Paul La Camera takes WBUR local

some 50 staff members of WBUR Radio have crowded into the third-floor cafeteria for a lunchtime event with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Deval Patrick. They settle into chairs or stand around the periphery, balancing sandwiches, chips, and soda. Bob Oakes, the station’s morning anchor, is the moderator. Turning to the candidate, Oakes says, “I’d like to ask you today if you’d like to officially announce a running mate.” A brief pause, then: “Or select someone from the audience.”

After the laughter dies down, Oakes leads Patrick through an hourlong conversation about health care, taxes, and economic development, among other issues. One staffer asks Patrick about being the first African-American to run for governor. It’s a subject that elicits a rare show of passion on the part of the customarily cool, controlled Patrick, who refers to it as “the race thing.” When asked by State House reporter Martha Bebinger how he would like his racial background to be addressed, Patrick responds, “I say this with due respect. This is not my problem,” explaining that he sees it as something for the media, and the public, to work out—not him.

“There’s some black folks in here,” Patrick adds. “Help me out. Am I wrong?”

No!”

“Then say it, for God’s sake.”

Despite nursing a cold, general manager Paul La Camera is a hovering presence at the Patrick event, guiding the candidate toward the buffet table, introducing Patrick and Oakes, and declaring that he wants the station to make a “significant contribution” in covering the campaign. He asks a couple of questions about politics and about the demise of Boston–based businesses such as Filene’s, Jordan Marsh, and John Hancock. When it’s over, he reminds Patrick that he’d like to set up some on-air debates.

So what has the get-to-know-you session—the first of several, if the other gubernatorial candidates accept La Camera’s invitation—accomplished? “I think it drives home to the entire station’s staff, not just the news department, the impact of this election,” La Camera responds.

Former Channel 5 manager La Camera
wants to beef up local coverage
while sticking to a lean budget.

And for WBUR, that’s something new. Long among the most admired media organizations in Greater Boston, the public radio station (at 90.9 FM) is far better known for its coverage of national and international affairs than for its attention to local elections. But that could be changing. Last year officials at Boston University, which holds WBUR’s license, hired La Camera, who was retiring as the president and general manager of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), to straighten out an operation besieged by turmoil and debt. Among La Camera’s goals: improving WBUR’s local coverage and introducing a new ethic of civic engagement.

“I just believe that if we’re going to make as full a contribution as we ought to make to an informed citizenry, part of that has to be local reporting,” he says.

Local commitment comes naturally to La Camera, a 63-year-old Boston native (he grew up in East Boston and Winthrop) who went to college at Holy Cross, holds master’s degrees from Boston University (journalism) and Boston College (business administration), and for more than 33 years was involved in running what was long considered the best local television station in the country.

Among those who already see a difference at WBUR is Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. “They’re really out there seeking the news,” says the mayor, who, like Patrick, was invited by La Camera to take questions from the station’s staff. “I hear from them more, I see them more. They seem to be really abreast of what’s going on in the region. They’re involved, and that’s what Paul is trying to instill.”

But for La Camera to succeed, he must negotiate some tricky terrain. Under his predecessor, the visionary but imperious Jane Christo, WBUR earned a reputation for its coverage of such cosmic matters as terrorism and the war in Iraq. La Camera inherits a downsized station less able to engage in the kind of programming for which WBUR was known (globetrotting staff members Dick Gordon, host of The Connection, and Michael Goldfarb, host of the documentary series Inside Out, were among those whose jobs and shows were claimed by the station’s budget crisis) and a listenership that is presumably as engaged in the wider world as it’s ever been.

La Camera’s challenge is to improve WBUR’s local presence while maintaining the station’s traditional strengths—and to do it with fewer resources.

BECOMING RELEVANT

Turnaround would be too strong a word for what La Camera is trying to accomplish. With nearly 500,000 listeners per week, WBUR is among the most-listened-to radio stations in Boston and one of the most successful public stations in the country. Anchored by National Public Radio’s two drive-time shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, the station consistently cracks the top five in the local ratings. According to La Camera and other staff members, the idea is to tinker, not to overhaul. The goal, they say, is to strengthen local reporting during Morning Edition (NPR restricts local news to the headlines on All Things Considered) and, somewhere down the line, to develop a local news program, most likely a weekly show to be broadcast during the weekend. If it succeeds, it might someday go daily. And as CommonWealth went to press, station executives were preparing a series of essays to be broadcast in May, under the working title “Boston at the Crossroads.”

