By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Cutting Gordon’s knot

Dick Gordon is going out with a bang. Gordon, the host of “The Connection,” on WBUR Radio (90.9), was canned recently amid reports that station management believed ratings were “flat.” Yesterday, he fought back in the pages of the Boston Phoenix, telling Mark Jurkowitz, “I’m left wondering what possibly could have motivated them.” Today, Gordon has an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe. Among other things, Gordon writes:

GORDON: I’m still bewildered as to why the program was canceled. At a time when WBUR is clearly anxious about maintaining financial support from the public, they have taken down what they called their flagship program. “The Connection” was carried on more stations across the country than any other news show produced at WBUR.

They’ve talked about “flat ratings,” but “The Connection” has consistently had one of the top measures of listener loyalty at WBUR and some of the best such ratings among all NPR talk shows. Just over a year ago the station was boasting that ratings for “The Connection” were up 22 percent.

So what happened? As someone who followed WBUR for years, I think I can provide some perspective. After longtime general manager Jane Christo left the station last fall amid charges of mismanagement (and worse), the fear I heard voiced most often – even among Christo’s detractors – was that Boston University, which holds the station’s license, would start slashing the budget to get the operation’s massive debt under control.

Dick Gordon did an excellent job of hosting “The Connection.” His ability to broadcast from war-torn Iraq brought a dimension to ‘BUR that it hadn’t had with its other program hosts. He was also a gentleman, and I thoroughly enjoyed my one appearance on his show. But, as he acknowledges to Jurkowitz, he came in under a cloud, replacing the wildly popular Christopher Lydon, who was fired in early 2001 after he and his executive producer, Mary McGrath, demanded an ownership share of the program.

Following Christo’s departure, a WBUR source who would occasionally update me on internal discussions at the station told me that though management was believed not to want to start cutting too deeply, if things got bad enough, Gordon might go. This source assumed that managers saw Tom Ashbrook, the host of “On Point” – which will move to the 10 a.m. slot now occupied by “The Connection” – as a greater asset than Gordon.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened. And though Gordon and Ashbrook each bring considerable strengths to the microphone, Ashbrook comes across as having a more lively personality. If WBUR really couldn’t afford to keep both of them (and let’s not forget that the station’s signature hosts earn well into the six figures), then interim general manager Peter Fiedler probably made the right decision. (In another cost-cutting move, the station ended its relationship with award-winning documentarian Michael Goldfarb, who’s based in London.)

But what of the high ratings to which Gordon refers? Here’s where the economics of public radio enter in. Public radio these days is almost entirely privatized; a station such as ‘BUR exists primarily on listener contributions and advertising – that is, corporate underwriting. But though public stations have to be responsive to their audiences, they are responsive in a different way from commercial stations. Obviously ‘BUR is betting that it can nix “The Connection” without any falloff in contributions or underwriting, because people and companies give to the station as a whole rather than to any particular show.

If Fiedler and company are right, then ‘BUR will save itself a whole lot of money. A side benefit, as Jurkowitz notes, is that Ashbrook won’t have to compete with Lydon, whose new show, “Open Source,” emanates from WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) Monday through Thursday from 7 to 8 p.m.

What happened to Gordon was lousy. He will definitely be missed. But there’s no mystery to what happened. Jane Christo built a station that was more expensive than the community was willing to support, especially after the dot-com bust and the Lydon fiasco. Retrenchment was inevitable. As a frequent listener, I just hope this is the last of it.

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  1. Anonymous

    I wonder if a small item tucked away in Mark Jurkowitz’ article had as much to do with this as anything else? Apparently Dick Gordon refused to participate in WBUR’s fundraising pitches. If I were the boss and had to choose between my two talk-show hosts, that might play a part in my decision. But of course, I’d never say that out loud.Mark

  2. Adam

    So Dick Gordon may not have the most exciting demeanor, but I found him to be informative and an excellent host.Although I have not listened to Tom Ashbrook as much, I find his strange .. cadence and .. delivery a bit offputting. It seems like BUR is going with someone who has a personality a little more in the mode of the departed Lydon.

  3. Anonymous

    Anonymous has a point. If you’re not a team player in the media these days, you’re expendable. Dick Gordon, meet Flo Jonic…

  4. renton

    I personally liked Dick’s style better than Ashbrook’s, although hearing him talk always makes me think he was the radio version of Charlie Rose. I always liked how he introduced the topics at the beginning of the show–it always seemed like a lot of effort went into them, and they had a newsie, literary feel to them.

  5. Anonymous

    Only been in Boston for the last year – started listening to the connection and tried to phone in a few times. i was disappointed that calls were so heavily screened. It seemed quick judgements were made as to who was worthy enough to participate. I’m used to San Francisco’s Michael Krasney (KQED). Although there were the occasional “obscure” comments – the lack of screening incoming calls really allows for a true conversation and exchange. I’m sorry Mr. Gordon lost his job as well as those that supported the show, but as a newcomer – i’m excited to see what new energy can be brought to the airwaves.

  6. Anonymous

    Dick Gordon was the best I have ever heard in my 39 years. His approach to varied subjects and personalities could not have been better. Just a week before he was dropped I was thinking to myself how lucky I was to be able to experience so much through him and how my biggest donation to NPR would be this year and would be given primarily because of him. Guess what… no donation will be made because of this action…..

  7. Anonymous

    The lights, once bright, are being dimmed rapidly in these US of A.

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