Former political activist Jim Braude wins converts as a broadcast news star
It’s hour two of the Wilfredo Laboy Telethon, and Jim Braude and Margery Eagan have managed to raise only $37. But since the telephone lines are lit up—with callers ready to pile on, rather than shell out—they’re hardly disappointed.
England Cable News.
The paltry sum isn’t that surprising, given that the whole on-air “fund-raiser” is a send-up. In the morning newspapers it was reported that Laboy, the Lawrence superintendent of schools, had failed to convince the city’s school committee to pony up $500 to cover the cost of installing running boards onto his city-leased Chevrolet Trailblazer, and he would have to pay for the job himself. Laboy had said he needed the running boards so his wife and daughters wouldn’t stumble getting into the SUV while wearing high heels.
It’s a topic made to order for talk radio, so it’s no surprise that WTKK-FM’s noontime (and 9 a.m.-to-noon Saturday) co-hosts would pick up on it. What’s more surprising is that one half of the midday talk tandem—the one throwing around lines like (in reference to the post-Super Bowl Patriots parade) “if your kid wants to go, and you don’t take them, you’re giving in to the terrorists”—is Jim Braude.
A decade ago, Braude was head of the Tax Equity Alliance of Massachusetts, a group whose mission was to fight tax cuts and keep faith in government. Not exactly a role to be played for laughs. But unlike so many earnest liberals, Braude’s got a sense of humor. That’s one of the things you hear from his producers, his guests, and his co-hosts, especially when you ask how a guy who spent his first 10 years in town fighting not to cut your taxes has evolved, well into his second decade here, into a talkmeister.
Currently, Braude combines his radio talk-show job, where his State House know-it-all persona spars over current events with Boston Herald columnist Eagan’s Catholic schoolgirl turned hip-but-flighty mom, with a position as solo host of NewsNight, a much more serious weekday news analysis program on television’s New England Cable News. Hosted for eight years by career news anchors such as Margie Reedy, R.D. Sahl, and Chet Curtis, one half of NewsNight has been turned over to Braude, whose background does not include reading the news—or playing it straight.
For WTKK, Braude’s heart-on-his-sleeve liberalism is just part of the package—endearing him to some listeners, provoking others. For talk radio, either will do. NECN, by giving Braude license to probe the day’s news, is taking more of a risk. Still, it’s a risk Charles Kravetz, vice president of news and station manager at the cable channel, thinks will pay off.
“We have worked very hard to try to identify people who are smart, telegenic, informed, and engaged in the marketplace of ideas,” says Kravetz. “There are not that many people who are all those things at once. For Jim, his whole life, he’s been engaged in the political process and the exchange of ideas. That’s what NewsNight is about.”
For his part, Braude sees his history as an advocate and his current role of on-air interrogator as all of a piece. “If I’m good at this, in part it’s a natural extension of what I’ve done my whole career,” he says. “If it was trying cases in the South Bronx, or making a case with a legislator, or with an audience, it’s just a variation on a theme. The process of asking questions, having tough but good conversations, is essentially what I’ve done since I got out of law school. Whatever I put on the table is just an old skill transferred to a different forum.”
In the past, Braude’s skills have been applied mostly in the service of liberal causes. The Philadelphia-born Braude took his NYU law degree to the Bronx office of Legal Aid (rap singer Tupac Shakur’s mother was a paralegal there), where he not only represented the poor but organized the attorneys and other Legal Aid workers into a union.
It wasn’t until Braude came to Massachusetts, in 1987, that he became a truly public figure. Indeed, he was brought to Boston to become a public figure—one charged with taking on a well-known activist of a very different stripe: Barbara Anderson, head of Citizens for Limited Taxation.
At that time, the anti-tax firebrand was riding high. She had managed to get voters to approve a pair of state ballot propositions: The first, Proposition 21/2, in 1980, set a limit on the amount municipal governments could raise property taxes each year without voter approval. The second, in 1986, forced the repeal of an income tax “surtax” and established a tax cap engineered to return to taxpayers revenues in excess of state income growth.
