Flashback: Emily Rooney and public broadcasting in 1997

On Feb. 6, 1997, just after the debut of “Greater Boston” on WGBH-TV (Channel 2), I wrote an article for The Boston Phoenix on the state of the city’s two major public broadcasters, WGBH and WBUR. It was the first time I’d met the host, Emily Rooney. The original is online here, but, as you will see, it’s unreadable; thus, I have reproduced it in full below. In re-reading it, I was struck by what an interesting moment in time that was, with many of the same names and issues still with us 17 years later.

Making waves

With commercial stations going lowbrow, Boston’s public broadcasters are fine-tuning their strategies. The question: are WGBH & WBUR doing their duty?

Copyright © 1997 by the Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.

GB_largeplayerEmily Rooney is taping the intro to a segment of WGBH-TV’s new local public-affairs show, Greater Boston. Or trying to, anyway. It’s been a long day. Her feet are killing her. And her first few attempts at hyping an interview with Charles Murray, the controversial academic who’s currently promoting his new book on libertarianism, haven’t gone particularly well.

After several tries, though, she nails it. “That was warmer,” says a voice in the control room. “That was very nice.”

She sighs, visibly relieved at getting a break from the unblinking eye of the lens.

Rooney, the former news director of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), may be a respected newswoman, but the debut of Greater Boston last week showed that her transition to an on-camera role is going to take some time. And if Rooney and Greater Boston are struggling to find their voice, so, too, is WGBH.

This is, after all, the first significant foray into local public-affairs programming for WGBH (Channels 2 and 44, plus a radio station) since 1991, when it canceled The Ten O’Clock News. The new show is a huge improvement over the one it replaces, The Group, an unmoderated roundtable discussion that rose from the ashes of the News. (“A tawdry, pathetic little show,” huffs one industry observer of The Group, widely derided as “The Grope.”) Still, Greater Boston is going to need some work. Week One’s topics, which included the Super Bowl and cute animals, were too light and fluffy to qualify the show as a must-watch. And Rooney, who doubles as Greater Boston‘s executive editor, needs to overcome her on-the-set jitters.

It’s crucial that ’GBH get it right. With commercial broadcasters in full retreat from serious news and public affairs, public-broadcasting stations are the last redoubt. Boston’s two major public stations — WGBH-TV and WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) — are among the most admired in the country. It’s by no means clear, however, that the people who run those stations are willing or able to fill the gap created by the commercial stations’ retreat into sensationalism and frivolity.

At the moment, the two stations are moving in opposite directions, with WBUR casting its glance well beyond Boston and WGBH finally turning its attention to its own backyard.

Since the 1970s, WBUR has emerged as the most reliable, comprehensive source of news and information on the Boston broadcast spectrum, offering a wide range of national and international news from National Public Radio, the BBC, and other sources. Its local news coverage, though not extensive, is competent and thoughtful. What’s come to be the station’s signature program, though, is The Connection, a two-hour daily interview and call-in show hosted by that quintessential Bostonian Christopher Lydon. Yet now WBUR is trying to take The Connection national, running the risk of diluting its uniquely local character.

WGBH-TV, meanwhile, has been struggling for decades to define exactly what its local presence should be, starting with the late Louis Lyons reading the news in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, through The Reporters in the early ’70s, and, finally, The Ten O’Clock News — co-anchored, ironically, by Chris Lydon — whose run from 1976 to ’91 was second only to that of Lyons’s show. Following a period of retrenchment over the past six years, when the station’s only regular local public-affairs shows have been The Group, the black-oriented Say Brother and the Latino-oriented La Plaza, ’GBH is at long last attempting to renew its commitment with Greater Boston.

Both WGBH and WBUR are doing a generally capable job of serving the local community, a concept that is itself more expansive than it would have been, say, 30 years ago: their signals reach well into southern New Hampshire, Central Massachusetts, Cape Cod, and Rhode Island, with ’BUR getting a boost from three small stations on the Cape that simulcast its programming. The challenge, then, is for station managers to serve a community that extends well beyond Boston and its immediate suburbs.

At the same time, though, both operations could be doing more. And given what’s happening in elsewhere in broadcasting, it’s not unreasonable to hold public stations to a higher standard.

At commercial stations, cost-cutting and competitive pressures have turned local TV newscasts into crime-and-celebrity-drenched triviafests, their rapid pace owing more to MTV than to traditional journalistic imperatives. (New England Cable News deserves some credit for bucking the trend, but not everyone gets cable, and not everyone with cable can get NECN.)

