Tuesday, November 09, 2004

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.

8 comments:

efgoldman said...

I worked for 'BUR for about a year and a half in the mid-90's as a "casual" (full-time but not permanent, no bennies) employee. I doubt that Jane even knew who I was.

I can tell you that the employment atmosphere at the time was pretty toxic, and I understood it only got worse in the years since.

For a radio pro (almost twenty years) being on the air is always better than not being on the air, but in the long run I'm glad it didn't work out.

By the way, at the time more than one person told m that the University (then totally controlled by John Silber, of course) viewed the radio station, particularly pledge drives, as a "profit center."

Steve said...

With all due respect to Mr. Lydon, for me the signature voices of WBUR will always be Tom and Ray Magliozzi.

Anonymous said...

Correction!

Tom and Ray are the signature "laughters" of WBUR. Not "voice." They laugh for half the show. I love them both and listen to them every week, but boy do I increasingly get annoyed with Tom's too frequent and irritating laugh. Reason enough to swith station momentarily. Without Ray, the show would be worthless.

Tom and Ray may have been the inspiration to Lydon's departure. They figured out how to partner with BUR, own part of the show and distribute it to other markets. Lydon, the intellectual that he is, might have thought that if they can, why can't he. I can imagine that he thinks very very highly of himself and he and McGrath saw an opportunity to own part of and make more money of their 'labor of love.' I still hate him for digging his heels and making all of us lose out on his stewardship.

I was a faithful listner, and even if I grew more appraciative of Gordon, I admit I have not been as 'regular' as under Lydon. Instead, he lingered in obscurity in some online webcast. There were so much talk about him signing this deal or that with so and so station. Never came to fruition. I bet his ego got in the way again. Oh just kiddin'. (maybe not...)

Can't even get one of the satellite radios to pay him 'peanuts' to come on??? I am sure he would be a great asset to them. ?!?!???

Low point was when he subbed for Jay Severin. At the time I hadn't even been aware of TKK. I was flipping through channels and all of a sudden I hear Lydon's voice on an unfamiliar frequency. ...equivalent of an ' audio double-take.' After that I heard more of fascist Severin and I thought "What the heck was Lydon thinking? Was he that desperate of such an ignorant of the vermin ( aka Jay)" Needless to say, he hasn't subbed for him since.

After 25 years, I'd nominate Bob Edwards as the voice of BUR. I hate how Jane allowed NPR butchering and disrespecting such a great, well-versed and reassuring voice at 5 am.
That's another reason I started praying for Jane's departure. Bruce Gellerman comes to mind too. What a pity!

It's amazing to see how these public radio managers dump programs on whims. They take our money and don't have to think about viability, it seems, or what we would like to hear. They care about their office politics though. A radio gem like Cuomo with Shartok on "Me and Mario' in NY can call it quits just like that, because of tiffs. Or financial wrangling in other cases. If they were on commercial radio, it would have been harder to just cancel the show.

Commercial radio would cancel a show if ratings are really poor or a better program/host comes along. Financial matters are usually ironed out better and contractualized upfront and less likely to become an issue. BUR can just cancels a good show/host and doesn't even have a better alternative not caring about OUR reaction. THAT p!$$es me/many off.


Dan, funny you bring up BUR financial viabilty and listner funds. Severin and others always mock public radio for being 'subsidized by taxpayer-money.' Truth is federal funds are a small speck of public radio/TV. You make a good point that WBUR's existence and success is a testimony to its commercial success with many people paying it just like many companies pay for advertising.
I wish someone would point it out to brainless ingorant fascist Jay.

Actually, I think with NPR/WBUR/WNYC/WAMC/Minnesota's success and strengths, I wish they would just come out straight about wanting to be a successful profitable commercial outlet and they would gain more listners across heartland America, overcoming the unfair public-fund stigma. Rush would not diminish it as easily. It would morph from perceived 'liberal' outfit to a succesfully proven market driven radio powerhouse. If only Arbitron measured public radio, people would look at it differently. BUR going commercial could show others the way.