Under Jane Christo, foreign affairs trumped local news.

“We need to increase the relevance of our station to the local audience. And we need to be more mindful of the public service this station provides,” says veteran reporter Monica Brady-Myerov, who’s part of an internal task force for local programming. Adds managing director of news and programming Sam Fleming, “One of his [La Camera’s] long-term goals is to have a greater presence locally. But we’ll take it one step at a time to try and have a richer local presence—and definitely not do it at the expense of our national and international coverage, because we know how important that is to our listeners.” Robin Young, who hosts the noontime show Here and Now, sees a greater emphasis on localism as a way to enrich her NPR-syndicated program. “It doesn’t mean making us less of a national show, but it does mean recognizing that a lot of national news does come from Boston,” she says.

The recalibration may be modest, but it represents a basic instinct for La Camera, who, during his long tenure at Channel 5, was involved in the creation of everything from a local public-affairs talk show (5 on 5) to a situation comedy (Park Street Under) to an evening news-magazine program (Chronicle). Of those, only Chronicle survives, as Channel 5, like nearly all commercial television stations, feels the squeeze of the market and of corporate ownership. La Camera himself has nothing but praise for Hearst-Argyle, Channel 5’s current owner. But he also sees public broadcasting in general and WBUR in particular as a fresh blackboard on which to sketch out his ideas of local coverage and public service. “Pure” is a word he often uses to describe the radio station he now heads.

And for WBUR, there’s no question that La Camera’s vision represents a considerable departure. Ten years ago, it was a station with seemingly limitless ambitions. At the same time, it came across as oddly removed from the region it purportedly served. The public face of the station was Christopher Lydon, a quintessential Bostonian who hosted The Connection, a cerebral, eclectic talk show. But Lydon’s program lost much of its local flavor after the station syndicated it nationally. The noontime program Here and Now, created in part to fill the local void, was soon taken into syndication as well. Off-hours were (and are) filled by news from the BBC.

“It lost its identity, and people perceived a difference,” says former Here and Now co-host Bruce Gellerman, who was fired by Christo and is now a freelancer and entrepreneur. “They listened, but they listened mainly for NPR. You ask what station they listen to, and they say, ‘Oh, NPR.’ ”

Reporter Monica Brady-Myerov:
“We need to increase the
relevance” to local matters.

Still, the station continued to grow until the spring of 2001, when Lydon and his senior producer, Mary McGrath, were fired in the midst of a very ugly, very public contract dispute. (Lydon and McGrath finally returned to the airwaves last year with a new nationally syndicated program, Open Source, heard locally on WGBH, 89.7 FM, and WUML, 91.5 FM.) Lydon’s departure was quickly followed by a series of financial calamities: the bursting of the dot-com bubble, which devastated the station’s corporate underwriting; a boycott organized by Jewish groups that accused the station of bias against Israel in its news reports; and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which led to Christo’s decision to create another program, On Point, a laudable effort for which the financial resources simply didn’t exist. (Though the boycott by Jewish groups eventually eased, suspicions of bias remain. Says Andrea Levin, executive director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or CAMERA: “We are intending to be in touch with Mr. La Camera, because we do have continuing concerns.” La Camera, for his part, says he’s aware of those concerns and adds that he hopes to take a fact-finding trip to Israel this summer at the invitation of the Jewish Community Council.)

Despite persistent rumors that all was not well at WBUR, Christo was able to hold things together until the fall of 2004, when she announced that she was selling WRNI (AM 1230 and 1290), a Rhode Island station that WBUR had bought several years earlier and for which it had solicited considerable financial support from the community. The announcement prompted an investigation by the Rhode Island attorney general’s office and accusations of mismanagement. Christo, the general manager since 1979, resigned, and was replaced on an interim basis by Peter Fiedler, then a BU assistant vice president. Among other things, Fiedler commissioned a study that found the station had rung up a deficit of $13.1 million between 2001 and 2004.

