Over the next few months, we are sharing a bit of history written by John Kerr, John Carver, and Sam Tyler whose fundraising careers at WGBH spanned three decades.
By John Kerr
The story of how one particular person got so smitten by ‘GBH that he became its main beggar.
How I Got There
Having finished college in 1960, I locked my Ideor racing bike to a post near Tech Drugs and climbed the stairs at 84 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.
WGBH’s radio and television studios were then in the former roller-skating rink on the second floor.
I presented myself to receptionist Rose Buresh as a “WGBH/BU Scholar.” Rose introduced me to our crew bosses Greg Harney, Al Potter, Bob Moscone — and to my fellow crew members.
How was I to know what inspiration was ahead, and that I would later serve as the public spokesperson and main mendicant for WGBH?
What I Did at 84 Mass Ave
I quickly learned that WGBH was run by a small, dedicated bunch of energetic innovators who firmly believed that “educational broadcasting” was worthwhile.
A former WHRB Harvard radio leader Hartford Gunn was beginning to weave stations into a network. Innovative producers were creating programs that educated and inspired on both radio and television.
It began because of Ralph Lowell, who in 1951 had signed the heads of Boston’s leading universities and cultural organizations as members of the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council. Lowell’s idea extended the idea of providing public lectures to the citizens of Boston in the preceding century. The LICBC held the idea that non-commercial radio and television could be used for education and inspiration instead of for selling products – a concept which led to the origins of WGBH Radio and then of Channel 2, Channel 44, and Channel 57.
The WGBH Educational Foundation received its first broadcast license for radio in 1951. Lowell and the governing LICBC hired Parker Wheatly and then Hartford Gunn to get the ball rolling.
By the time I got there in 1960, we were regularly recording the Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts from Harvard’s Sanders Theatre on two-inch tape.
Jordan Whitelaw, WGBH’s fastidious and brilliant music manager and a cum laude graduate of Harvard, would bring us together in a small conference room, play us an audio recording, and teach us how to televise symphonic music.
Engineers Bill Busiek, Bob Hall, John LaBounty and Will Morton made it happen, and Dave Davis directed us.
I helped haul my heavy camera into the dusty crawl space over the stage to take shots of Charles Munch conducting the BSO. We then “bicycled” – or mailed –the recordings around the country to other “educational” stations for later broadcast.
For me, sitting there in my dusty aerie above the stage listening to the BSO was pure magic.
To give you an idea of the skills of our crew, one of my fellow crew members was Eric Oddleifson, a quiet supporter of the arts, a clarinet player, champion sailor, rower, and a graduate of Harvard and of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. Eric and his wife lived in Hingham, and volunteered at WGBH as a member of the television crew.
Another crew colleague was the hyper-enthusiastic Al Hinderstein, who went on to become a regional leader in public broadcasting.
At 84 Massachusetts Avenue, we broadcast Louis Lyons’ nightly NEWS AND COMMENTS on Channel 2 live from our FM studio. The space was so small that our two cameras had to shoot through the studio glass from the hallway. Hinderstein and I would alternatively sit on the floor under the wall clock to give Mr. Lyons his wind-up cues, which he often would ignore. Curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, viewers hung on Lyons’ every word and comment, so if he ran over a few seconds, it never much mattered.
Dave Davis also directed a production of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas from our studios before he later went to Israel and then joined the Ford Foundation where he distributed $150 million in grants to PBS.
When I was on the crew, Brandeis founding president and historian Abram Sachar also delivered his brilliant COURSE OF OUR TIME series into my camera and into the homes of thousands of our viewers.
Diana Michaelis and Henry Morganthau III brought Eleanor Roosevelt, Krishna Menon, Robert Frost, and other luminaries into WGBH for stunning interviews on their PROSPECTS OF MANKIND series. Madame Anne Slack taught French on Channel 2 from our studios.
We worked hard to make all these programs happen. Each such experience taught us something, informed our viewers, and was an inspiration.
Boston priest Norman J. O’Connor hosted a popular jazz series on WGBH-FM. The Boston Herald’s theatre critic Elliot Norton interviewed major stars and talked about theatre in a couple of rows of theatre seats in the long-running series. We “scholars” pushed the rear-projection screen in and out of our primitive set.
John LaBounty, Bob Hall, Tom Conley and Will Morton set new standards for video and audio engineering and helped us convert from kinescope to tape.
While we “scholars” did our work, Hartford Gunn and Bob Larsen began to interconnect educational stations into a cooperating network through the Eastern Educational Television Network (EEN) — and then PBS. Public broadcasting was taking root, and we were each a part of it from the ground floor. It was mind-blowing.
Michael Ambrosino took our programs into schools on his 21 INCH CLASSROOM and later created a science unit at WGBH and launched NOVA from scratch.
Bill Cavness, outraged that Dr. Zhivago had been banned by the Soviets, read Pasternak’s entire book on WGBH Radio and started his long-running READING ALOUD series.
Susanna Van Cleef (Joannidis) scheduled our programs.
David O. Ives, a Harvard man and keen writer at The Wall Street Journal, came to WGBH as its chief fund-raiser in 1960 – the same year that I climbed the stairs and began my work as a “BU scholar”.
Read more entries in The Money Room series.
Special thanks to Gene Mackles for the series wordmark.