Talk radio, a populist, interactive medium both hailed and feared a short time ago, is shifting from locally based, politically oriented hosts to syndicated entertainers. The only place left on the commercial dial for intelligent talk is The David Brudnoy Show, on WBZ (AM 1030).

The result of these trends is a vacuum — or, to borrow the language of Newton Minow, the Kennedy-era FCC commissioner, a “vast wasteland” of rapid-fire, context-free headlines, murders, natural disasters, celebrities, and weather. And, of course, all O.J., all the time.

“The deterioration of avowedly commercial TV and radio news adds a special burden to public broadcasting,” says Norman Solomon, an analyst for Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a liberal media-watch group. Solomon and others, though, complain that public broadcasters are shying away from this burden.

You’d think public TV would stand as a bulwark of seriousness. But public stations are on the defensive. When attacked by the Republican Congress, they fought back — effectively — by putting the emphasis on their excellent and uncontroversial children’s programming. Public TV rarely risks anything innovative in news and public affairs; its only nightly news show, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, is a tired, inside-the-Beltway smorgasbord of talking heads. This cautiousness — and unwillingness or inability to spend money — extends to local stations across the country.

And WGBH, despite a tradition as the “Tiffany” station in the Public Broadcasting System, is no exception. ’GBH is a national powerhouse, producing shows such as Frontline (the one shining exception to PBS’s public-affairs vacuum), Nova, This Old House, and Masterpiece Theatre, filling about one-third of PBS’s prime-time line-up. But when it comes to local programming, WGBH’s call letters for most of the ’90s might as well have been AWOL.

It’s a shame, because if any station should take a leadership role, it’s WGBH. After all, the station was the leading force in defining the role of public television. Through legislation written by the 1967 Carnegie Commission on Public Broadcasting, which WGBH officials helped create and then dominated, the narrow, educational mission of public broadcasting was replaced with a new philosophy that public television should “see America whole in all its diversity … to help us look at our achievements and difficulties, at our conflicts and agreements, at our problems, and at the far reaches of our possibilities.”

In the language of the 1990s, that mission might be described as fostering a public conversation; providing a forum in which civil society can express itself. Because the fractured, overworked, stressed-out culture in which we live clearly needs a common ground, a sounding board where we can talk out — and, it is to be hoped, talk through — the divisions and the bitterness that have come to define us.

***

At the studios of WBUR, Christopher Lydon is interviewing the scientist David Baltimore about new treatments for AIDS. On the other side of the glass, computers display the names of callers waiting to go on the air — or to “make the connection,” as Lydon likes to say.

Baltimore is a typically impressive guest on The Connection, which has hosted the Dalai Lama, Ross Perot, jazz drummer Max Roach, Pulitzer-winning novelist E. Annie Proulx, and local notables such as John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, and Bill Weld.

The success of The Connection is ironic: it was Lydon who was co-anchor and impresario-in-chief of The Ten O’Clock News. For anyone who watched him in his WGBH incarnation, Lydon’s transformation during the two years since The Connection went on the air is startling. Gone is the ponderous, elitist don of The Ten O’Clock News. In his place is a sharper, more focused Lydon, the (dare one say it?) populist Lydon whose guerrilla campaign for mayor of Boston in 1993 succeeded in moving public education to the top of the city’s agenda. It’s no exaggeration to say that Lydon finally found his voice in that campaign, when he promised rhetorically to “blow up” school-committee headquarters.

Lydon’s success is a natural outgrowth of an effort that began at WBUR nearly 20 years ago. Starting in the 1970s, general manager Jane Christo took what had been a tiny college station owned by Boston University and built it into a phenomenon with a $7 million annual budget. According to its research, it attracts more than 400,000 listeners during any given week, making it one of the most popular stations in Boston.

Christo, who could not be interviewed for this article because she was vacationing in Morocco, had one crucial insight: that there was a market for round-the-clock news and information. That insight enabled WBUR to capitalize five and a half years ago, when WEEI Radio (AM 850) switched from all news to all sports.

And it enabled ’BUR to pull ahead of WGBH Radio (89.7 FM), which stuck with a mostly music format while Christo filled WBUR’s schedule with everything that National Public Radio and other news services had to offer.

