the loop. “The sort of interrelationship between WBUR and the university grew out of the desire to permit WBUR to be as independent as possible given what the mission is,” he says. “There are problems there that we now can acknowledge that we have had, that we are aware of, that we were not formerly aware of.” He adds, “No one has ever come to me and complained about Jane Christo. The fact that there's animosity toward her comes as a surprise.”

Some WBUR insiders believe Christo was a relic of a bygone era when John Silber ran BU with his own brand of visionary but tough tactics. Since Silber's departure and Daniel Goldin's subsequent short-lived appointment to the presidency, the university has made efforts to repair itself. The board of trustees has seen a kind of purge and has tackled prickly governance issues, including term limits and conflict-of-interest rules. BU's interim president, Aram Chobanian, has worked hard to regain the trust of students, faculty, and alumni.

Under this new regime, Jane Christo's style simply couldn't exist.

WBUR employees see positive signs. The unsuccessful “Citizens of the World” program, which took groups of listeners on trips to exotic destinations, has been shut down. So have the free Friday lunches. The business consulting firm Grant Thornton has been called in.

“People feel empowered again,” says a reporter. “We have an obligation to take over and steer it where it should go. I don't feel fear anymore. And now I can ask for a car and actually use it for work.”