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”

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.

The importance of being Paul La Camera

Paul La Camera

Congratulations to Paul La Camera, who last week announced that he’ll retire as general manager of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) at the end of the year.

“I’m going to be 68 next month, and I think that’s an appropriate expiration date for someone to be running a dynamic contemporary media entity that increasingly has to surge into the digital world,” La Camera was quoted as saying in a story by WBUR’s Steve Brown. La Camera added that he plans to continue in an “ambassadorial role” for the station.

La Camera, the longtime head of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), took the helm of WBUR in 2005, as the Boston University-licensed public radio station was just beginning to recover from the financial problems that had ended the reign of his predecessor, Jane Christo.

The imperious Christo was a much-admired, much-detested executive who transformed ‘BUR into one of the best public radio stations in the country. But what La Camera did was at least as important: he calmed the waters, restored financial stability and expanded the station’s local presence.

“He was really the guy who brought stability back to the place,” Scott Fybush, editor of Northeast Radio Watch, told the Boston Globe’s Johnny Diaz.

In 2006 I profiled La Camera for CommonWealth Magazine. Noting that he had already retired once (from WCVB), he told me: “You can probably count on the fact that I won’t be here for 33 1/2 years. I haven’t given much thought to when I’m next going to retire. But whenever that time comes, I hope I’m going to be more successful at it than I was the last time.”

(Note: I’m a paid contributor to WGBH-TV/Channel 2 and an occasional unpaid contributor to WGBH Radio/89.7 FM, which earlier this year was retooled into a news and public-affairs outlet that competes with WBUR.)

La Camera is a great broadcasting executive as well as a good guy, and though he’s not going away, his day-to-day presence will be missed.