Over the next few months, we are sharing The Money Room, a bit of history written by John Kerr, John Carver, and Sam Tyler whose fundraising careers at WGBH spanned three decades.
By John Carver
The winter of 1979 was harsh, but not as bad as the one preceding it, which delivered the Storm of the Century, the Blizzard of ’78. But what made ’79 tough on everyone was that interest rates had soared into the teens and people couldn’t move. They were stuck in one place.
‘GBH to the rescue. Russ Morash, legendary producer of Julia Child and The Victory Garden was hatching an idea that we called Shelter, for want of a better name. This Old House would come later. But first we had to raise some dough and it fell to me to lead the charge.
Russ handed me a one-page sell sheet with no particulars … no real budget or definition, no host, and definitely no house. Roughly priced at $50k to produce a 13-week first season (no, that’s not a typo), TOH was to be broadcast only in the Channel Two signal range if and when we found underwriting.
The very next day turned out to be uncommonly lucky for me as I on a mission to try every bank or insurance company in Boston. My first call was to The Boston Five Cents saving bank, a leader in home mortgage loans. Their president, Bob Spiller, had the reputation of being a maverick who often made unpredictable marketing moves, so I decided to start at the top.
I called Spiller on the phone, and surprisingly he answered himself … no gate keeper. I told him what little I could about our idea to fix up an old house on television, my first time trying it out, and he took the bait. After a pregnant pause of about 30 seconds, Spiller asked me to say it all again, just to make sure he heard right. Then he asked if I was free for lunch and could I run down to his office as soon as possible. Lady Luck was grinning at me as I hustled downtown. After a friendly greeting and a quick recap of the idea, we came to the price of $50k and Spiller asked if two banks could share underwriting. No problem said I.
Spiller then picked up his phone and called his counterpart at Suffolk-Franklin Bank, Herb Gray. “Hey Herb, I have a guy from Channel Two here can you come over for a bite”? Within minutes Gray arrived and I made my pitch for the third time in 90 minutes. By the time the sandwiches were consumed, Spiller, Gray and I were fast friends and a deal was struck. Both banks were on board at $25k plus a promise of some start-up promotion funding.
I couldn’t believe how fast it all happened. Here I was on the Mass Pike heading back to the station, clutching two $10k checks as a binder, and wondering if I would ever have another day like this one. And I did not.
But the look on Morash’s face when I dropped the checks on his desk was one of pure astonishment.
By the end of the first season, the program was a major hit, with positive reviews and a huge local audience. Stations across the country wanted in and happily funded most of season 2, thus cementing the birth of a legend.
Back in Boston, when the season 1 renovation was complete, we auctioned off the property at 6 Percival Street in Dorchester live on Channel 2 for $55,000. The circle was complete – we raised $50,000 then spent $50,000 and then made $55,000. The glory days of development.
Read more entries in The Money Room series.
Special thanks to Gene Mackles for the series wordmark.