A coterie of liberal activists and politicians, headed by then-state Sen. John Olver (now a congressman from western Massachusetts) and backed by unions and human-service groups, plucked Braude from the Bronx to be Anderson’s liberal Dopplegänger, installing him as the head of the new Tax Equity Alliance of Massachusetts (TEAM), which rallied against cuts in government programs.
But Braude was that good, quick and combative, able to go toe-to-toe with the feisty Anderson. Soon, they became the tag team of tax politics, each providing counterpoint to the other as they traded grand pronouncements and sharp retorts in the press.
By role and ideological inclination, Anderson and Braude were natural antagonists, but they became friends. In fact, the bond was forged in their greatest battle: Question 3, a ballot measure proposed by CLT in 1990 to roll back income tax hikes made in response to the recession and fiscal crisis then underway. With Braude leading the campaign (under the slogan question 3: it goes too far) that handed Anderson her first defeat at the polls, the two faced off in dozens of debates and forums across the Commonwealth, honing their arguments but also gaining each other’s respect, even appreciation.
“We had a good time,” Anderson recalls. “Until Jim, my opponents for a debate were either people from the Mass. Teachers Association or the League of Women Voters. It was deadly. They were so boring, so humorless, so not fun.”
The Jim-and-Barbara act turned into kind of a road show. To save gas, the pair would hop in a car together. Trying hard to avoid discussing the ballot question (“You didn’t want to walk in and say, ‘As I was telling you at that last exit,’” Anderson says), they gossiped their way from town to town. When they got to their destination, it was show time.
Tom Moroney, then a columnist with Middlesex News (now MetroWest Daily News), likens the debate he attended, in Newton, to the politics of an earlier era. “The place was packed,” he says. “It was an electric atmosphere, and in that sense it was a throwback. How many rallies can you have today on a ballot question that would keep people entertained? They both provided the fireworks, they both knew their stuff, they both had legit arguments, and they didn’t get silly. They got very confrontational, but they never got disrespectful.”
The road show became something of a media phenomenon, too. The pair became a favorite of Christopher Lydon on his 10 O’Clock News, on public television. (One of that show’s producers, John Van Scoyoc, is now the producer of NewsNight.) Lydon also featured Anderson and Braude on the debut of WBUR’s The Connection.
“With him and Barbara, it added so much attraction and interest to the scene,” Lydon says, referring to Beacon Hill. “It kind of defined the story up there.”
In early 1992, Braude and Anderson were recruited by start-up New England Cable News, at the time trying to build an audience for its regional approach to the news, to host a series of shows covering the eight referenda that were headed to Massachusetts voters. For their first show, the pair managed to corral then-Gov. William Weld and Joe Kennedy, at the time a congressman widely believed to be gunning for Weld’s office. That put Braude on the other side of the microphone for the first time, and his co-host noticed he took to it readily.
“I knew he was enjoying it,” Anderson says. “He was really making an effort to learn the ropes of running a show. I was just there to discuss ideas. I think Jim was always more ambitious. I think he was always looking for new pastures.”
Before long, Braude was indeed in the market for new pastures. The Weld years were difficult ones for TEAM, with tax cut after tax cut approved by the Democratic Legislature, over Braude’s strenuous objections. In 1992, the group won approval of a ballot question mandating the reporting of state corporate taxes, only to have it repealed by the Legislature a year later. And in 1994, its proposed constitutional amendment to replace the state’s flat-rate income tax with a graduated income tax went down to defeat by a margin of 2-1. Braude stuck with TEAM for another year and a half, but he was ready to move on.
“I decided I had done what I could do, and the organization could do better with some new blood,” he says. “I’d decided the time was right.” In 2002, TEAM changed its name to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (“Changing their name, but not their stripes,” CW, Fall ’02).
MEDIUM AND MESSAGE
Braude’s first move after TEAM was a media venture, but one of the print variety. He started a magazine, Otherwise, to cover the state from a liberal perspective. “In the world within which I worked, the vast majority of the inhabitants didn’t believe they were getting a fair shake from the press—that it was tilting away from the world view which they held,” says Braude. Otherwise was meant to fill that void, but lasted only about six issues.
