CURTAIN CLOSES ON CHRISTO ERA. The Jane Christo saga ended not with a bang but with a whimper. The Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, and the Providence Journal today report that Boston University has concluded its investigation of the former general manager of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM). The upshot: Christo's mismanagement of the BU-licensed station was far more serious than any particular improprieties of which she had been accused.
(Here is a piece I wrote about WBUR last month, just before Christo resigned.)
To be sure, Christo did not receive absolution. The investigation found that she had engaged in preferential hiring practices and had been involved in the spending of station funds for personal use. But though BU doesn't say so, it's clear that the real reason for her sudden departure after 25 years at the helm were the millions of dollars in deficits she had run up. Her stunning decision to sell WRNI Radio in Providence and a sister station in Westerly just six years after purchasing them triggered an unraveling of events that she couldn't control.
In time, it will become possible to assess Christo's legacy. Christo did great things with 'BUR, though I think she has been overpraised by her admirers. Her one overarching insight was that a public radio station could succeed with an all-news format, an insight that became increasingly important as deregulation transformed commercial radio into a wasteland for serious news and public affairs. If she had never done anything but make sure the bills from NPR, the BBC, and PRI were paid, she would have performed a significant public service.
As a programmer, though, Christo's record is mixed. Her major flaw was that she would never commit to a local show of the sort that can be heard on some other public stations in other parts of the country. As soon as she got a program up and running, such as The Connection or Here and Now, she would start offering it to other public stations and drain much of the local flavor out of it. The oddity is that WBUR broadcasts five hours of high-quality, original programming every day (the two aforementioned shows plus On Point), and none of it speaks to this city or this region except for the fact that they are based here.
I don't think I'll ever arrive at a satisfactory conclusion in my own mind as to how much responsibility Christo bears for the departure of Christopher Lydon, the original host of The Connection, and Mary McGrath, his senior producer. But I do know this: Lydon was the station's signature personality as well as an exceptionally talented, intellectually curious host. And for whatever reason, neither he nor McGrath could work with Christo any longer. Yes, Lydon and McGrath made some demands about ownership that Christo wouldn't and probably shouldn't have met. But was it really necessary for her to fire them? Was there no chance of working things out?
The major concern today is whether the station's new leadership, under interim general manager Peter Fiedler, can get spending out of control without damaging what we hear every day. That's why I don't expect to hear Lydon back on the air, unfortunately, although if Lydon were somehow able to put together a package that wouldn't cost WBUR anything, then Fiedler should jump on it. (And why haven't Lydon and 'BUR's main competitor, WGBH Radio-89.7 FM, found a way to form a partnership? It's inexplicable.)
As to whether Boston University can afford the station as it currently exists - well, ultimately, that's up to the listeners and the corporate underwriters. In an odd sort of way, public stations such as WBUR are far more market-oriented than commercial stations: if the listeners don't come through which checks, then the stations cease to exist.
Here is the full text of a statement issued yesterday afternoon by BU:
BU ANNOUNCES RESULTS OF INVESTIGATION INTO WBUR MANAGEMENT PRACTICES
Anonymous allegations pursued - many unsubstantiated, but some problems found; remedial steps taken
BOSTON - Boston University today announced the results of a six-week long investigation into certain management practices at WBUR, a Boston-based public radio station whose broadcast license is held by the university. The investigation, which began the day the university received anonymous allegations about the independently run station, found that certain of the charges were unsubstantiated while some had merit.
The university's Office of the General Counsel and internal audit team conducted the investigation with the full cooperation of WBUR's management and staff, as well as its former general manager, Jane Christo, who resigned on October 15, 2004. In those cases where the investigation found problems or deficiencies, other university departments were consulted in order to identify and implement remedial changes.
Vice President and General Counsel Todd Klipp summarized the investigation's findings and reported that:
Grant Money: WBUR management and staff did not misuse or mismanage restricted gift funds or State Department grants to the station, as had been alleged.
Hiring Practices: No illegality was involved. However, the station management's hiring practices created the appearance of granting preferential hiring treatment to a small number of applicants. The university's current hiring policies, which now cover the station, will prohibit those types of practices in the future.
Expenses: The investigation turned up no systematic or recurring abuse of the expense reimbursement process at the station. However, it was determined that less than $10,000 of station funds were used to cover personal expenses. The university will recover those funds on behalf of the station, and it has put additional reporting safeguards in place to prevent a repeat of this situation.
Tuition Remission: Contrary to the anonymous allegations, station management did not violate the university's practice of extending tuition remission benefits to dependents of employees.
No-Bid Contracts: The station's contract award process permitted certain contracts to be awarded on an on-going, no-bid basis. That practice is inconsistent with current university requirements and has been discontinued.
"Citizens of the World": The investigation found that although the Citizens of the World tour program was a well-intentioned attempt to cultivate major donors, it was neither successful nor effectively managed. The station has discontinued the program.
Station Vehicles: The investigation found that station vehicles were generally used in appropriate and legitimate ways, but one employee did use a car for personal purposes. That activity is no longer taking place.
"It is very clear," said Klipp, "that WBUR fulfilled its most important mission - to build and maintain one of the nation's best public radio stations - and the anonymous allegations must be put in that broader context. Nonetheless, as the institution that both holds the license and helps to underwrite the station, the university felt it was critically important to investigate, report and take remedial action. We have done just that."
Klipp went on to say that "wholly apart from this investigation, the university has decided to retain Grant Thornton, a leading management advisory firm, to review all of WBUR's business and management practices and report its recommendations to the station's interim general manager, Peter Fiedler. Any changes Peter may make as a result of the study will improve the station's business practices and make a great radio station even better as we conduct a search for a permanent general manager."
One of New England's leading sources of news and information, WBUR is owned and operated by Boston University and is a member station of National Public Radio. WBUR also broadcasts a selection of BBC programs and such locally produced programs as "The Connection," "Here and Now," "On Point," "Only a Game" and "Car Talk." WBUR has won more than 100 major awards for its news coverage, including several George Foster Peabody Awards, and was named Associated Press News Station of the Year for 2004.
Here is the text of a statement issued yesterday by Christo's lawyer, Max Stern:
Jane Christo's record during 25 years as General Manager of WBUR is one of remarkable accomplishment. Her vision and leadership has made WBUR into one of the most important and respected public radio stations in the nation.
Boston University's six-week long investigation, triggered by an anonymous letter alleging improper management practices, has determined that the allegations are without merit.
After an extensive review of the facts, BU has concluded that the management practices in question, save for a couple of very minor exceptions, were compliant with existing University policy and done with the full knowledge of University officials.
Jane is happy to have the investigation concluded and is looking forward to future challenges.