When Christopher Lydon — ex–New York Times reporter, former Boston mayoral candidate, self-styled “venture broadcaster,” and host of the radio program Open Source — announced earlier this week that his show and the University of Massachusetts Lowell were parting ways, he did so in typically Lydonian fashion.
“We wanted UMass Lowell around for the longer term,” Lydon wrote at RadioOpenSource.org. “We loved the association along Thoreau’s own Merrimack River with both town (as in: Kerouac, Whistler, Tsongas) and gown (as in: green chemistry, nanotechnology, and endless regeneration of immigrants and industry).”
Alas, it was not to be. According to UMass Lowell spokesperson Patti McCafferty, interim chancellor David MacKenzie decided the school couldn’t afford to keep paying Lydon $12,500 a month to host Open Source — which, confusingly, is broadcast in Boston by WGBH (89.7 FM) and distributed nationally by Public Radio International. (UMass Lowell has also been footing the bill for five other Open Source staffers, including long-time Lydon producer Mary McGrath; the total monthly tab comes to $38,000) “It was entirely for financial reasons,” McCafferty said. “We always re-evaluate contracts when they come up” — the Open Source contracts expire at the end of December — “and the chancellor made the decision that this was not something we could continue, given our limited resources.”
If the ambitious vision outlined when Open Source and UMass Lowell first teamed up had been realized, things might have turned out differently (see “Lydon Returns,” News and Features, March 11, 2005). Lydon was supposed to help develop a new communications major at the university and launch a Lowell-focused program on campus station WUML; meanwhile, after a fancy new studio was completed on campus, WUML was supposed to replace WGBH as Open Source’s permanent broadcast home. The communications program remains a work in progress, however, and lack of funding has scotched plans for the aforementioned studio.
According to McCafferty, Lydon’s been a good colleague. “He’s been up here for meetings and events; we used him in our television advertising last year,” McCafferty said. “He was on campus whenever we needed him to be.” She added that UMass Lowell had benefited from its affiliation with Lydon, short though it was: “He definitely increased the visibility of the UMass Lowell name. As part of the show, our name was out there four nights a week in markets we don’t usually hit, regionally and nationally.”
The Phoenix was unable to contact Lydon in time for this story. But at RadioOpenSource.org, he was already looking to cushion the blow. “We are reaching out — a little more urgently than we were last week — for new sponsors, large and small, and new ways of paying for what has always been, and will always be, a lean mean staff of professionals,” Lydon wrote Monday. “We have wildly grand ambitions in the global transformation of media, which is to say: of human conversation. We need your help and encouragement as we have from the start, or maybe just a little more so.” That’s life in public radio.