The new WGBH lineup

Aaron Read
Wed Nov 18 13:08:05 EST 2009

 >> Good host--if you are into his pompous presentation. But from what
 >> I've heard, not a very good person. The way I heard it, he took U
 >> Mass Lowell for a very expensive ride a few years back and delivered 
 >> just about nothing at all.

Before you attack a man's character, you ought to know all the relevant 
details.  More history of WUML is needed to understand Chris's 
involvement with them.

Yes Chris has an ego and yes, it's pretty big.  Of course he does: he's 
a talk show host.  You can't survive that kind of job unless you've got 
a big ego, much less succeed at it.  But he didn't take UML for a ride: 
he just sat in the limo that the UML administration hired for him.

In 2002-03, UMass Chancellor William Hogan charged all the UMass 
campuses to find ways to better utilize their communications outlets. 
This wasn't exclusive to their radio stations, but WUML was considered 
"low hanging fruit" because of it's stereotypical "college radio" 
format, facilities, and style of management.  Not to mention it's 
"college radio" programming and audience, which were both "niche", to 
put it kindly.

With that political backing, the director of Public Affairs at UMass 
Lowell, Lou DiNatale, really had a liking for the idea that WUML (then 
WJUL) could be the WBUR for Merrimack Valley; powerful, lots of 
listeners, politically relevant, award-winning and (let's not forget) 
fiscally self-sufficient (if not turning a little profit).  To that end, 
they embarked on plans for three major initiatives: one was to 
eventually get the Lowell Spinners baseball games on WUML, one was to 
launch a morning news show in partnership with the Lowell Sun newspaper, 
and one was to provide a home for Chris Lydon, who was looking for a 
home for the nascent "Radio Open Source".

WUML provided substantial funding because the idea was that ROS would 
start out being produced at WGBH but eventually would move up to UMass 
Lowell's campus into new studios that were slated for construction. 
Chris would teach a few classes in the "visiting lecturer" style, and 
they'd produce a Merrimack-Valley-focused version of ROS for Friday 
afternoons, using a lot of students for help.  All this would be the 
cornerstone of a major communications curriculum initiative on UMass 
Lowell's part.  Viewed in that light, having Chris was a stroke of 
genius because he brought substantial star power and credibility to a 
college that didn't have either when it came to communications.

Alas, the whole thing never happened because, and this is my own 
armchair quarterbacking here, UMass Lowell made a classic error in 
college radio: they tried to have it both ways.  Keep the students 
involved so you can still say it's a student activity, but exclude them 
from any real power or decisions.  This NEVER works, and the result was 
predictable: the students out-and-out revolted.  Now, to be fair, the 
students fought very dirty and did things I thought were wholly 
inappropriate...and guaranteed that they would never be taken seriously 
by the administration...but given how UMass Lowell approached this whole 
thing, I'm not surprised they acted they way they did.

Eventually the political fallout got pretty big, and - more importantly 
- Jack Wilson came in as the new President of UMass Lowell and he had no 
real desire to continue this fight, nor did he have the money to pursue 
the big, fancy, communications curriculum idea anymore.  So he ended the 
fiscal support of Radio Open Source (and, later, of the Lowell Sunrise 
show...which the financially-shaky Lowell Sun had long since backed out 
of themselves).  WUML eventually went back to the way it had been (a 
prototypical college radio station) and Radio Open Source was left in a 
bind.  Without their main source of funding, potential affiliates 
shunned the show.  A quarter-million-dollar MacArthur grant was 
achieved, but that only covers about 3-4 months of a major, national NPR 
show's production costs.  Eventually it all just imploded under the 
costs and ROS became a podcast-only...although they are just now 
gradually re-purposing the podcasts into radio-friendly shows on PRX (I 
just started emailing them last week about that for WEOS).  Maybe ROS 
could've cut costs and survived longer  as a radio show but knowing what 
I know of the details...which is quite a lot, but not everything...I 
doubt it would've worked in the end.  Producing quality radio is 
expensive, y'know?

Personally, I don't think Chris *wants* to be a radio talk show host 
anymore.  To draw on the immortal words of Murtaugh from Lethal Weapon: 
he's too old for that sh*t.  It's a lot of work and he's already 
re-invented himself three times now.  Plus, I know Chris and I know he 
believes passionately that web media, not radio, is the future.  I'm 
sure he'll be happy to have broadcast outlets that will, in effect, 
promote his web venture, but he's not interested in being a radio show 
first, and web outlet second.  He wants it the other way around.

And there is the practical angle: WBUR, obviously, won't touch him after 
the fallout from him and Jane back in 2001, and they're happy with Tom 
Ashbrook as host of OnPoint anyways.  (for the record, I'm the first to 
admit that neither side was "innocent" in that debacle)  WGBH won't have 
Radio Open Source as a daily show, not after Lydon's stints as ROS host 
and as TV anchor.  But I could see WGBH airing the new weekly version, 
especially since it wouldn't mean any direct this 
go-around, having Lydon on their airwaves is no different than having 
any other nationally-syndicated show on the airwaves; there's no 
inherent downside there.

Now, all that said, I'd like to say a little on WGBH's proposed 
schedule, too.  There are ample studies that say that duplication of NPR 
programming can (and often does) lead to more overall listeners for BOTH 
stations.  So don't assume that just because WGBH airs a show that WBUR 
also airs that it's automatically a bad thing.  And airing a show at a 
different time can attract a COMPLETELY different audience.  At WEOS we 
got a lot of complaints when we moved Fresh Air from 12n-1pm to 1pm-2pm. 
  Why?  It was because lots of people listened to Terry during their 
lunch breaks.  (if I could, I'd move it back, but it was the only way to 
"fix" our schedule when News & Notes ended earlier this year)

Also, two major things worth noting: Whad'ya Know hasn't had a Boston 
outlet in years (honestly, I didn't think they'd had one ever) and it's 
one of the biggest markets that they don't have.  So this is a major 
coup for them.  The main WYK show is live from 11am - 1pm ET on 
Saturdays and you can't air just one hour of it; there's just one break 
after the first hour and it floats so there's no way to realistically 
take one hour.  HOWEVER, WYK also offers a "WYK Radio Hour" which is a 
separate show done in the same style, but is not distributed live and 
is, of course, just one hour long.

FWIW, Diane Rehm currently airs on WBUR in a reciprocation deal they 
have with WAMU for OnPoint; each airs the other's show later at night (I 
think 9pm).  I wonder if this means WAMU will eventually drop OnPoint 
since WGBH will have it live?  It's a possibility since Talk of the 
Nation doesn't have a DC affiliate (the irony, eh?) and in theory WAMU 
could move Tell Me More to a later hour and at least air one hour of 
TOTN...although given the demographics of both shows, and of DC, that 
could be a politically sensitive move.  And concordantly, one wonders 
what would happen to Diane Rehm on WBUR at 10pm?

More importantly to Boston, it will be VERY interesting to see what 
happens to OnPoint's ratings locally with it going up against Diane Rehm 
from 10am-12n.  A lot of people can't stand Rehm's voice because of her 
spasmodic dysphonia, but she is a VERY smart interviewer...and the other 
guest hosts, like Susan Page, are generally pretty good, too.  Rehm's 
show skews a lot more towards Washington and international politics than 
OnPoint does, something Boston hasn't had much of before, either.

Aaron Read                  |  Finger Lakes Public Radio       |  General Manager (WEOS & WHWS-LP)
Geneva, NY 14456            | /

More information about the Boston-Radio-Interest mailing list