Static at BNN

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  July 16, 2010

The irony of this is not lost on those familiar with BNN, who point out that Henderson, 62, is a veteran of network infighting. Henderson won his current position by leveraging internal dissent 13 years ago and staging an in-house coup.

Punks and passions
Born more than two decades before the YouTube age, BNN has been a prize-winning national cable access model of sorts, as well as Boston's premier destination for hyper-local news, advocacy programming, and some seriously eccentric tomfoolery since 1983. Airing programs ranging from the punk diary The Life We Lead to the cuisine-themed Lost in the Sauce, from early on the network served as a clearinghouse for Hub residents to share and showcase their passions. "I feel like what we've done has been deeply appreciated," says Al McFarlan, a 23-year host whose still-running Strickly Hip-Hop once featured Maurice Starr coaching a prepubescent New Kids on the Block. "Everywhere I go I run into young people who tell me they grew up on my show and the local artists I had on there."

It made sense that residents took advantage of the opportunities that BNN offered. They were paying for the programming through cable surcharges that were at first rerouted to the access network (under federal mandate) by Cablevision, which also donated the equipment for BNN's first studio on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Roxbury. BNN hit a stride in the 1990s, moving part of its operation into the State Transportation Building in Park Square, and in 1995 even trumped more than 1200 similar networks nationwide to be named outstanding public-access television group by the Alliance for Community Media (ACM). But even in those good times, certain managers and board members were unhappy with how business was conducted, and decided to broadcast their contentions.

BNN rebels stormed the perimeter of their downtown studio on primary night in September 1996, when Henderson and then–board of directors chairman Denis Martin led a picket and audibly interrupted election coverage. There had been storm clouds above the station since earlier that year, when a report by the independent Communications Policy Group showed that viewers had "lukewarm" support for BNN, and in March of 1997, after an embarrassing public power struggle, the board asked long-time general manager Hubert Jessup to step down. To make matters worse, before resigning themselves, Jessup's board allies secured his $75,000 salary through the end of that year. In light of dire developments, then-Boston Herald television critic Monica Collins predicted the worst: "The gang that couldn't shoot straight continues to aim at its feet," she wrote of the nearly bankrupt organization. "Because of the Jessup deal — as well as other financial mismanagement — BNN is on the verge of annihilation."

'He's always worried'
Long before he was making slightly more than $100,000 as GM of BNN, the Roxbury-born Henderson was a sergeant with the Army's Transportation Corps in Vietnam. Following the war, the English High and Boston Business School graduate worked as a musician and truck driver until finding BNN in 1984. After taking some classes, Henderson began teaching other aspiring producers how to handle equipment and plan shows, and was rewarded for his service with a full-time studio manager job in 1986.

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