WGBH: The Early Years
Ed: This is the second of three excerpts from Michael Ambrosino’s autobiography. In the first part, Skating Around the Rink, he described the early years at WGBH, an era of live and live-on-tape TV productions at the 84 Massachusetts Avenue studio in Cambridge.
Glimpses of interconnection
We were all local in those days. Few people thought that any school series made for one city could be useful in another. On the other hand, many of us were duplicating the same topics and few of us had the cash to make really exciting programs with sophisticated experiments and expensive location filming. Perhaps it was time for change.
In the fall of 1959, Hartford set up a regional meeting of organizations in the Northeast to discuss the future. Held at the idyllic and pastoral Mittersill Inn in New Hampshire, the meeting was to discuss station building, program exchange, and the future interconnection of our stations into a network.
In those days, exchange was done by mail. Master copies were sent to the Educational Television and Radio Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Copies were struck, mailed to the top stations that ran the shows, who then mailed them to smaller stations who used them and then mailed them to still smaller stations
In those days, exchange was done by mail. Master copies were sent to the Educational Television and Radio Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Copies were struck, mailed to the top stations that ran the shows, who then mailed them to smaller stations who used them and then mailed them to still smaller stations. No national advertising was possible because no program was run the same week, the same day or the same hour. Few if any school programs were distributed. Organized chaos was our chosen lot.
Graham Winslow and his wife were at the conference. He ran the Massachusetts Council for the Humanities and was a sweet elder Boston Brahmin. On the last day, he invited Lillian and me to join him and his wife for dinner even though nine-month old Julie was with us. As we sat down, he was shocked to learn that it was our second anniversary. He immediately ordered two bottles of chilled Pouilly Fuisse.
Two bottles for four meant that fairly soon I was telling his wife my entire life story. We had a very merry time of it.
The meeting went well. It wasn’t just that cooperation meant an easier life for all of us. In those days, raising the money to start a public station and keep it on the air was daunting. The thought that we all might fail was never far from us. Daring to conceive of plans to help stations survive was a start. But it was going to be a hard job.
Once again, it was a phone call from Hartford that changed my life.
I was at home with the flu.
“It’s time to push hard for a regional network and we need a full time staff.”
“You’re right,” I groggily agreed.
“Interested in the job?”
Building a network
There are many Polaroid photos of me with my desk covered with sheets of yellow paper with major parts covered in correction tape. I’m dressed casually, looking up at the camera and smiling.
I’m writing a proposal!
The plan called for Ford funds covering our needs for the first year, the stations picking up one-third in year two, two-thirds in year three and, if all went well, we’d be self supporting in year four!
He said yes. This time it was $14,950!
I’ve written proposals all my life. To start the Eastern Educational Network, we needed money and that meant going back to the Ford Foundation. We went to Jim Armsey for a development grant to develop the regional network and I had to come up with a way to make it self supporting. The plan called for Ford funds covering our needs for the first year, the stations picking up one-third in year two, two-thirds in year three and, if all went well, we’d be self supporting in year four!
He said yes. This time it was $14,950! (Remember, the dollar went a lot further then.)
We had stations in Boston, New Hampshire, Albany, Rochester, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. We were helping stations start in Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
In some cities, the commercial stations “helped” by buying out their competitor and giving that license to the local university. In that way, some stations ensured their own market dominance and greedy future and the local ETV group got a turnkey operation for a start. In areas like Burlington, however, any competition in the market was fought fiercely by the Burlington TV owner who, sadly, also had the lease to the best mountaintop.
Groups fighting valiantly for years with little help and less hope were not always the best equipped. For every technically trained, legally sophisticated group there was someone like Mrs. Campbell, the wonderful benefactress of the Washington group who had drawn up the budget for the construction and operation of WETA. Since I was the cheapest expert nearby, it was one of my jobs to “shape it up for her Board” before it was presented.
The following chat really happened…
“Mrs. Campbell, there’s no line item for electricity.”
“Oh, that will come out of ‘Miscellaneous’, my dear.”
“Mrs. Campbell, there’s no item for network fees.”
“Oh, that will come out of ‘Miscellaneous’, too.”