“The notion was that in fairly short order, this would be more than a break-even operation, based purely on subscriptions,” he says. How did that work? “Not well.”
Still, Otherwise was, in Braude’s opinion, better than its financial results. “There were some pieces we did I’m still proud of to this day,” he says. “John Carroll [now with Greater Boston, on WGBH-TV] did a great piece [on] the inappropriate intersection between Fidelity’s push for a tax break at the State House and newspapers [then owned by a unit of Fidelity] that were editorializing for that tax break. And we did a nice piece on downsizing.”
foil and fast friend.
The magazine folded, but Braude continued his drift toward the media, soon hosting Talk of New England, a weekend show on NECN. With Herald columnist Eagan later added as a co-host, the show developed a loose format that reflected the swashbuckling attitude common to fledgling news operations. The two hosts used their anonymity as cover for outrageousness, asking people at Downtown Crossing if they’d had sex with Bill Clinton, working for a day at a diner to ask if the customers recognized them, and getting stood up outside of Weld’s house while waiting to conduct a tea party with left-wing documentary producer Michael Moore.
“It was a bit Wayne’s World-ian,” Braude concedes. “I never thought the show would ever lead to any other job in any medium. I just liked doing it. The pay was too low to be considered pay, but I still liked it.”
If Braude still wasn’t sold on a media career, some in the media business were keeping an eye on him. An early Braude/Anderson appearance on the Jerry Williams talk show on WRKO radio put him in contact with Paula O’Connor, Williams’s producer. “I had a sense he’d make for a good talk radio host,” O’Connor says. “I’d kind of keep track of his career.” And once she saw him work with Eagan on television, O’Connor says, “I knew he’d work in this format.”
Before he got a chance to do so, Braude dove more deeply into politics. In 1998, Braude managed the campaign of another liberal crusader, the late John O’Connor, in an unsuccessful bid for Democratic nomination for the 8th Congressional District seat being vacated by Joe Kennedy (and eventually won by Michael Capuano). Then, in 1999, Braude threw his own hat into the political ring, winning a seat on the Cambridge City Council.
“I had grown so sick of people complaining about what government was doing, and what it should be doing, that it was time to put up or shut up,” he says. “It was a why-don’t-you-take-your-own-advice point, and I did. And the tables were turned. I, all of a sudden, became the politician who hated lobbyists. I completely understand why so many of the people I had lobbied had been unwilling to listen to what I had to say.”
In the ideologically charged world of Cambridge politics, Braude ran on a broad, left-leaning ticket, but then, in a shrewd move, broke with that slate to halt a two-month-long deadlock over the selection of the city’s mayor. (In Cambridge’s council/manager government, municipal affairs are run on a day-to-day basis by city manager Robert Healy; the mayor is a city councilor elected by his or her colleagues to preside over the council, gaining important leadership and ceremonial responsibilities but no executive power.) In throwing his support to moderate Anthony Galluccio, he turned the new mayor into an across-the-divide ally.
“Jim played the game well,” says Galluccio, who calls Braude a friend. “He realized, ‘Hey, I’m going to use this.’ He was always in my office. He had my chief of staff working on projects for him.”
Braude made some waves as a councilor, for a while backing (unsuccessfully) a plan to make the Cambridge mayor’s position directly elected, like Worcester’s. But Braude soon soured on the pettiness of local politics.
“I thought, what better place to get involved than at a level where it’s all about getting things done,” Braude says. “But I learned a lesson many have learned before me: There’s an inverse proportion between the level of the office and the self-importance of those who run it.”
“Jim’s a very rational, fair-minded person,” says Galluccio. “I think at some levels it was frustrating how slowly things move in local politics, and how personal politics can get in the way of initiatives that made sense to him. He expected that if something was right and was fair, that even if he’d debated someone on an issue pretty hard the week before, if there was a practical idea, he’d get on board. [Others] didn’t always do the same.”