The importance of NPR to the vitality of public radio can’t be exaggerated. Starting with All Things Considered, in 1973, and Morning Edition, in 1979, NPR — despite criticism that it’s biased (a complaint voiced by both liberals and conservatives) and has become too mainstream — has grown into perhaps the most admired broadcast-news operation in the country, the true successor to the CBS legacy of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

WGBH Radio’s attempts to counter ‘BUR’s success have met with mixed results. Most famously, in the summer of 1995, it canceled Ron Della Chiesa’s afternoon MusicAmerica, which its own surveys showed was not particularly popular, but which had a fanatically loyal band of followers (including 90 of the 100 members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra). Della Chiesa now hosts a classical-music show in the morning, and MusicAmerica has been partially revived through an arrangement with a station in Plymouth. But the move created ill will that has never really dissipated.

WGBH, in collaboration with the BBC, also created an international news program, The World, which is broadcast locally from 4 to 5 p.m. and which has received mixed notices. And it broadcasts NPR offerings during drive time. Thus, unlike WBUR, with its strong news identity, WGBH is now stuck with a format of news at drive time, classical music during the day, and jazz at night, a mix that makes it difficult to build station identity and listener loyalty.

The force, then, is clearly with WBUR. And The Connection is its proudest achievement. At its best, the show is Boston’s civic forum, a place where citizens can talk about national and local issues, the serious and the trivial.

Yet station officials want to undo what makes The Connection special: they’re seeking to syndicate it to public stations across the country. Currently, The Connection is being carried in Western Massachusetts and Washington, DC. The Boston Globe‘s Ed Siegel appeared to be hyperventilating last Friday when he asserted, with scant evidence, that The Connection is already starting to lose its local flavor. But if Lydon goes coast to coast, Siegel’s fears will surely become reality. “I don’t know how you talk about the Weld-Kerry race or the Red Sox when you go national,” says one admirer who works in the broadcasting industry.

You could argue, of course, that the subject matter of Lydon’s shows are more often than not national and even international in scope. Why not go national? But even when the subject is, say, Bosnia, there’s something special about listening to your neighbors call in and voice their views. That’s a crucial difference between The Connection and a program that doesn’t have an interactive component, such as Fresh Air, a first-rate arts-oriented interview show hosted by Terry Gross, of Philadelphia’s WHYY Radio. Thus, it’s not so much the subject matter as it is the disruption of an ongoing local conversation that is threatened by WBUR’s ambitions.

As the attempt to syndicate The Connection shows, WBUR’s priorities suggest national ambitions that rival those of WGBH-TV. News director Sam Fleming asserts that 62 of the ’BUR’s 105 employees work on local programming. But in fact, most of those people are employed by locally produced, nationally distributed shows such as Car Talk, a wild and wonderful program that’s only incidentally about cars, and Only a Game, a cerebral sports-talk show. The station employs just six full-time reporters (admittedly, more than any other Boston radio station, though that’s not saying much). And though those reporters are generally respected, their cut-ins to NPR do not add up to anything approaching a comprehensive local newscast.

In fact, for all the positive attention WBUR has garnered, its line-up consists largely of national material: news shows from NPR and, to a lesser extent, Public Radio International and Monitor Radio; its own syndicated productions, as well as Fresh Air; and, maddeningly, all that news from the BBC. “We know the accents are real, but somehow they seem phony,” quips David Brudnoy. Yet ’BUR officials say their own surveys show the BBC is popular with Boston’s large community of immigrants, especially those from the West Indies and Eastern Europe. And plenty of Bostonians have been struck by the number of the city’s immigrant cab drivers who keep their radios tuned to 90.9.

Station officials balk at the idea of starting, say, a daily half-hour local news show, arguing that listeners want a full range of international, national, and local news — plus weather, sports, and traffic — during whatever time segment they’re able to tune in.

But though that reasoning may make sense for drive-time programming, other times would appear to offer more opportunity for experimentation. WBAI Radio, a public station in New York City, for instance, puts together a local-news broadcast with the help of Columbia journalism students. Why not turn some BU students loose on the streets of Boston?

***

It’s possible to quibble with WBUR’s priorities. But in the realm of news and public affairs, ’BUR is nevertheless considerably ahead of WGBH — not just the radio station, but the television station as well. And WGBH-TV’s near-absence following the cancellation of The Ten O’Clock News is not just a Boston phenomenon, but the reflection of a national trend that has its roots in public-broadcasting governance as well as broader social and cultural changes.

