With any institution in flux, it’s easier to pinpoint when things fell apart than when they were put back together. But this seems like a fair time to conclude that WBUR (90.FM), the Boston University–based public-radio giant, has transcended the dysfunction that dogged it not too long ago.
Consider three recent hires by the station. Wen Stephenson, the editor of the Boston Globe’s Ideas section, is poised to become senior producer of On Point, WBUR’s nationally syndicated newsmagazine. Jon Marcus, the former editor of Boston magazine and an Associated Press alum, signed on as the station’s managing editor this past month; he took the job on a trial basis, but seems inclined to stick around. And David Boeri, a well-known reporter for WCVB-TV, left that station for WBUR earlier this year; his new local newsmagazine, Radio Boston, debuts in September.
Each move comes with an asterisk. Ideas and On Point share a broad intellectual sensibility; Marcus needed a gig after splitting with Boston in 2006; and Boeri has experience in public broadcasting (as a reporter for WGBH-TV’s now-defunct Ten O’Clock News) and knew Paul La Camera, WBUR’s general manager, when La Camera ran WCVB.
Collectively, though, these moves suggest two bigger trends. At a time when local commercial-radio outlets are cutting news and re-emphasizing conservative talk, WBUR is, instead, bolstering its brand by sharpening its already potent general-news operation. And the station’s future looks bright enough that local-news veterans want to be a part of it.
Wake up, smell the roses
Contrast this with the turbulent period that preceded La Camera’s arrival in October 2005. For most of her tenure, Jane Christo, WBUR’s general manager from 1979 to 2004, was known as a talented broadcasting visionary; Car Talk and The Connection (both of which gained loyal national followings) had their genesis under her watch, and the station’s audience grew dramatically. But in her final years there, WBUR seemed close to imploding.
In 2001, for example, Christo engaged in a public battle with Chris Lydon and Mary McGrath, host and producer, respectively, of The Connection, over the future of the show and the money it generated; Lydon and McGrath subsequently left the station. Then, in September 2004, WBUR announced it would sell its Rhode Island stations, WRNI and WXNI, angering individuals who’d given them money and prompting an investigation by the Rhode Island attorney general.
The Globe subsequently reported that WBUR had incurred a series of multi-million dollar deficits, and Christo was hit with multiple allegations of mismanagement. (An internal investigation reportedly found that some of these allegations had merit and others did not; in the end, WBUR didn’t sell its Rhode Island affiliates.) After Christo resigned, in 2004, interim GM Peter Fielder arrived with a mandate to whip the station into shape; to the dismay of many, this led to the August 2005 axing of The Connection and host Dick Gordon, who’d won a high-profile battle to succeed Lydon the previous year.
Times have changed. In a recent conversation with the Phoenix, La Camera rattles off a slew of good WBUR news: the station’s staff is up from 125 people two years ago to 135 today, including four new reporting slots; the documentary unit is making documentaries again; the $10.25 million underwriting total for the past fiscal year was second only to New York’s WNYC; the entire operation is running in the black. As he recounts these facts, La Camera has the Cheshire Cat air of a man who’s watching everything go right. “So far,” he concludes, “so good.”