Braude chose not to run for re-election in 2001, timing that worked out perfectly for radio producer O’Connor. Then retooling the lineup at WTKK, where Margery Eagan was already co-hosting with Boston Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy, among others, O’Connor started thinking about reuniting Eagan with Braude.
“There’s this natural chemistry they have,” she says. “They’re like two good friends, and they can jab each other but also joke and agree.”
“Here’s why the show works,” Eagan says. “We can both be very serious, like the things we do on [defrocked priest and convicted pedophile Paul] Shanley, and then mix in something very absurd, like warthogs having sex. He is very good at being able to combine those two things, and I think we get in a rhythm.”
The radio show allows him to blow off the liberal head of steam he inevitably feels when he reads the morning papers. “I think Jim takes a beating around here for being the resident liberal,” says O’Connor. “It fits in stylistically as part of our equation. Our hosts and listeners are from various cross sections of life.”
For talk radio, extreme is good, up to a point, and Braude knows instinctively where to draw the line, she says. “Even though he has his viewpoint, he’s smart enough to argue it but not go too far,” says O’Connor. “You might not be able to persuade him, but he’s willing to step back and allow a fair forum for the other viewpoints to be heard.”
For Braude, talk radio gives him the luxury of distance, which comes from debating people he’s never met, but also gives him an opportunity to make personal connections he could never make as a high-octane advocate.
“When I was at TEAM, even when we won, I don’t think I was a particularly popular person in Massachusetts,” he says. “Even though a lot of voters weren’t crazy about the messenger, they bought our message. The beauty of talk radio is it’s an intimate medium—you introduce yourself to a lot of people—so if you can convince yourself that the messenger isn’t as awful and dogmatic as you thought he was, it’s great.”
Braude takes particular pride in this e-mail he received from a listener: “Jim, I couldn’t stand you in the ’80s, lost you in the ’90s (mostly), and I’m lovin’ you in the ’00s.” He appreciates the acceptance.
If Braude’s activist background was a plus for WTKK, it was viewed more warily at NECN. When the station had him on a short list of possible co-hosts for NewsNight with Chet Curtis after Margie Reedy signed off to pursue a fellowship in 2003, there were concerns that Braude’s well-known political bent might overwhelm the positive qualities he brought to the table. Who better to dispel them than his old adversary, Barbara Anderson?
“NECN called me and asked if I thought an audience, some of whose members were our kind of people, would buy him as a neutral host,” Anderson says. “I said I thought he was going to be absolutely magnificent. Jim goes after the bull. He would just never tolerate it from anybody.”
Braude proved to be up to the challenge, channeling the intense energy he once put into driving home his own points to pointedly questioning guests. That was just what NECN news chief Charlie Kravetz was looking for.
“I told him, when he was originally hired to host with Chet, that we wanted him not to be a kind of a liberal foil, but someone who was smart and engaged and who could question anybody,” Kravetz says. “He’s worked extremely hard to do that.”
Co-hosting NewsNight also gave Braude a chance to temper his natural aggressiveness with veteran Curtis’s easygoing manner—and take some notes. “I had to be more restrained,” Braude says. “When you’re working in tandem with someone, you try to complement the work of your partner. And Chet for a couple of years was a wonderful partner.”
“No one has to coach him about politics or what’s a good story or what isn’t,” Curtis says. “But he’s very willing to take coaching on presentation, which is part of the process of what we do.”
Shows like NewsNight have helped make the 13-year-old cable-news outlet a success. NECN is now available to cable subscribers in more than 3 million households, and it is, from week to week, usually the sixth most-watched cable network in New England. And although it is widely regarded as the model for regional cable news programming, NECN is reinventing itself. Its news teams are getting split up, with shows re-centered around the personalities of its more popular anchors.
“We had a wonderful year,” Kravetz says. “We’re working from a position of strength. The product is going to be as solid and journalistically in-depth as it always has been, but with a schedule that’s a bit more varied and rich.”
The first experiment along these lines is NewsNight’s hourlong block, with Braude and Curtis now hosting half-hour shows of their own. In the first half hour, Curtis functions as elder statesman, using 30 years of gravitas to guide viewers through—one can almost hear the gasps at Channel 7—long pieces of tape, like press conferences and court proceedings.