The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) was established as a decentralized television network whose programming is supplied by member stations, many of which are run like little fiefdoms, conscious of their turf and prerogatives. Danny Schechter, of Globalvision, an independent production company in New York that has had trouble getting PBS to pick up shows such as its human-rights series, Rights & Wrongs, quips that “Bill Moyers once told me, ‘If you think the war in the Balkans is bad, consider what would happen if you armed the PBS stations.’” By contrast, the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act established NPR as a centralized operation with a clear mandate to produce news and public-affairs programming.

Then, too, public television has been beset by competition from cable, VCRs, and the Internet; public radio has benefited from the decline of commercial competition, as well as from a trend toward long commutes and longer days at the office, where people find it easier to listen to radio than watch television.

Give such obstacles, WGBH deserves praise for making a renewed commitment to local programming. In fact, Greater Boston is just one of three new locally oriented shows. The others: Greater Boston Arts, a monthly arts-scene show that debuted on January 16; and The Long & Short of It, a weekly political talkfest starring the diminutive former secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, and the elongated former Republican senator from Wyoming, Alan Simpson. (Full disclosure: the Reich-Simpson show is sponsored by the Boston Phoenix.)

But it’s Greater Boston that will (or won’t) get ’GBH back onto the local-public-affairs map. Rooney and WGBH officials know how high the expectations are. That’s why they warn that the half-hour show is not intended as a substitute for The Ten O’Clock News.

Most of the action takes place in the studio, making it considerably cheaper — about $750,000 per year as opposed to upwards of $3 million for the News. (Indeed, WGBH’s local-programming budget is just $5 million, out of a total of $143 million for the WGBH Educational Foundation, which includes both television stations, a sister station in Springfield, and WGBH.)

Then, too, Greater Boston is intended as a magazine-style show, not a newscast. Some of the lighter topics wouldn’t be out of place on WCVB’s Chronicle, which Greater Boston executive producer Judy Stoia helped get off the ground 15 years ago. Others — such as the Charles Murray interview and media chit-chat with Nieman Foundation curator Bill Kovach — aim for more highbrow appeal.

The show will also feature a range of freelance contributors, including advertising executive John Carroll, political analyst Lou DiNatale, and veteran Boston TV personality/producer Robin Young.

For Rooney, the show is a chance at a fresh start and some measure of redemption. Well regarded as the news director of WCVB, she was lured to New York in 1993 to become the executive producer of ABC’s World News Tonight. Less than a year later she was fired, with Rooney’s detractors charging that she wasn’t prepared for the big time, and her supporters countering that she was done in by a boys’-club atmosphere in which important people — including anchor Peter Jennings — were unwilling to listen to a strong-minded woman from the provinces.

“It was extremely painful,” Rooney says. “It’s only recently that I stopped thinking about it all the time.”

After leaving ABC, Rooney worked for Fox News, most recently as political director. That job was set to expire last fall. So when her former WCVB colleague Stoia asked if she wanted to host a new public-affairs show, Rooney was intrigued. She liked New York, but her husband, Kirby Perkins, was still a reporter at WCVB. She had rarely worked in front of the camera, but she was willing to give it a try.

***

We’re sitting in a small, windowless conference room at WGBH headquarters, in Allston. She’s trying to be cooperative, but she’s clearly uncomfortable talking about herself and her goals. “I hope that we can provide thoughtful discussions about important issues,” she offers.

Fans of the old Ten O’Clock News may not like Greater Boston immediately — or ever. The higher production standards and less-than-monumental topics such as the Super Bowl will no doubt lead to charges that WGBH is more interested in attracting large numbers of viewers than in striking a high-minded tone.

But though there’s surely something to be said for high-mindedness, a show needs an audience to survive, even in public broadcasting. It’s not a matter of dumping the high-mindedness; it’s a matter of communicating with people rather than talking down to them. Chris Lydon learned that lesson in making the transition from diffident TV newsman to dynamic radio talk host.

“If you completely ignore the conventions of television, you will fail,” says Steve Bass, WGBH’s vice-president and general manager. “But if we swing all the way over and adopt all the conventions of commercial television, then we will equally be a failure.”

It’s a balancing act, and Rooney sounds like she understands that.

“Public broadcasting has a way to go,” she says. “This is an attempt to appeal to a broader audience.” Adds Judy Stoia: “Public radio figured out how to make the best use of the medium, and has been enormously innovative. On the television side, locally, we should do so well.”