So, I drew up a new budget for WETA and it increased about 30% to take into account all the things obvious to someone close to station operation, but not so clear to the leader of a citizen’s group. That was the kind of thing I did almost daily for states in the area trying to get their stations on the air.
While planning for future interconnection, we began to distribute shows by having New Hampshire pick up WGBH’s off-air signal and rebroadcast it. We also set up our own videotape distribution to exchange local shows. “MIT Science Reporter” was the first series and we used it to teach us how.
It is hard to realize now that, of course, we were “bicycling” master videotapes, shipping them from station to station. Constant replaying wore down the oxide coating. We were destroying our precious masters.
More heat than we cared for
Things were moving along rather well. The 21” Classroom was growing in size and quality. WGBH programs were getting more sophisticated and reaching greater numbers. The infant regional network was becoming the center of our attention and the whole region was cooperating.
On October 14, 1961 I was in Chicago giving a speech before a Ford Foundation Workshop of school television folks. I was pointing out how cooperative programming was possible and something they should encourage. Ted Conant introduced me and I got a heartwarming response. It was rewarding and I felt wonderful.
When I sat down, Ted congratulated me and then leaned close to say that he had not wanted to upset me before my speech, but he had learned that WGBH had been consumed in a fire that morning!
I was now upset.
My immediate plan was to return as soon as possible, but this was the time of the Cold War. Once, every year, for 24 hours, all air travel was suspended while SAC played war games with its B52 bombers flying multiple sorties in the United States. I was grounded in Chicago until noon on Saturday! When I reached Dave Davis by phone, he told me that many tapes, including those of the 21” Classroom, had been thrown out the window as the fire progressed. The station, including my EEN office, was in ruins. There was nothing I could do. We went out for Chinese.
WGBH was a brick shell. Walking up a rubble-strewn stairway I could keep my balance only by holding tight to the sooty handrail.
I returned on October 16th. WGBH was a brick shell. Walking up a rubble-strewn stairway I could keep my balance only by holding tight to the sooty handrail. Turning right I walked into Studio A, blackened and flooded. The former skating rink oak flooring was twisted in rivulets as each board swelled in the pools of standing water. Glass had shattered from the heat, and in the projection room, tape machines and projection equipment were covered with soot and debris and dripping with water. It made you want to get a big broom and push it all into the dumpster.
Turning left I walked into my own office. The four walls were there. My desk was there. Everything seemed unusually low. Suddenly I realized my desk was not low, I was high. I was walking on several feet of rubble since the entire roof had collapsed. My office was open to the sky! A black blob sat where my phone had been. Lifting it, I discovered two-thirds of a charred check due EEN from a member station. My desk drawers were filled with char and water.
Bolted to my back wall was a heavy pine table that was a useful place for my TV and other technical gear. Fire had raged under it and the ensuing water had warped it over like a huge blunt, black claw. I pulled up on it to view what remained of years of school TV research that I had carefully collected. With a roar, I realized that the table was not giving way, but that the entire back wall of my office had come loose and was now crashing into Studio B below.
“I’d better get out of here,” was my first thought.
“I’d better think of what to do next,” was my second.
Can you imagine losing everything you need for professional life: all the letters you received, all the copies of letters you sent, minutes of Board meetings, decisions, the accounting of dues paid and bills due?
Can you imagine losing everything you need for professional life: all the letters you received, all the copies of letters you sent, minutes of Board meetings, decisions, the accounting of dues paid and bills due? Typewriters and phones could be easily replaced but the documented early history of the EEN was gone.
I went to the Harvard Coop and bought an address book and tried to rebuild my list of contacts from memory. I also made up a list of those to call and tell them that the EEN was still alive and that our plans for development would continue. That meant a trip on October 17th to the Maine Legislature to testify that WGBH would still give programming free of charge as soon as Maine ETV went on the air, and on October 25th to Washington, DC, where a large grant was pending.
Meanwhile, Dave Davis and the Junior League of Boston worked out a complex plan of delivering school program videotapes to available tape recorders at the commercial stations. School programs were sent by microwave directly to our undamaged transmitter on Great Blue Hill. WGBH radio was on the air by Sunday. The 21” Classroom was back on Monday morning. WGBH television took a week.
