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. Continue reading “Flashback: Emily Rooney and public broadcasting in 1997”

Gene Burns, 1940-2013

I was sad to learn over the weekend that radio talk-show host Gene Burns had died at the age of 72 (via Universal Hub). Burns, who brought intelligence and grace to the airwaves, held down the midday slot at WRKO (AM 680) from 1985 to 1993. Lesley University professor and radio consultant Donna Halper writes:

I will miss him because of what he represented — a more courteous style of conversation. Today’s talk hosts (on BOTH sides) often shout and name-call and insult the other side. Gene Burns was all about exchanging IDEAS; he was a libertarian, but he always respected callers who had other ideologies. In today’s polarized culture, it would be nice if more of us could get beyond the rhetoric and get to know each other better. Talk shows like his used to provide a forum for that to occur. I wish they still did.

The talk-radio world of the 1980s was radically different from today’s. There was a time on WRKO when, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., you could listen to Ted O’Brien and Janet Jeghelian, then Burns and finally the legendary Jerry Williams during afternoon drive. Then you could switch over to WBZ (AM 1030) and hear another legend, David Brudnoy, from 7 p.m. to midnight — 17 hours of intelligent, (mostly) civil talk.

These days Dan Rea, Brudnoy’s successor at WBZ once removed, is the only host on the commercial dial following that tradition. If you want a smart discussion of news and public affairs, public radio is pretty much the only choice.

Talking Muzzles tonight with Dan Rea

I’ll be on “NightSide with Dan Rea” on WBZ Radio (AM 1030) tonight at 9 to talk about the Boston Phoenix Muzzle Awards for 2011. It’s an annual Fourth of July tradition that goes back to the late, great David Brudnoy. Hope you can tune in.

If only David Brudnoy had lived to see it

One side benefit related to the demise of WBCN Radio (104.1 FM) is that CBS will move Bruins games from WBZ (AM 1030) to the new WBZ-FM (98.5 FM).

The late, legendary WBZ talk-show host David Brudnoy spent years lamenting the frequent Bruins interruptions. Ironically, the beneficiary of the move will be Dan Rea, who, unlike Brudnoy, is a hockey fan.

Dan Rea’s radio days

I’ve got a profile of Dan Rea in the new issue of CommonWealth Magazine. Rea, a longtime television reporter at WBZ-TV (Channel 4), is now the host of the talk show once helmed by the late David Brudnoy and Paul Sullivan at WBZ Radio (AM 1030). “NightSide with Dan Rea” is an oasis of civility in the talk-radio wars. But can it work in today’s caustic environment?

Rea’s got some tough things to say about the state of local TV news, telling me, “It was very clear to me that there was a direction of television news that was not going to be reversed, and I wasn’t quite sure that I wanted to continue doing television news as I was doing it.” He added:

Local television news is one of the great purveyors of racism of our time. They don’t understand that. But if you are somebody who lives out in one of the 128 or 495 suburbs, and never have a reason to really interact with people of color, the only time you’re going to see young black males is when they’re being arraigned, they’re being arrested, or they’re dying in the street. We ignore the 99 percent of the kids in that community who are trying to do the right thing, trying to go to school, trying to participate in community programs and athletics.

Rea is probably best known for his years-long efforts on behalf of Joseph Salvati, wrongly convicted of murder because of the false testimony of a government-protected witness.

Dan Rea replaces Paul Sullivan

No surprise, but it’s good news that veteran journalist Dan Rea has been named to replace the late Paul Sullivan as the evening talk-show host on WBZ Radio (AM 1030). Rea will continue in the tradition of Sullivan and his predecessor, the late David Brudnoy — that is, he’ll host a show where the conversation is civil, and where news and interviews take precedence over ideology.

Now, as Brudnoy always said, if we can only get the Bruins off WBZ, we’ll be all set.

(Via Universal Hub and the Herald’s Messenger Blog.)