Bob Ferrante’s experience gives him an unusually broad perspective. An 11-year veteran of WGBH, where he helped create The Ten O’Clock News, Ferrante today is executive producer of NPR’s Morning Edition. He’s worked in commercial television as well, including a stint at CBS. He gives WGBH credit for putting together Greater Boston, and says the question of how to serve the community is always a dilemma.

“I think in public broadcasting, no matter what you do, you’ll be accused of being unresponsive to the local community unless you directly respond to the community that’s complaining. So it’s almost a no-win situation,” Ferrante says.

“This is a very, very volatile time in broadcasting and in journalism, and I think we’re all trying to find our way.”

8 thoughts on “Flashback: Emily Rooney and public broadcasting in 1997

  1. Marjorie Arons-Barron

    Greater Boston has actually been leaving the scene in pieces, all, I assume, to replicate more closely what commercial broadcasting is doing. The new set is but one example. The silly bumpers between segments. And the addition of more segments to increase the pace but lessen the sense that the audience is getting a full discussion of any one topic. This is only partly mitigated by the Focus theme of the week, which has been a fine addition. The presence of Emily (a friend) will be missed. There are many who are unhappy with too much homogenization.

  2. Al Quint

    I agree with Marjorie completely… the new set is terrible and the transitions awful…. you guys look really uncomfortable scrunched together around that desk on Friday. And if I can be a real nit-picker, she should introduce you all first before getting to the stories. And when she’s interviewing more than one person during a segment, she should introduce them simultaneously. OK, I’m done.

    1. Al Fiantaca

      Same here. I have found the new set to be too busy, in layout, color scheme, and titling. I find myself distracted by it when trying to follow a segment. It has destroyed the casual “Living Room Conversation” feel of the old set that invited viewers into the conversations. This seems even more prominent during the Friday evening “Beat The Press” edition. The bumpers, or teasers between segments are unnecessary since viewers have already made the committment to the program by tuning into it. More and more, I find myself deciding not to watch it, a major change from what had been “Must See TV” for me in the early evening.

  3. Greg Fitzgerald

    Would somebody please tell WGBH that public television needs to get out of the studio. I honestly don’t care what the set looks like; all I know is that watching this program will be another droll, public television program with talking heads. Given how cheap it is to furnish young journalists with professional video gear to get into Boston’s neighborhoods and its suburbs, why is ‘GBH sticking to a format that was created in 1957?

  4. Bill Schweber

    Beat the Press has become a real disappointment in the last few months. Way too much “inside baseball” (who got hired, fired, stabbed in the back, changed jobs) rather than topics which might actually interest viewers–namely, where has the press done an especially good or bad job, and why; or, which journalists did a good/bad job, and how did they do it? Where was the press fooled, or not? Which journalist saw right through some hyped-story for what it really was, and which fell for it? Instead, the panelists are talking about what interests them, not what may interest the audience–a very dangerous way to go.
    For example, there’s way too much fixation on what going on inside the NY Times. Too many segments explaining how the press “works”, so all of us in the masses will understand the plight of the media–again, not of interest. There are too many speculative pieces on what this or that may mean in the future–that’s lazy fortune telling, not solid critiquing. And a few months ago, one of the topics had nothing at all to do with the media (sorry, don’t remember what it was) but “everyone” out there in talking-head land was commenting on it, so BTP felt it had to have a segment on it too–100% totally irrelevant to the BTP charter.
    Rants and Raves is the only consistently good segment. The rest of BTP needs to use that as a model.
    And they don’t post segments online in a consistent way or time–very annoying (I know that is not BTP’s fault, but still, WGBH needs to get its act together).
    Aren’t you glad you brought up the subject of BTP? 😉

      1. Dan Kennedy Post author

        @Al: I think it’s an experiment, and that a final decision hasn’t been made. But I’m told that there are two reasons: the new set looks less crowded with for people; and they’d like to work in an extra segment without taking away from the time each of us has to talk.

  5. Kim komperda

    Picky, picky. Tables or chairs is not the issue. Sure the show can be bone dry at times and I too roll my eyes when the guest is the third selectman from the fourteenth ward speaking on waste management legislation. But, that being said, what a service the show has been for viewers over the years! In particular, the Friday show, which I have enjoyed from the beginning. Intelligent, thoughtful people speaking on the issues of the day, local and national, and doing so without bombast or the requisite nasty edge found on most talking head shows. Greater Boston has given us a show in which views are expressed with not JUST intelligence but also cordiality and respect — and that, for me, makes it unique and worthwhile.

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