Soon WGBH was operating out of seven different locations. At the Museum of Science, they set up a tiny studio with a glass wall and a walkway for museum goers to peek in. They became just one more museum exhibit. The programming staff worked in “the red frame building,” formerly used for storage at the museum. WGBH management, PR, fundraising and EEN were in rented space in Kendall Square. Scenery was built and stored at Northeastern University, and the Archdiocese of Boston TV studio was put at our disposal during the week. (If you dollied back too far you got to see the crystal chandelier in every shot!) This diaspora lasted for three whole years while money was raised for a new building, land found, plans drawn, and construction completed.
WGBH’s first mobile unit, a million-mile Greyhound bus converted into a control room on wheels, had been parked outside the station during the fire with its new tape recorder and three new cameras. It escaped without a scratch. By using a Boston Gas demonstration kitchen in a Cambridge warehouse, the station could begin taping Julia Child’s soon-to-be famous series, “The French Chef”.
On the very first taping [of “The French Chef,”] the bell for the freight elevator rang insistently and Julia, right in step, merely said, “Well, the phone is ringing but I’m just too busy to answer it now!” Julia Child was never an amateur.
Julia was a bright spot during these difficult times. Often told, the story is true, that on the very first taping, the bell for the freight elevator rang insistently and Julia, right in step, merely said, “Well, the phone is ringing but I’m just too busy to answer it now!” Julia Child was never an amateur.
As we designed the new WGBH production center and ordered equipment, we faced the problem of what to do with two video tape recorders that had come through the fire and now sat soot-encrusted and water logged in temporary storage. A company specializing in fire-damaged electronic equipment estimated $15,000 to restore each of them. We’d received two new recorders with the insurance money, and shelling out $30,000 we did not have was just too much to bear.
Suddenly, one of the technicians remembered that we were “that educational station that burned in Boston.” Swearing us to secrecy, he told us to remove all the components from the recorders, mix one part Vel and one part water, paint all surfaces with the solution, hose everything down, and dry it completely with heat and fans. We were then told to plug in each component in sequence and see if they shorted out. If so, we were to replace them, reassemble the old and new components and turn it on.
For that they usually charged $15,000!
WGBH did as it was told and soon had four videotape recorders!
The EEN grows and prospers
My days continued with meetings, helping stations get on the air, interconnect, and develop shows to exchange with others.
No day was typical, but August 28, 1963, stands out as memorable.
I rose at 5:30 to catch an 8:00 flight to Chicago for a 10:00 meeting with the Central and Pacific Regional Network executives at O’Hare Airport. A 2:00pm flight got me back to Logan in time for my secretary to meet me and drive to New Hampshire in time to dress and chair the evening dinner meeting of the Eastern Educational Network annual conference in Concord and introduce the evening’s speaker, CBS’s national correspondent, Sander Vanocur.
We did a fair amount of talking to commercial networks in those days. They did interesting programs on Sundays, few of which were broadcast in Boston. We received permission to run them on WGBH and distributed many through EEN. I also combed local commercial stations for good programs and found a small, but compelling documentary, “Block-Busting, Atlanta Style,” about unscrupulous real estate brokers who went door to door warning whites that blacks had just moved in nearby, offering to buy their houses before their value dropped!
The soft-spoken, talented reporter was George Page, whom I later recommended to Hartford as a documentary maker for WGBH. George spent several years in Boston and went on to WNET in New York where, he created the wonderful weekly PBS series, “Nature.”
The power of words
The Sixties were also the time for “enlightenment” and that often took the form of ingesting large amounts of exotic stimulants to aid in this search for self-awareness. That leads me to the story of “Lettvin Vs. Leary.”
Timothy Leary, a former Harvard professor, experimented with a wide variety of drugs in the 60s and specialized in LSD. Preaching often about its virtues, he was invited to speak at MIT. Illuminated by the light of one candle, a bedraggled, rather hairy Tim Leary sat in the lotus position on the stage of Kresge Auditorium before hundreds of adoring MIT students. Hearing of the event, astute WGBH producer Austin Hoyt grabbed Boyd Estus and set out to film it.
