By Don Hallock — 8/8/2015
In 2000 I was hired by Montana Public Television to direct a PBS production of the Montana Summer Symphony. It was a sizable piece (outdoors, 13 cameras, and seven regional symphony orchestras – yes 7, in Montana!).
The Montana program manager/producer and I hit it off from the get-go. I had directed nothing for 24 years previously, and it had been a whole 37 years since leaving ‘GBH. I was immediately forthcoming about that, but probably because they’d had good experiences with David Atwood the previous two years, added to the superlative reputation of WGBH, the Montana PM was game to collaborate with this broadcasting antique.
The folks in Montana and I (in Hawaii) worked on the production plans for two or three months by phone, Internet and email. Luckily the scheduling worked out so that I could hire Bill Frances as TD. (I tried to get Chas Norton for lighting as well but, unfortunately, the timing was wrong.) Still, as I expected, Bill was superb, and the Montana people were hugely impressed by his easy way and mastery of the production.
On site, the Montana PBS staff, it turned out, were very professional, capable, immensely cooperative, cordial and wonderfully easy to work with. There was a warm atmosphere of smooth camaraderie among their staff. Working with these folks felt in some subliminal way like ‘coming home.’ And eventually I came to understand that the whole experience was wonderfully, and touchingly for me, reminiscent of my years at ‘GBH.
But here’s the thing: The day after I arrived in Bozeman, several of the local staff and I met for lunch, and got to know each other in person. We spoke about our plans, our histories in broadcasting, and our philosophies. I reminisced on the family atmosphere I remembered at ‘GBH, and how much I valued that. In response, the Montana people remarked on having earlier attended an NAB convention, specifically noting that, in contrast to most of the other Public Broadcasting groups, the ‘GBH people seemed remarkably amiable, close-knit, and mutually supportive.
Once upon a moment of magic (during the ‘Golden Age of Television’ – 1957) there was a lower middle class kid with only a high school education, and a burning passion for the medium, who was taken on at ‘GBH as a scenic carpenter, soon brought into the studio as cameraman and, eventually, promoted to producer/director (for all of which he’s still hugely grateful). There were organizational restrictions in place at the station which should have made that trajectory formally impossible. But bending those rules in favor of who people actually were, and in respect of each individual’s intrinsic value, was actually the unspoken rule of the house.
People, and the talents they brought to the workplace, were always ‘coin of the realm.’
I don’t remember anyone really worrying about losing their job; ability and team effort seemed the most important measures of a person’s worth.
During my time at the station many folks came and went but, by way of testimonial, many stayed for very, very long times. And, though my memory may be faulty, I can recall, during that period at least, only one person who ever earned dismissal.
Certainly there were some frictions – all organizations suffer at least a few of those. There were also, however, times of wonderful fun, impressive loyalties, abundant kindnesses, and very genuine friendships. Internecine politics — while not entirely absent — never seemed to compromise commitment to the greater endeavor. That commitment was a quality within, and between, the people who worked there. It was palpable inside the station and, I believe, made itself felt through ‘GBH’s output, not only outside in the Boston community, but at distances which could only be imagined.
Being part of Educational Television was an education in itself; we were daily rubbing elbows with the finest the world’s cultures had to offer. And I believe we all knew, at one level or another, that we were involved in something noble and admirable. It was that spirit which undergirded the beginnings of ‘Educational Television,’ and with time would build the enormous force for good that is now Public Broadcasting. The philosophy which grounded the functioning of the station was omnipresent. A whole litany of words would be needed to describe what the station stood for: integrity, insight, intelligence, ingenuity, honesty, sensitivity, inventiveness, professionalism, scholarship, idealism, co-cooperativeness, community, creativity, perseverance and team spirit …. just for starters. Of course we didn’t always make it to the tops of those mountains.
Financially, technically and practically the obstacles were often daunting. But pride in overcoming was frequent, and shortfalls were not due to a lack of desire or commitment. These qualities were embodied, day to day, by the people who were WGBH.
Apparently, they still are.
In the early days, one of our Boston University interns coined the phrase, “We don’t say much, but we don’t offend anyone.” If that was ever true, much certainly has changed. A glance at the line-up of the station’s output (particularly in the realm of documentary) shows a great deal of grown-up risk-taking. The maturing of WGBH is something to be proud of, and it must be observed that, if one is proud to be (or have been) part of WGBH, it is automatically true that one is also proud of everyone else who has given their talents to make the station what it is.
Past, present, future, WGBH is us …. all of us. The continuity of the alumni web site and the recurring alumni reunions attest to this fact.
So, pardon me for gushing (just a bit more), but there has always been something magical about the ‘GBH cachet, growing I believe from the station’s spoken, unspoken, and lived, philosophy, and from those who have striven to express it. The WGBH logo inspires, immediately, well deserved respect, not only throughout the industry, but among audiences worldwide.
The kid I referenced earlier is now almost 80. He’s run through quite a few personal and professional incarnations since his 6 years tenure at ‘GBH, but each of those eras have been informed and influenced by what he learned there — not only about broadcasting, but about the spirit at the heart of intelligent living.
He’s invariably moved when, during its station breaks, our local PBS station here in Honolulu intones its two slogans, “It’s not just TV. It’s a relationship,” and “Home is here.”