Fiedler then did what an interim general manager is supposed to do when faced with such a dire financial situation: He cut the budget so that the next permanent general manager wouldn’t have to. The Connection and several reporting positions were eliminated, and Inside Out was put on hold. Today, according to La Camera, WBUR operates on a budget of about $18.7 million, with 115 employees. Though he’s not sure what the station’s budget was at its peak, The Providence Journal reported in 2004 that WBUR, in filings with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, claimed annual expenses of $22 million to more than $25 million in the early part of the decade.

The downsized WBUR has attained financial stability in remarkably short order, say La Camera and Fiedler (now BU’s vice president for administrative services and chairman of the station’s executive council) and is running slightly in the black. It has hired reporters to cover health and science, business, and the local arts community. BU officials have made a commitment to keep WRNI and extend its reach into southern Rhode Island. And La Camera wants to revive the Inside Out documentary unit, including stories that would require national and international travel. Assistant program director Anna Bensted says the station is currently working on the aforementioned “Boston at the Crossroads” series and another project about poverty in America, while seeking funding for a program about change in China. “I am totally reassured that, with Paul as GM, we will only be building on what we already do,” she said by e-mail. In addition, WBUR continues to offer three nationally syndicated shows: On Point, Here and Now, and Only a Game, a weekly sports program. A fourth syndicated show, Car Talk, is produced at WBUR but independently owned.

A year and a half after Christo’s departure, some perspective is called for in assessing her reign. Though she could be a difficult boss, she operated in the same environment in which a memorably difficult boss, John Silber, succeeded in transforming Boston University into a nationally regarded institution. Though she overspent her budget and was accused of treating WBUR as her personal fiefdom, much of her spending was directed at making the station better for listeners. Today she is almost universally praised for having created a great radio station.

“I think Jane Christo did a marvelous job for a lot of years,” says Fiedler. “She built an empire there that is a nationally respected radio station, and that’s her doing. I think things just got a little out of hand for her. She did her best to try to keep the ship on course but found troubled waters.” Adds Mary Stohn, the station’s former public-relations consultant: “Her legacy is that she made something from nothing, and made WBUR a world-class radio station, just like John Silber made Boston University a world-class university. And kept excelling year in and year out until the last two years.”

Christo is now developing programs for international journalists at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Diplomacy. Asked about her legacy at WBUR, she replies, “I’ve moved on. I’m engaged in things that I’m passionate about, and I’m very happy to be doing that.” As for her successor, Christo says, “I know Paul La Camera and I know his work. I admire his work. It’ll be a different direction than I led the station, but I have every confidence that he will lead it in a direction that will be a credit to the university and to the city. I have no reason to think otherwise.”

MAN ABOUT TOWN

On the coffee table in Paul La Camera’s office is a copy of photographer Bill Brett’s book Boston: All One Family, with its striking cover portrait of Mayor Menino flanked by former mayors Raymond Flynn and Kevin White, the three of them holding umbrellas. It is a reminder of just how much Boston means to La Camera, whose father, the late Anthony La Camera, was a television columnist for several Boston newspapers, including the old Herald American.

La Camera has a reservoir of good will among city leaders.

Tan, with close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair, and favoring conservative suits with startlingly white shirts, La Camera’s involvement in the city extends well beyond his interest in local news. He is deeply involved with a number of organizations that are engaged in the civic life of the region, such as the United Way of Massachusetts Bay, the Whittier Street Health Center, and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. This past winter, his involvement led to some awkwardness for WBUR, as he was one of eight board members of Catholic Charities who resigned in protest of Archbishop (now Cardinal) Seán O’Malley’s decision to stop the agency from allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt foster children. La Camera explained his reasoning on just one program, Greater Boston with Emily Rooney, on WGBH-TV (Channel 2), turning down all other media requests, even one from his own station.

“Out of loyalty and friendship I talked with Emily, but I turned down everyone else,” La Camera says. As for why he turned down WBUR, he says, “I don’t think it’s appropriate, and it makes me too much part of the story.”

But if La Camera’s close ties to Boston might occasionally put the station in an awkward position, it could also help: Among certain classes within the city, the very fact that WBUR would put someone like La Camera in charge generates considerable good will.

