From Fred Barzyk
“Why does WGBH, a local public TV station in Boston, have such an impressive impact on media, culture and innovation?”
What follows are several responses to the question. (They are listed in reverse alphabetical order.)
Louis Wiley, Jr.
Louis Wiley Jr. is a graduate of Yale University and Georgetown Law School. Wiley began his career at WGBH in 1970. He worked on various local and national public affairs, history, and cultural programs over the years. From time to time he served as an unofficial advisor on controversial matters. Wiley’s primary duties were with FRONTLINE, the public affairs documentary series produced by WGBH for PBS. Wiley was Frontline’s Executive Editor until he retired in 2009. He continues to consult for FRONTLINE.
My Great Blue Hill
Back in 1966, “public” television was an idea being born. Federal monies would soon flow into “educational TV” the then-undernourished alternative to commercial fare. The writer E. B. White imagined this:
“… Non-commercial TV,” he wrote, “should address itself to the ideal of excellence, not the idea of acceptability … I think [it] should be providing the visual counterpart of the literary essay, should arouse our dreams, satisfy our hunger for beauty, take us on journeys, enable us to participate in events, present great drama and music, explore the sea and the sky and the woods and the hills. It should be our Lyceum, our Chautauqua, our Minsky’s, and our Camelot. It should restate and clarify the social dilemma and the political pickle.”
A year later, in 1967, before graduating from college, I applied to be a producer trainee at WGBH. I didn’t know about White’s letter at the time, but I had heard about funds flowing to this new, new thing and instinctively wanted to be a part of it. WGBH turned me down.
The back up plan was law school, and three years later when I graduated, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to practice law, so I wrote to WGBH again: was there a job for someone with absolutely no experience in television production, nor for that matter in journalism — just a young man who found the idea of using television for a great purpose appealing?
The gods of luck decided to arrange for me to see a fellow by the name of Peter McGhee. Presto! I was an editorial assistant making a staggering $10,000 a year on a national public affairs debate series called “The Advocates.” Over the years, Peter and many others would teach me so much about work and about life, and I would tether myself to WGBH for 30 years. I still consult despite my “retirement” back in 2009. Why?
Central to my experience at WGBH — my Great Blue Hill (the name of a hill south of Boston where the station’s original TV tower and transmitter were located) — was the concept of “mission.” We would commit ourselves to certain principles, and our programs and publications would aspire to live up to those principles. Of course when I was young and naïve, I didn’t appreciate how difficult it is to do the right thing and to try and get things right. By their nature, TV and radio are thin reeds for the transmission of difficult information, but they are sturdy enough for storytelling and performance. Over the years I would better understand how telling stories or embedding stories in any material could take audiences to the magical places we hoped we’d go.
The quality of those stories, and the programs within which they were told, however, depended on a hidden structure of intellectual and emotional intelligence and a vision of what WGBH could be. David Ives, Michael Rice, Henry Becton, Peter McGhee, Marita Rivero, and Brigid Sullivan were among the top executives I knew who pushed WGBH to reach ever higher in its commitment to the quality of the work we did. They were the ones, later joined by Jon Abbott and Margaret Drain, who had the wisdom to select formidable executive producers and give them wide creative latitude to hire the best people to actually make or acquire the programs.
If one key to WGBH’s success was its leadership, another was a lucky moment in time. In the 1970s, WGBH had virtually no competition on air as an alternative to commercial media. There was no cable and no internet. We could try things, and if they didn’t work, there were second chances.
Over the years, we developed series and broadcast specials, and eventually a new WGBH identity took root. We became the major supplier of documentary series to PBS (the Public Broadcasting Service); we imported high quality drama; we offered our own performance and cultural fare along with the first “how-to” programs; we pioneered children’s programs; and we paid attention to local matters. The decision to offer a potpourri of programming was decisive in giving us not one audience but many.
In the 1970s, David Ives, then head of the station, used to come on camera at the end of the broadcast day and sign off. This is part of what he said:
“… We offer programs that entertain, stimulate and inform. Our main purpose is help you cope better with world and in your own life. We are non-commercial. For the funds that keep us free, we depend entirely upon grants and contributions, large and small. These come from viewers and foundations as well as from businesses, corporations, and other agencies. We will always need your help.”
This was a nightly mantra that impressed me then, and even now I can hear his voice and feel the power of his words, which moved me to work at WGBH all those years (and still).
