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

The return of Christopher Lydon

Christopher Lydon

Christopher Lydon

There’s big news in the Boston public radio world, as Christopher Lydon returns to the airwaves tonight at 9 with “Radio Open Source,” the radio/podcast interview program he’s been doing for some years now. He’ll be on for an hour every Thursday, with weekend rebroadcasts.

And in a sign that times change, he’ll be doing it on WBUR (90.9 FM), from which he and producer Mary McGrath — who still works with Lydon — memorably departed in 2001. Lydon and McGrath got into a dispute with then-general manager Jane Christo over the ownership of “The Connection,” the show they helmed at the time.

Lydon officially announced his return on Monday. The Boston Globe’s Joe Kahn reports on it today, the morning of Lydon’s debut.

Technically this is more of a ramp-up than a return: Lydon had been appearing regularly on Jim Braude and Margery Eagan’s show, “Boston Public Radio,” on WGBH (89.7 FM). I’m a paid contributor at WGBH, but I think it’s self-evident that the rivalry between the two public radio powerhouses has led to better local programming at both stations.

Here is what I reported for The Boston Phoenix in 2005 as “Open Source” was about to launch at UMass Lowell. (Lydon and company eventually affiliated with the Watson Institute at Brown University.)

Lydon is an on-air legend and McGrath knows how to do terrific radio. Best of luck to both of them.

Photo (cc) 2012 by Mark Fonseca Rendeiro and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. Chris has great institutional memory, cultural chops, and fearless analysis of the local scene. Wonder why ‘GBH isn’t interested in giving him a slot. He’d be fresh completion for ‘BUR’s Tom Ashbrook. And ‘GBH has been fooling with 10-12 noon anyway. Though there may be a sameness issue with Eagan and Braude.

    Also, it strikes me that 9 PM Thursday -one hour- is odd and borders on insult. Is anyone listening?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike: This is conjecture on my part. But I was scrolling through his archives this morning, and I saw that he’s been doing the podcast weekly for quite a while — so maybe he only wants to do a weekly show at this point in his career. And that makes it difficult to schedule in a primo time slot.

  2. I stopped listening to WBUR after Lydon departed. No matter what the topic, no matter how esoteric, he drew me in. The Connection was some of the best radio I have ever heard, and the show should have been promoted across the nation. Lydon should have been given the chance make a go of it. Good luck to Lydon. I hope to catch the weekend rebroadcasts.

  3. Aaron Read

    I would imagine the Thursday 9pm timeslot is a combination of what WBUR is willing to give and what Lydon is willing to accept. Assuming that the show is truly “live” and not pre-recorded, then 9pm is about the only timeslot that’s available.

    Since the show is slated to repeat on the weekends, I have to assume that Lydon himself didn’t want to do a live show on a weekend. Certainly there’s a much smaller staff in the building on the weekends so there’s fewer resources (even compared to a 9pm show). But we’ll assume for a moment that Lydon wanted to “work on the weekdays”.

    We’ll also assume that WBUR (and the “angel investors” mentioned in the article) wasn’t prepared to pay for the three to five staff members necessary to produce a high-quality DAILY talk show. Probably it’s just Chris and Mary producing the show, plus a “part time” engineer and call screener. And by “part-time” I mean they’re probably full-time employees of WBUR, who have had their job descriptions modified so they do Lydon’s show for one day a week; the Only A Game Tech Director traditionally had a similar arrangement with Car Talk back when they were in full weekly production. This is all speculation, but the logic adds up as to why it’s just a weekly show and not a daily.

    Now, with that all in mind…

    Can’t do 5am to 9am, that’s Morning Edition and the prime moneymaker; can’t interrupt that for a once-a-week show.

    9am to 10am is a possibility with the BBC World Service. But it’s very not-ideal to break up a consistent BBC international news sound with Lydon, regardless of how good he is, for just one day a week.

    10am to 12n is On Point, a flagship NPR show that WBUR produces. Can’t interrupt that.

    12n to 2pm is Here & Now, another flagship NPR show that WBUR produces. Also can’t interrupt that.

    2pm to 3pm is Fresh Air. Maaaaaybe you could blow out Fridays for Lydon here; Fridays tend to be Fresh Air’s weakest day. But Fresh Air is still REALLY popular and WBUR messes with that audience at their peril.

    3pm to 4pm is Radio Boston, their flagship local show. Can’t interrupt that. Well, maybe you could. But WBUR is paying a lot of money to produce RB and they want to get their money’s worth out of it. Paying the same for salaries but losing 20% of the return on investment every week is a hard pill to swallow.

    4pm to 7pm is All Things Considered and Marketplace. Again, it’s drive-time so it’s a prime moneymaker and you can’t interrupt that for a once-a-week show.

    7pm to 9pm is a rebroadcast of On Point. Now maybe you could blow out one hour a week here. But it’s WBUR’s own show and it’s a big deal. And like Radio Boston, WBUR pays a lot of money to produce On Point so they want to get the maximum ROI by airing it as much as possible. I can see why they wouldn’t want to nuke that.

    That leaves us with anytime between 9pm and 5am. And, well, there you go.

    Also, Lydon’s good. I mean, he’s really good. And he’s got a proven history (which cuts both ways, admittedly). But he’s been off of WBUR’s airwaves for twelve years. Nobody should just blithely assume that he’d automatically be the huge audience draw he was back in the 1990’s. Times have changed. Audiences have changed. Hell, Lydon himself has changed. I wouldn’t want to just dump him in a prime timeslot and pray he’s still got it *and* still wants to have it. At a minimum I’d want to ease things in for a few months.

    OTOH if, in six months, he suddenly gets obscenely high ratings at that timeslot then I imagine he and WBUR will have a chat about maybe ramping things up to a better timeslot. 🙂 Or maybe not. Who knows? I’d argue Chris has little to prove at this point.

    FWIW, I, too, am somewhat mystified as to why WGBH didn’t lock him up before WBUR did. Presumably they have had the ability and the flexibility. I don’t get it. (shrugs) Certainly I have an admitted bias in favor of WBUR beating WGBH given my current employer, so I’m glad he’s at WBUR. 🙂

    • Thanks for the gut work and analysis. I totally agree, particularly on why WGBH didn’t go for Lydon. He already has a little gig with Braude & Eagan there on Thursdays. I suspect On Point beats Diane Rehm and the Takeaway in the 10-Noon slot. Just a thought.

      And to be aggravating, dare I mentioned the Irish music weekend wasteland on WGBH. A fishing show would be great – with an Irish music soundtrack, of course. 🙂

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