“Turn on, tune in and drop out,” intoned Tim in a chant-like singsong. Condemning normal schooling, he told the MIT students to begin using drugs to tune into their inner selves and drop out of the regimented student life. Drugs were good, and LSD was prime, went the message.
This went on for about 20 minutes and the wildly cheering audience loved it, as much for its audacity and theatricality as for its wayward message.
Timothy Leary beamed!
Then Jerry Lettvin was introduced.
Jerry, a medical doctor, psychiatrist, researcher in brain and mind, was an all around guru to the student body. Sixty pounds overweight, chain smoker, rough in appearance and manner, it was Jerry to whom you went if you were an MIT student in trouble. Even those who knew nothing of his academic life knew him to be a straight shooter.
Lettvin stared down from the lectern at the still seated Leary and began to speak softly.
“Tim, we’ve known each other for a long time. We’ve worked together, done research together.”
“Tim, you are the devil!”
“Tell me Tim … as a clinician … what would you call it when, two weeks after taking LSD, someone sees sounds and hears sights?”
Leary shifted slightly, looked up and beamed.
“I’d call him a visionary mystic,” Tim crowed.
The crowd roared with delight.
As quiet returned, Lettvin leveled a fierce glare, leaned toward the microphone, and in a coarse, guttural growl, spoke.
“Its a sub-dural hematoma and you know God-damn well it is!”.
For the next 20 minutes, Jerry Lettvin gave a meticulous and damning lecture on the effects of LSD on brain function and the losses that occurred with repeated use. It was cold and brutal and the previously joyful and boisterous audience fell silent.
Tim Leary physically withered under the assault.
Austin and Boyd could hardly wait to have the film developed and begin editing. A one-hour slot was cleared for local air and NET was alerted to see if they wanted to buy the show for their stations.
NET agreed and all was made ready.
As I’ve already explained, many copies were made from the master tape and sent to the stations. After the network distributed its first batch of tapes to the major stations, NET contacted WGBH.
“We have a problem.”
“Many stations object to the word, ‘Bullshit’. We’d like you to edit out that word and we will send out new tapes.”
“Never,” said the proud WGBH. “The word “Bullshit” is integral to the content.”
“Okay,” said NET, “we will do it ourselves.”
Several days went by and another call came from the network.
“Help,” said NET, “The stations object to the new tapes. The show now says, “Bullsh…”
“Okay,” said WGBH, we will edit a master for you, But using our new and exciting regional network, EEN, we will offer the original, uncut show to every station and let them decide which to air.”
At EEN, I received lots of staunch messages about “first amendment rights” and “program integrity” and how they all would certainly choose to run the original and uncut version.
And then, slowly, I began to receive messages about how the previous commitments had been overruled by amorphous “program committees” or “management decisions.”
In the end, only two stations planned to run the uncut version, KQED in San Francisco and WGBH in Boston.
Astonishingly, no station complained that we broadcast a twenty-minute speech encouraging students to fry their brains.
Astonishingly, no station complained that we allowed Lettvin to savage Leary for twenty minutes with no rebuttal.
Astonishingly, the complaints all referred to the use of the word, “Bullshit”.
Such is the power of words over ideas!
Can you scare the phone company?
The EEN was still a network in name only. New Hampshire and Maine picked up WGBH programs off the air and microwaved them to their transmitter sites. The region was organized, but we were exchanging most of our shows by tape. The fact that we existed, however, inspired action for a New York State network and a Pennsylvania State network. It was time to interconnect it all.
I hired an MIT geology student to study the region’s geodetic charts and scribe the high elevations that might be in line of sight to each other.
Thus, a signal could go from station, to mountaintop, to mountaintop, to station, all the way from Montreal to Washington and from Boston to Pittsburgh.
To that end, I hired an MIT geology student to study the region’s geodetic charts and scribe the high elevations that might be in line of sight to each other. Thus, a signal could go from station, to mountaintop, to mountaintop, to station, all the way from Montreal to Washington and from Boston to Pittsburgh. With the student’s data, I could determine if the high elevations had roads and power and whether there was a real chance of buying or leasing space for a relay tower.