Much later in the 2000s, I was called upon to write up some publishing guidelines reflecting the essence of the stations character.
Rereading this language today, it seems a bit overwrought, but there were two key principles that I placed first and second in a list of what I thought WGBH should believe:
- The integrity of the information we communicate must be protected at all costs
- The essential noncommercial nature of the foundation’s core services should be maintained
By integrity, I meant that each program the audience encounters has not been improperly influenced by those who have paid for it, by those with whom we have business or editorial relationships, or by any political or special interest. Integrity, I wrote, requires that editorial control of the content we create must remain in our hands.
On the noncommercial point, I observed that commercial entities need to respond to the imperative of a bottom line. Content is dependent on commercial success and may be shaped in some cases to achieve that success. WGBH, I said, was born out of a conviction that there should be an alternative to commercial television and radio. While there were always commercial aspects to what we did, WGBH’s bottom line, I thought, should be to provide a service to our viewers, listeners, visitors, and readers and to keep our identity in the noncommercial world along with other cultural and educational institutions.
While WGBH personalities – on and off camera – and the backstory of how programs got funded and got made would provide plenty of material for storytelling, there were a few historical incidents of a different sort that are most vivid in my mind. These were the cases when I saw first hand the fundamental character of WGBH get tested. How the station dealt with these matters is one reason, in my opinion, why there is a degree of trust in its programs and in public media in general while trust in almost every other institution has fallen in recent years.
The first and perhaps most dramatic was the case of “Death of a Princess.” This 1980 controversy over a film about the execution of a Saudi princess and her lover would provide a fundamental test of the independence of WGBH and the network, PBS. It is the only case I know of when a high-ranking state department official urged PBS (and WGBH) to reconsider the plan to broadcast the film. This, by the way, happened under a Democratic, not Republican administration.
The Saudis were extremely angry and had actually kicked out Britain’s ambassador after the film aired in Britain. So, the Carter administration’s concern was understandable, but there was another factor in play. Mobil Oil Corporation was the chief underwriter of the drama series, “Masterpiece Theater,” and the company had taken out an ad in the New York Times denouncing the film. But would they punish WGBH by withdrawing their funding from “Masterpiece” because of unhappiness with a film being produced and presented by a different department at WGBH?
Right up until the night of the broadcast, it was not clear if PBS would send the program to the satellite for national distribution or pull the plug. In the end, they stood with WGBH which had booked satellite time separately and was prepared to offer it directly to stations, bypassing the network if need be. As for Mobil, they did not pull their funding from “Masterpiece,” thanks to the wisdom of a particular individual at the company.
I like to think that the “Death of a Princess” episode helped stiffen the resolve at WGBH, other stations, and PBS to push back against any attempt by government to use its influence or funders to use the power of the purse to interfere with editorial decisions. I remain convinced that had the film been cancelled, later controversial work at WGBH, especially at FRONTLINE, would not have been possible.
Many years later in 2005, it would be a children’s program that would ruffle feathers. A cartoon figure, a rabbit, was making his way around the country visiting real families of every description as a means of engaging kids with the geography of America and the diversity of this nation.
In Vermont, the rabbit encountered a family with two kids and two moms – a lesbian couple. This caused the Secretary of Education in Washington, whose department had provided funding for the series, to demand that its name be removed from the Vermont episode. Future funding commitments, it was intimated, would be reviewed. To its shame, PBS decided to pull that one episode from the national feed, but to its credit, WGBH offered the episode directly to the stations. About half the stations, mostly in larger markets, choose to air the Vermont story; the others choose not to do so.
I keep thinking about what the head of children’s programming at WGBH told me at the time: I wanted to send a message to those two kids in Vermont that they were part of the American family.
Then, there was the matter of the f-word. In a FRONTLINE film about the war in Iraq, soldiers under fire uttered the f-word, which the FCC had signaled might result in fines under its “indecency” regulations. The fines, theoretically, could have bankrupted WGBH, which was fully responsible for indemnifying any station that got into trouble. WGBH decided to push ahead and take the risk. It was only later that the FCC signaled that when soldiers used the word in a combat situation, the word would not be considered “obscene.” Still the threat of FCC fines set a chill throughout the public media system that lasts to this day. I am concerned that the FCC found a way into our editing rooms through the back door of regulating “indecency.”
I end this little memoir with some caveats. I have written this piece based on my best recollections, but obviously human memory is fallible. Others could verify what I have written or correct me. I also must confess that I wear slightly rose tinted glasses when it comes to WGBH.