Jane Christo plundering BUR and living the high life and telling us that BUR is the principled radio for the little guy is NOT working. It is hypocrisy. I am glad she is out.

Finally, I just don't believe the poster's premise that BU considers BUR as a profit vehicle. I just don't believe that BU would blatantly dip into a huge pot of money raised from the public with a declared non-profit mission. It would be a huge PR scandal for BU. BUR money is peanuts for BU. They spend ten times as much on a single building construction. Not worth the headache. Rather, I believe BU benefits greatly from BUR's success, reputation and national exposure and is a vindication and a real world facet to its famous communication/media college programs. BUR gives BU advertising and access to ears of potential students and scholars across the globe that no amount of money would be able to buy. BU profits in credibility and less in actual money. Insignificant money for a top-10 multi-billion endowment universtiy.

To say that BU dips into BUR's coffers for profit is in my opinion a cheap shot and unnecessary speculation that looks like another former-employee conspiracy theory being floated. If you are not sure or don't have access to BU and BUR's accounting books and top meetings, please keep quiet. Be certain or have more respect for yourself and others by posting reliable info and NOT poisonous rumor mills.

BUR, with its failings, is still a great asset to Boston, Massachusetts, US media and the world at large. Shananigans in conventional fraudulent media stations is enough to make me appreciate BUR and hope for a 'speedy and long-term recovery.'

Sincerely

efgoldman said...

Well, the comment about 'BUR being seen as a profit center was made to me ten years ago. And BU being still under Silber's heel at the time, if he saw it that way, he wouldn't (and didn't) give a flying f**k what anybody else thought.

'BUR and almost every other non-commercial FM station has to stay that way, by statute. The frequencies at that end of the FM dial were reserved for non-commercial use in some act of Congress or other.

That rating services don't list public stations because the stations have to pay for the service to use the data. The "books" are known far and wide in the business, and public stations are listed; but the publics (and some commercial stations, too) don't pay for the service, therefore they can't quote or release the data in any way, shape or form.

Anonymous said...

Here are a few things to ponder:
1. It was Jane Christo's ineptitude and stupidity that allowed CarTalk to walk out and become independently produced-previously it was produced by WBUR. Were it still a part of the station WBUR would run alot fewer fundraisers. A lot fewer.
2. All of Boston's media...including the Phoenix..relied on BU's press release about its investigation. No one outside of BU has seen the original whitewash because BU isn't releasing it. BU's stonewalling-the coverage is junk journalism.
3. So where did the 15 million go?
4.Where is the Massachusetts AG? Did BU cut a deal?
5. what happens to Jane's mini-me, middle-managers. They're louts. Perhaps it's too difficult a task to remove their lips from her fat ass.

Anonymous said...

Don't expect Reilly to go after anyone at BU anytime soon.

I used to have a lot of respect for him and at the heels of Harshbarger's defeat, I thought he had great potential and would make be great in higher office.

I was dead wrong.

He is a panzy and a disgrace to this state. All he does is thread carefully, afraid to anger so many different people and parties in so many matters. He is just another calculating politician aspiring to get elected and not interested in enforcing the laws on the books. He is a poor steward.

He refused to go after the Catholic Chruch and Card Law with Rico statutes. He refused to go after Red Sox foundation money. He refused to get involved and take a stand in the Gay marriage legal fight for EITHEr side. on and on. SO don't expect him to go after well connected, political heavy-weight and financial titan BU. Silber, D'Allessandro and others. That would prempt his Governorship/US Senate hopes and less fundraising money.

So we'll have to rely on information slowly being disclosed and BUR shamed into doing the right thing and not being greedy but rather taking full advantage of its many assets and keeping its listners into focus.

Secret Agent Cathy said...

I would just like to know who it was who instructed Dick Gordon and Tom Ashbrook to imitate all of Christopher Lydon's verbal tics.

Anonymous said...

Cathy,

They're all cut from the same cloth. Add Goldfarb, Ira Flatow and even Robert Siegel. They all go through the same snooty school before they reach the mic. I love them all but they definitely sound similar and markedly diiferent from your typical Mid-America radio host.