Hartford N. Gunn, Jr. — 1927-1986

From Larry Creshkoff — 3/20/2000

When Hartford Gunn came to work at Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council (LICBC) in the spring of 1951, he had four things in common with the three twenty-something staffers that Parker Wheatley had employed (and retained) over the previous four years. Like them, he was very young. Like them, he had been in uniform during World War II. Like them, he was taking his first full-time civilian job. And like them, he had had no professional experience in radio.

But there were differences, too. While all of them had either majored in broadcasting at college or been members of their college’s undergraduate radio station, the first three were programming and production types; Hartford had been a techie. Moreover, he also had something they didn’t have: an MBA.

Ralph Tangney, Jack Summerfield, and Larry Creshkoff had been hired to develop and produce programs that would be broadcast by five Boston radio stations (WBZ, WCOP, WEEI, WHDH, and WMEX). They had served as junior members of Wheatley’s creative team, with the mission of extending the reach into the community of the Council members. Gunn, on the other hand, had been hired, in effect, to provide a countervailing force to the somewhat free-wheeling style that characterized that little band of brothers with educational-uplift stardust in their eyes.

By the time Hartford came on board, a construction permit for an FM station had been granted, and LICBC’s mission was broadened beyond its previous role as a production agency only. This called for a number of changes in the organization’s executive structure. The Council’s chairman and ace-in-the-hole financial backer, Ralph Lowell, acknowledged Parker Wheatley’s programming creativity but disparaged his administrative skills and insisted that an assistant be hired to handle the business affairs of the station-to-be. Thus, Gunn’s first assignment was to get the station on the air, which meant dealing with — among other things — electronic hardware, broadcast engineers, studio space, and finances. It also meant dealing on a bottom-line level with Lowell. The original crew was delighted to have somebody else who would worry about budgets and other such distasteful, mundane details. At a very fundamental level, however, they felt that Hartford was from another planet.

Ultimately, of course, it would be Gunn who prevailed. WGBH-FM did get on the air that fall, followed in 1955 by WGBH-TV. Over the next two years, however, the differences between Wheatley’s and Lowell’s management styles multiplied, and Gunn was chosen to succeed Wheatley as general manager. Soon he was the only member of the original team still in place, and his star continued to rise. To quote a leading veteran of the public television scene:

“In the dozen years during which he led the Boston station, Gunn moved it into the front ranks of public television, positioning it as one of the nation’s top two public stations. In the course of those years, Gunn created the first interconnected regional network (Eastern Educational Television Network) and goaded NET into adopting higher technical standards, including a major shift into color television. Later, at PBS, he led the planning for the satellite distribution system that is in place today. Gunn was a ‘systems man,’ a master planner, somewhat less interested in programs than in perfecting the process that produced them.”

—James Day in The Vanishing Vision (1995), p. 254

During his presidency of PBS, he survived some nasty confrontations with the Nixon administration, but by 1975 the chairman of the PBS board was at odds with Hartford over his management style. He was replaced as president and moved into a position as vice-chairman, where he worked on long-range planning. The irony of his departure from the PBS presidency because of a clash with the chairman of his board was not lost on those who remembered that 18 years earlier Hartford had become general manager of WGBH following a conflict over management style between Ralph Lowell and Parker Wheatley.

As vice-chairman of the PBS board, he was able to launch a number of projects for the entire network that are still in place. However, in 1977 he learned he had a rare form of cancer of the thyroid. He left PBS and returned to work at the station level in 1980, when he became senior vice-president and general manager of KCET in Los Angeles.

Subsequently he served as vice-president of program development for COMSAT. For nine years after discovery of his illness, Hartford underwent repeated medical interventions that included radiation, chemotherapy, and unsuccessful surgery. He died on January 2, 1986, at Massachusetts General Hospital.

During his 35 years in public broadcasting, Hartford left his mark — in the structures he developed, the people he hired and promoted, the programs he helped to see the light of day, the many battles he fought. He demonstrated — despite the early qualms of his young colleagues in 1951 — that a head for the bottom line does not automatically equate with Philistinism. Hartford had a firm commitment to make use of technology in order to build and strengthen an alternative broadcast communication system beyond what was then available — before videotape, before color, before public financing, before satellite distribution, before the personal computer. We can, of course, only imagine his reaction today if he were to contemplate the approaching interplay in the worlds of broadcasting, education, and the Internet. But I can just see him rubbing his hands in gleeful anticipation as he says, “Now there’s a challenge worth tackling!”

4 Comments

  1. Frederick . Barzyk on December 3, 2023 at 11:19 am

    For a look at what David Ives and Jack Hurley said about Hartford, put in this link to see them reflect back in 1999. Here is the link. It goes on for 16 minutes with appearances by Greg Harney, Frank Lane, Ann Damon, Bill Cosel, Ron Della Cheisa and many more. Enjoy a trip into the past.
    https://www.wgbhalumni.org/2015/06/07/video-from-the-vault/

  2. John Beck on November 10, 2023 at 8:32 pm

    Even after leaving GBH for PBS, Hartford was frequently at his house in Chatham on the Cape, and a loyal listener
    of GBH-FM and the BBC World Service. This led to visits and conversations while I was radio manager and then at WNYC. He was still a techie — with an early mobile phone in his car — but it was also clear that he understood that an element of “show business” and personality were essential to broader acceptance of public tv programs, and GBH excelled in putting unique and engaging (and highly qualified) people at the center of many of its programs. It boosted whole fields now highly popular: cooking shows, tennis, home repair, gardening. Hartford even brought Barbara Cook in her cabaret years to perform for a PBS stations meeting, though that was not the best venue for her.

  3. Michael Ambrosino on November 8, 2023 at 6:51 pm

    Hartford Gunn was clever and far seeing. He was always looking years ahead while the rest of us worked day to day.
    The first task he gave me when I joined WGBH in 1956 was to design a TV station’s production facilities that would fit into a long and skinny area. (Something rarely done because it made communication difficult.
    Hartford took the blueprint of my design to a meeting with the President of The University of New Hampshire telling him, “One educational station in New England will never survive. Soon, you will be going to the New Hampshire Legislature for funds for the New Hampshire station. You can tell them you have a design all ready. You are now building a new Student Union but not excavating the basement.
    Excavate the basement and you will be able to tell the Legislature that you have the free space to put the station!”
    The first location of WENH-TV, Durham New Hampshire was in that basement.
    He also tasked me to help him create the nation’s first regional educational television network, EEN, from Boston to Pittsburgh and from Washington, DC to Canada.
    Working for Hartford was always an experience.
    Michael Ambrosino
    WGBH 1956-1976

    • Jay Collier on November 8, 2023 at 8:44 pm

      And he was lucky to have you, Michael.

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