I am sure not everyone who worked at the station would find it as impressive as I do. But I do! The aim of enriching the culture by trying to do television worth doing as former Vice President for National Programs, Peter McGhee, once said, is a laudable one.
I believe that the overwhelming sweep of scientific, political, historical, and cultural programming produced and acquired by WGBH across many platforms lived and still lives up to the goal of enlightening and energizing our audience instead of anesthetizing it.
Watching, listening or visiting WGBH programs and publications, a person might learn or experience something valuable. For that I remain proud of the station – the WGBH Educational Foundation.
Marita Rivero, formerly head of both TV and radio broadcast operation, has been at WGBH for many years.
The regional NATAS chapter (National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences) inducted me into their Silver Circle. In my thank you, I told them that, in my mid-twenties, when I thought about pursuing television work, it was because I didn’t see people like me, a black woman, on the screen. No people of color.
I was recently out of college, had taken myself to San Francisco and was working in an employment and retraining agency. Those people, my clients, weren’t on television either. I thought, “I’d like to tell these stories, perhaps in documentaries.” Public television reached a mass audience, many black people watched, and it was where I should probably wind up.
I didn’t know what the jobs in television were, so I just looked at the credit crawl at the end of a show and saw that the last title was Executive Producer. I guessed that that was what I should aim for and so, over a year or so, I found people mainly in commercial television to talk to about my interest in these stories and how to get into the field.
This was toward the end of sixties. The people I met with were all white men, and I remember that three of them looked across the desk and just laughed out loud at the idea that a young black woman wanted to be an executive producer. One had the grace to apologize and offer a patronizing “I’m sorry but you’re aiming high, aren’t you?”.
It was WGBH that took me in and offered a path forward. This is where I found a home and one I have left and then come back to. A commitment to what we call diversity, to giving people voice, to reflecting our communities has been a lifelong driver for me.
It hasn’t always been easy, of course, to be an early representative of difference or conversely to adjust to that person. I credit WGBH with finding ways to accommodate me and to create a space in which I could work. I’m grateful for that.
As I said at that NATAS dinner, early on during my discouraging search for an entry point to broadcasting, I decided that whatever else I might do in life, I was definitely going to be an executive producer … whatever that was. It all worked out pretty well.
What makes WGBH special:
It was able to accommodate a few people who were coming at broadcast from different ethnic or gender points of view
It could create national and local programming early on that embraced a more diverse presentation of history and culture than was usual in the industry
It was clear about aiming for excellence across the board
It was big enough in spirit to make room for experimentation and innovation
It had tolerance for the marriage of the creative community’s imprecision with the financial imperative of a balanced budget
It had a respect for people, in general, meaning there was room for both individuality and a base goal of collegial discourse
Bob Ferrante was head of the news department at the CBS-TV station in Chicago before he came to WGBH. His last assignment was running The World, the radio news program created by BBC and WGBH.
Through those early years in the television news department, you began to realize the real sense of WGBH, then, as it still is today. The importance of the craft, the things we do as television producers mattered more to WGBH, that whole management team, than anything else I can ever imagine. I came from commercial television where I was news director for a couple of television stations. At WGBH, I felt like I had really found a place I could never leave.
When I came here, I felt there was an interest in what I did for a living. And the interest was in the whole building. The management headed by Michel Rice, and Bob Larson who he reported to, and David Ives … the three of them together gave this place an attitude that was tough to pass by.
And I look around at the producers today like that I still see — like yourself [Fred Barzyk was interviewer] — and the truth is, this is the only place that I know of in the world where you can practice your craft. We have difference of opinions of who is good at the craft and who isn’t, but for the most part that is the guiding light.
Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece Theater, Downton Abby and Mystery for 28 years, is an example of how the station gambled on young talent, nurtured them, and eventually found them heading up major projects.
The executive producers of Antique Road Show (started as a secretary), Nova (started as a production assistant), Children’s Programming (started as a production assistant) are all women and have been at the station for decades.
In this story, Rebecca was concluding a 1-year job in London working for BBC Radio in 1970.
Excerpts from “Making Masterpiece” (Viking, 2013)
I landed back in America at a particularly fortuitous time for someone stumbling into public broadcasting. PBS had gone on the air in 1970, in spite of a chronically underfunded business plan. Most interesting to me was a new radio outfit called National Public Radio which was just being created — it sounded much like the BBC World Service I had just left….