Braude’s second half of the NewsNight slot is faster and looser. Other anchors are brought on to read the “News in 90,” and he is able to josh with them, which he does well, rather than read the teleprompter, which he does not. The “take 5” section is a romp through a few hot topics, some weighty, some quirky. Although written by Van Scoyoc, the section seems to reflect Braude’s take on the news, even if it isn’t well-served by his delivery. (Curtis says Braude still needs to learn to slow down.)
It’s when the interviews begin that Braude comes alive, as when he guided Secretary of State William Galvin through a 12-minute interview on the Gillette–Procter & Gamble merger. Braude pulled off a major coup in February, getting Attorney General Tom Reilly to announce he had reversed himself on gay marriage, deciding to oppose a constitutional amendment to roll back same-sex marriage rights and substitute civil unions.
There are times when Braude plays too much for the hot scoop, as when he repeatedly badgers Menino and Reilly, as well as Galvin and Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, to announce political candidacies on the air. But at other times he’s able to turn the tables on his guests, as when he crowed to Healey, who was touting her just-announced proposal for post-incarceration supervision and support for released inmates, “You’re a good Democrat!”
“Jim loves to torture politicians,” Curtis says. “He’ll bore in, within the confines of whatever time we have, and try to force the interviewee to answer. And he’ll do that to Democrats, Republicans, or independents.”
That has allayed the fears of his producers, as well as observers who initially doubted Braude’s fitness for the job.
“There’s a commitment to asking strong questions from both sides,” says Tobe Berkovitz, a communications professor at Boston University. “If you’re a lefty and you’re being a totally partisan advocate, Braude will challenge you on that.”
When Braude first set up shop with Curtis, Berkovitz questioned NECN’s choice, telling the Boston Herald that Braude came across as “sometimes arrogant” and that he tended, “by the very nature of his previous work, to be somewhat partisan.”
Two-plus years later, Berkovitz says Braude is still partisan, but less so than others on the cable-television playing field. “The cable talk environment has changed dramatically,” he says. “It’s now dominated by left- and right-wing flamethrowers, which makes Braude’s style seem much more mainstream. Compared to the Sean Hannitys and the Michael Savages of the world, he seems much more of a reasoned voice.”
Even-handedness with the whip is a necessity for a television host, but it raises this question: What would the activist Jim Braude say of the Jim Braude who’s publicly flogging a big government program like the Big Dig? Christopher Lydon questions whether the Jim Braude who used to appear on his show would have made such concessions to neutrality—or equal opportunity hectoring. He’s smart, articulate, and has a strong viewpoint, Lydon says, but he wonders if Braude has abandoned the quest for change just to become another talking head.
“In a way, I miss him up at the State House,” Lydon says.
There’s also the question of whether Braude, in becoming a full-time broadcaster, is getting forced down the same (low) road as the rest of the talk genre, pushing the same hot buttons and chasing the same hot topics. A case in point: One day, in an interview, Braude mentions with pride that, in the 1990s, when he was still an activist who happened to have a TV show, he never once touched on the O.J. Simpson case. Then he goes into the NECN studio and records a quick riff on the Michael Jackson child molestation trial. It’s just a short, funny part of the “take 5” section, but it begs the question: If it were now, would he cover O.J.?
He might, Braude says, but he’d do it the way he covered the Kobe Bryant case, when he and Curtis had guests on to discuss the rape shield law. “We’re not interested in some of those aberrational, celebrity aspects,” he says. “It would depend if there were jury issues, or those of race, but never the straight, Abrams Report kind of stuff,” he adds, referring to the crime-oriented program on MSNBC.As to the political balancing act television requires, Braude the liberal isn’t worried about that. “My sense is that if I do my job, the people watching will know a hell of a lot more than they did when the interview started,” he says. “When you’re a lobbyist or an advocate or whatever it is I did for a living, you have to believe that if all the facts on a particular issue get a fair airing, then you win. And this is an extension of that concept.”