“I honestly think he’s just got a really good pulse on things,” says Rooney, who, as a former news director of Channel 5, worked with La Camera for many years. (Rooney, no fan of public radio, also sees La Camera as the ideal antidote to what she sees as too many stories about “gathering the wool from the Peruvian llamas.”)

Few people know La Camera as well as Marjorie Arons-Barron, a communications consultant with Barron Associates Worldwide. Channel 5’s former editorial director and producer of the 5 on 5 series, Arons-Barron believes that La Camera may be ideally situated not just to rebuild WBUR, but to advance the notion that a public broadcaster can fill the civic role being vacated by media organizations that now, more often than not, are owned by out-of-town conglomerates.

“Part of Paul’s whole modus operandi is being a presence in the community,” Arons-Barron says. “It’s that Channel 5 ethos. It’s rooted in our past—viewing ourselves as part of Boston and Greater Boston. He is very much of a presence, and I think that was probably very important to WBUR. They saw that localism was important.”

Consider what the Boston media landscape looks like today, compared with 10 or 20 years ago. In the 1970s and into the ’80s, Channel 5 was a model of what local ownership could accomplish. Channel 7 went through a period of local ownership as well. Today, every television station in Boston is owned by an out-of-state corporation.

In 1996, The Boston Globe, though owned by the New York Times Company, still operated under the benevolent management of its previous owners, the Taylor family. Today, the Globe is run by a Times Co.–appointed publisher, Richard Gilman, and is struggling to redefine itself at a time of economic uncertainty for the newspaper business.

In 1996, the Boston Herald—which had been restored to local ownership two years earlier, when Patrick Purcell bought it from his mentor, Rupert Murdoch—was a thriving tabloid with a strong emphasis on local news. Now the Herald is struggling, and Purcell has put both that newspaper and about 100 suburban newspapers in eastern Massachusetts that he owns up for sale.

As for commercial radio, news, with few exceptions, has become an endangered species—in large measure because of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which eliminated most ownership caps and made it more difficult for local ownership to survive.

Another friend of La Camera’s, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts executive vice president Peter Meade, who resigned from Catholic Charities on the same day as La Camera, defines the opportunity—and the need—this way: “As all of the media have had to pull back, it is great that there is an important institution like WBUR that is stepping up its local involvement.” Adds Meade, himself a radio personality long associated with WBZ (AM 1030), and someone who served on WBUR’s advisory board some years back: “This is one of the truly great radio stations in America.”

LOCAL MEETS NATIONAL

But can it become one of the truly great radio stations in Boston? Can WBUR deliver the world, but also attend to Boston affairs in its news coverage, becoming what it never was before—a community institution?

It should be no surprise that the public-radio audience has exploded as news on commercial stations has declined. According to National Public Radio spokeswoman Andi Sporkin, the weekly audience for public radio has doubled, from 13 million per week to 26 million per week, in just the past six years. Expanding local news coverage, Sporkin says, is just one way that public radio is now trying to meet that increased demand.

Mark Fuerst, a public-radio consultant based in Rhinebeck, NY, adds that a renewed emphasis on localism could help stations carve out an important niche that emerging national services such as satellite radio simply can’t compete in. “Every major station in the country is thinking about this,” Fuerst says.

The point isn’t lost on La Camera that the local civic role once occupied by the commercial media may well be thrust upon publicly owned outlets such as WBUR. “Public radio is a wonderfully protected sphere,” he says. “For all intents and purposes we have no competition. As other media have become more and more challenged, we’ve become stronger.”

Nor has it escaped him that improving the station’s civic image may improve its financial position as well. “The more engaged, the more visible the station is in the larger community,” he says, “the more top-of-mind it becomes for corporate underwriters and individual donors.”

Meet the Author
For La Camera, it’s been a long, circular trip. He began his broadcasting career trying to turn Channel 5 into the best local television station in the country. He’s ending it by attempting to perform similar alchemy with WBUR.

“You can probably count on the fact that I won’t be here for 33½ years,” says La Camera of his new job. “I haven’t given much thought to when I’m next going to retire. But whenever that time comes, I hope I’m going to be more successful at it than I was the last time.”

Dan Kennedy is a visiting assistant professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism. His weblog, Media Nation, is online at medianation.blogspot.com. Tell him about innovative ways by which media are connecting with their communities at da.kennedy@neu.edu.