I sent a rather feeble “please hire me” to the radio managers of the public broadcasting stations in the three cities where I could picture myself living: San Francisco, Washington, and Boston. Miraculously, Bob Carey at WGBH radio in Boston called me in for an interview and offered me a job. For that break, I’ve always credited equally me Vassar degree, my BBC credentials, and my miniskirt.
He didn’t pay me at first — I guess you’d call me an intern today. But eventually I became the facilities booker, the programmer, and the arts producer for the FM station. I did interviews and edited tape and made dear friends, people in different departments who would go on to become the creators of the solid gold programming for which PBS is known: Paula Apsell [NOVA Executive Producer] … (and) Henry Becton, my once and future mentor. [Henry was President of WGBH from 1984 to 2013.]
He was then the producer of Catch 44 [on our UHF station], a pioneering public-access television program.
Public access meant giving real people an opportunity to use the public airwaves. Henry came up with the idea. … “We wanted to break down the barriers”, he explained,” and give everyone a chance to be heard.”
Even though Catch 44 was a local Boston show it was written up on the front page of The Wall Street Journal.
The BBC copied its format, flying Henry over to London for a week to show its producers the ropes.
I was one of three people hired to work on the show… for the next 10 years or so I did my apprentice work in television.
Rebecca soon started making documentaries, especially several excellent ones with John Updike. After Joan Wilson died of cancer, Rebecca took over as the Executive Producer of Masterpiece. Here are Rebecca’s insights into being a good producer at WGBH.
First you settle on an idea you love, or at least one that you think you can manage. Then you persuade other people to give you the money to make it — always more than they want to and less than you need. Then you must communicate your vision to the people who actually have their fingers on the creative triggers: documentary subjects, actors, cameramen, lighting directors, editors, … and so on.
You work hard to stick to your vision while still being open to the possibility that someone else’s good idea, or just the serendipity of events, could change things dramatically for the better. You have to stay firm and flexible: it’s like holding a yoga pose for months. And you must always push to reveal something new: an insight, a juxtaposition of images and ideas, a unique expression of an emotion, a piece of information.
I found the process to be exhilarating and extremely uncomfortable. Producing is a task of constantly negotiating obstacles and coming up with solutions to problems over and over again. You get terribly discouraged and panicky. Then suddenly you tap into something where ideas take off and fly, almost on their own. And you hang on for dear life. I suppose it’s the nature of creativity, and I think it must be the same for … anyone who makes something out of nothing. It’s a combination of hard work and grace.
I served as a producer/director from 1958 – 2006.
1. Excellence was demanded of all
May 2, 1955: WGBH signs on for the first time at 5:20 PM on Channel 2, four years after the first radio broadcast of WGBH-FM and 119 years after a bequest by John Lowell, Jr. providing for “public lectures for the benefit of the citizens of Boston.”
Lowell’s bequest led to the creation of the Lowell Institute and eventually its Cooperative Broadcasting Council. The LICBC, in turn, led to the establishment of the WGBH Educational Foundation.
Since the leading educational and cultural institutions in Boston were our creators, WGBH was also considered to be an instant “superior” institution. We arrived already blessed with class.
I still remember a Boston Globe cartoon. A rather wealthy couple is seen at home. The husband is watching TV and the wife is looking out the window. She sees a couple on their way to their doorstep. The cartoon caption:
“Here come the Cabots. Quick, put on Channel 2!!!”
The need for excellence was part of the Foundation’s mandate, not only in the content, but also in the execution of the work. The demand was clear: the best equipment, the best audio, the best directing, and the best editing. And the station hired the best broadcast and engineering talent they could find.
To my thinking, engineer Bill Busick and his use of a single microphone to capture the Boston Symphony Orchestra was an audio breakthrough (this was before stereo).
Dave Davis, station manager, demanded the best looking pictures from the engineering department, which caused extended setup time. This extra step also led to a sense of pride in the engineering staff.
Greg Harney, production manager, brought in from CBS, made the lighting of our early TV shows a priority.
Don Hallock’s camera work on those heavy studio cameras was amazing. Don was considered by many network professionals to be the best TV cameraperson they had ever known. If you can recall the famous live shot of Barbara Streisand standing on a tug boat in New York harbor singing as a camera mounted on a helicopter flew down to her until it was nothing but a close up her face. That was Don.