All went well except for the congested area just north of New York City. The survey maps were new but the data was dated 1954. Since it couldn’t be trusted, I set out in my trusty Volkswagen to scout the sites myself armed with maps and the specifications for several hilltops in the Pound Ridge, New York area. The first few hills flunked out. The last and best hilltop had a road that wound up through the trees. At last I came to the top and found a well-built stone wall and an elaborate fence and gate. A large circular gravel drive introduced a lordly manor house, and although I am a scant esthete, I did recognize the sculpture in the front garden as Smith, Moore and Calder. Obviously, a relay tower would clash!
What to do?
I drove to Danbury Airport, a few miles north of Pound Ridge, ready to pay any price to rent a plane and pilot to finish the survey before dark.
Twenty dollars later, I was crammed into a Cessna 150 two-seater with a youngish pilot flying south to begin our aerial survey. It took only a half hour to find several possible hills, with roads and farmhouses that looked far more accessible and convenient.
“OK, you fly it back!,” shouted my pilot over the din of the engine.
“OK, I got it!,” I said in my normal manner of thinking that I can do anything. That was my first flight in a small plane and it set in motion thirty years of flying!
We made sure the phone company “found out” about our design of a private microwave system for EEN. It was only later that the interconnection became a reality and it was the monopoly of Ma Bell that did it, by offering lower rates for ETV. Maybe our ploy of designing a system we had little hope of building really worked.
EEN, which had started with one station, now had thirty-five members. Some of those were in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, and Miami. I created a special “out of region” membership to forestall Hartford’s plan to pull together just the big eight stations and forget about the rest. We were becoming a real clan and cooperation was working.
An unexpected opportunity to make music
About that time, an unusual opportunity appeared. Ed Gilday, a dear friend from 21” Classroom days, was the conductor of the Handel and Haydn Society, and, with 100 voices and a full orchestra, he was planning to present the entire uncut version of Handel’s Messiah in Symphony Hall just before Christmas. We prepared it as an EEN special with me producing and Dave Davis directing. The program, over three hours long, with 405 shots from 5 cameras, was recorded simultaneously on 7 video tape recorders; 3 in Boston and 4 in New York fed by an AT&T long line.
Can you imagine the difficulty of planning over 400 shots for a musical experience? So many open mouths! Dave did a masterful job of visually exploring the construction of the music itself. Surprisingly, the longish uncut version of Messiah made much more sense than the often-produced truncated presentation. This Messiah had a flow and rhythm to it. Of course, when you listen to any piece thirty or forty times, as I had to do for preparation, it comes alive to you in a wholly new way.
One shot was kept in reserve for the really dramatic musical moments. It came from a camera in the back of the hall and it showed the entire chorus and orchestra. It was used when the music and singing swelled to a climax.
Another was the close up of Ed Gilday conducting. A choral conductor uses his entire body, but it’s the face that communicates most. Often, in this piece, Ed’s face was radiant! A glow suffused his whole being and he willed beautiful music out of his singers by the majesty of his smile.
The camera taking that shot was tucked into the massive organ behind the back wall of the Boston Symphony Hall stage and peeked out of a small opening built into the wall itself. … The camera actually vibrated!
The camera taking that shot was tucked into the massive organ behind the back wall of the Boston Symphony Hall stage and peeked out of a small opening built into the wall itself. Several times, the organ swelled up in a resounding crescendo from the huge 32 foot pipes directly above the camera. The camera actually vibrated! I remember Dave Davis shouting to Greg MacDonald, the camera operator, “Greg, how do you like them apples?”
That Christmas season, Messiah played long and often and was a grand success.
It was good to be producing again.
It was good to be involved in content and presentation, rather than equipment and organization; working with ideas and musicians, rather than balky program managers; writing narration scripts rather than proposals and reports.
I called Bob Larsen, then Program Manager of WGBH, and told him he was overworked and needed an assistant.
I told him he needed me.
I had learned that clearly outlining a problem and then helpfully providing the solution usually worked.
Bob checked with Hartford and called me with an offer.
Don Quayle went on to lead EEN to true interconection and a major force in the east and the nation.
In the end, returning to WGBH was one of my better decisions and began a trend of taking more control of my own life plans and taking the direct personal risks that I had previously avoided.
Risk never became my friend. I have too much of my mother’s personality in me to really enjoy it, but I discovered that only through risk could I achieve real happiness.