And there were so many others who passed through the doors of WGBH.
Excellence was demanded from everyone since we were a “superior” Boston institution.
2. WGBH allowed “bottom up” creation of programming
From the very beginning of my 50 plus years at WGBH, it was my initial hiring that probably was the most indicative of this thesis.
I arrived in Boston in June, 1958. I had been awarded a scholarship to attend Boston University studying for my Master Degree in Communication. The scholarship stipulated that I had to work 3 days a week at a little educational television station, WGBH. My tuition was paid in full and I received a stipend of $600 for my one-year service.
I spent most of my time at WGBH and was offered a part time job (for 3 months) directing after the scholarship ended. My real plans were to go to Yale Drama School and make my career in the theater. However, I had no money to go to grad school and happily took the TV directing job. This happened two more times. And then …
It was 1960 and I was back in my hometown, Milwaukee. After my yearlong stint as a WGBH/BU scholar, I had a job at Novini Polski, Milwaukee’s Polish newspaper. My job was to scan the big Milwaukee Journal newspaper and then call up landlords who had advertised in the Journal for renters. I was to convince them that Polish people were “good and responsible renters” and that they should put advertising in our little Polish newspaper.
I was there only a couple of days when the head honcho yells out that I had a phone call. Who the hell knew I was here except my Mom? I picked up the phone and it was Greg Harney, WGBH TV Production Manager. He said I had to choose right then and there: pursue going to Yale Drama school or come to WGBH as a full time TV Director. He offered me $80 a week. I was 22 and the thought of giving up the dream of being a theater director was heart wrenching. But $80 and being a TV director was a hell of lot better than working at Novini Poliski. And then I (maybe) went too far.
I would accept his offer if WGBH would let me do a TV drama of my choice, and I would need four days in the studio and it wouldn’t cost the Foundation a cent.
I would use amateur actors, get free costumes and pay for the rights myself. (I had no money!)
There was a long pause.
And then he said yes.
And there it was. WGBH management would allow the creation of programs from the bottom up. That first show, “Three Days” still exists in the WGBH archive on 2-inch tape in glorious black and white.
Michael Ambrosino is the creator of “Nova.”
1. In Boston, ideas have merit. You don’t create NOVA, FRONTLINE, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, VIETNAM, EYES ON THE PRIZE, ODYSSEY and others in an intellectual vacuum. The greater Boston area is filled with folks keenly interested in ideas, research, politics, and culture.
Years ago when researching a project, I counted up 142 four- and two-year colleges and universities. There is more to talk about than the Patriots!
2. Next, WGBH always had a bit more ready cash to use for the development of projects. Money makes possible the time to really research the subject, and to develop concrete ideas in the form of realistic and readable pleas for production funding. I’ve sat on panels that decided who got production grants from NEH and NSF. Many proposals were often long on “needs” and short on facts. WGBH proposals made you believe the producers knew what they were talking about.
3. That said, I will paraphrase Hugh Wheldon, Managing Director of Broadcasting at BBC when I was there, “Program ideas are worthless. A program idea without a producer attached who is capable of carrying it out with intelligence and grace is just a paper document.”
People were attracted to work at WGBH because they knew they could do their best work here. We were given support and freedom to create and develop our projects in the way we saw them.
4. Hartford Gunn was the reason we came. Extremely farsighted and willing to take enormous risks, he was the President of the station from the 50s to the 70s during its time of growth from educational broadcasting to public broadcasting.
One example. Although he hired me to create a department to create new programs for school broadcasting, first assignment was to design a total TV production facility to fit into the as yet un-excavated basement of the University of New Hampshire’s Student Union that was under construction.
His idea was to go to the President of UNH with the blueprints and suggest that he excavate the basement, so that in the future, when they both would go to the New Hampshire Legislature for funds to build New Hampshire Public Television, they could tell them they had the space already! He played chess many moves ahead.
WGBH had the first video tape recorder in public television. Hartford moved the station into color as soon as it was possible and he inspired and pushed through the creation of the Eastern Educational Network, the nation’s first regional public television network.
He also was the first President of PBS and moved it quickly into national program distribution by satellite, years before the commercial networks.
5. Strangely enough, WGBH prospered because it wasn’t New York, Washington, or Los Angeles. Every thing and every body we needed was close at hands. For a cheap lunch, you could assemble the best minds on your topic and folks were willing and eager to help.