David Liroff on the state of WGBH

Here are David Liroff’s farewell remarks from his going away party, the “Liroff Liftoff,” on March 21, 2007. Afterward, be sure to check out Lance Ozier’s tribute ditty.

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David Liroff on the state of WGBH

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David Liroff: Jean Liroff tells me that if I begin by saying that “I couldn’t have done it without her,” I’m free to say anything else after that.

I couldn’t have done it without her.

I joined WGBH in August, 1979, 28 years ago this summer.   I believe it’s prudent to change employers at least once every quarter century or so, so I’m heading off to CPB, to another branch of our extended public media family.

I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have had the opportunity to wear many hats here over the years, and to have had the privilege and pleasure of working with many of you in this room.

Last Friday I got a call from a long-time colleague who has visited with us here on Western Avenue many times over the years. He empathized that it must be difficult for me to leave a facility which — along with many of you, I’ve come to know and love in all its funky glory — for all of the good fellowship we have shared with each other here, and for the extraordinary things we’ve accomplished together on behalf of the people of Boston, America, and the world.

“Yes, it’s tough to leave,” I said, “but Henry and Jon are trying to make it easier on me. As soon as I step out the door, they’ve agreed that most of these buildings will be demolished.”  I appreciate their understanding. (Don’t forget to wear your hard hats.)

When I joined WGBH in 1979, we had 181 full-time staff and gross revenues of $30 million a year.

Twenty years later, under Henry’s leadership we had grown to 1,018 full-time staff, and gross revenues of $215 million.

Some of those who have joined us only recently openly disparage the work we did before their arrival. To them I say: “Of course we could have done it better”.

But I need to disabuse them of the idea that it was the favorable climate for public media in the ’80s and ’90s which assured our success.

In the ’80s and ’90s … a number of our colleagues at the major producing stations came close to financial meltdown … Under Henry’s leadership, WGBH was a noteworthy exception to that pattern.

It doesn’t take much digging to learn that during that same period, a number of our colleagues at the major producing stations came close to financial meltdown. The partial roster of near-death experiences is sobering:  WNET/New York; KCET/Los Angeles; WTTW/Chicago; WQED/Pittsburgh; KQED/San Francisco, KCTS/Seattle. Under Henry’s leadership, WGBH was a noteworthy exception to that pattern. Someone here must have known what they were doing.

Yes, there’s plenty of room for improvement in the way we do our business — we must change in fundamental ways and that’s true of any organization of our age — but the key to our success in those years, as it continues to be today, is belief in our mission, and remaining true to our commitments:

  • to foster an informed and active citizenry
  • to make knowledge and the creative life of the arts, sciences, and humanities available to the widest possible public
  • to reflect positively the diversity of our audience, inviting a sense of inclusion and a better understanding of each other
  • to improve, for all people, access to public media
  • to be a trusted partner to parents and educators, providing programming and services that promote the healthy development of children
  • to serve the individual not just as a spectator but as a participant, able and willing to learn new skills through our programs and services

You won’t find these on any P&L spreadsheet.

When I arrived here, our first trial by fire in 1980 was our broadcast of Death of a Princess, executive produced by David Fanning (pre-Frontline) and written by David and by Antony Thomas. It was my first major league  lesson in editorial independence and editorial integrity.

It was a story that the Saudi Royal Family didn’t want told, and so it was a story that the US State Department and Mobil Oil Corporation — our largest corporate underwriter — didn’t want told. Mobil took out an op-ed ad in the New York Times condemning the broadcast, but to their great credit they continued to support us for many years after.

Just about ten years later — in the summer of 1990 — an exhibit of the work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe opened at the ICA. Some labelled it “pornography.” As a result of a showing earlier in the year, the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center and its director had been indicted on obscenity charges. In Boston, both supporters and opponents of the exhibit complained that the media had been reluctant to describe or show the most controversial of the works.

On July 31, on the eve of the opening of the ICA exhibit, with appropriate alerts to viewers we broadcast the photos on The Ten O’Clock News. With Henry’s encouragement, we had decided to show the photographs because the best way to deal with the controversy was to let them be seen.

Again, about ten years later, in May of ’99, it came to light that — contrary to WGBH policies — some names from our donor list had been used for partisan political fundraising. The resulting scandal had national repercussions.

Locally, in the wake of the scandal, Henry had produced several radio and TV spots to explain what had happened and why it wouldn’t happen again. The Globe published an op-ed by Henry in mid-July 1999.

As part of our effort to determine if we had done serious damage to our reputation, and to help figure out what to do next, we enlisted the assistance of John Martilla, a long-time Boston-based political consultant and public opinion pollster.

For an entire day, John moderated focus groups with WGBH members.  At the end of the last session — and after a very long day — John came back into the viewing room on the other side of the glass, shaking his head in disbelief.

“In all the many years I’ve been talking with people in this town about causes and companies and political campaigns and institutions, I’ve never encountered an organization which is more trusted by its constituents than WGBH.”

“David,” he said, “In all the many years I’ve been talking with people in this town about causes and companies and political campaigns and institutions, I’ve never encountered an organization which is more trusted by its constituents than WGBH. To a person, these people are like the parents of a beloved child who’s made a mistake. They are fully prepared to forgive the mistake — in fact that’s what they’d prefer to do — but every time you try to explain how it happened, to spin the story, you remind them how disappointed and angry they were when they heard about it.  Let it go — they believe you when you say it won’t happen again.”

We pulled the spots the next day.  In the months which followed, we scrubbed down our donor list policies and procedures, making it far less likely that our actions, deliberate or inadvertent, will ever betray that trust again.

More recently, we’ve had additional opportunities to be proud of being true to the WGBH mission when we championed the broadcast of what became known as the “two mommies” episode of Postcards from Buster;  our continuing commitment to Between the Lions, despite financial uncertainties; and the many-years-long struggle to maintain the WGBH Archives in the face of calls to “back up the dumpsters and throw that stuff out” to ease the burden of that financial obligation, the true value of which is only now being glimpsed in this era of “the long tail.”  The Archives collection is the dowry we carry with us into the future.

The lesson we should all take away from this is that this organization — and the interests of our intended beneficiaries and stakeholders — has been best served when we have been true to our mission, even when doing so seemed to run counter to that quarter’s P&L.

In last Friday’s Globe, columnist Brian McGrory wrote about the recent pattern of New England-based businesses deciding to move out of the area. He was writing about Quincy-based Dunkin’ Donuts, which plans to expand nationally, and the determination expressed by the company’s chairman/CEO to remain headquartered in Quincy.   “When you make these financial decisions, sometimes you have to say, “This is where we belong, and this is where we’re going to stay … It’s like family here,” he said, “and I have to tell you, it works.”

Here at WGBH, we too are like family.  And it works.

Thank you.

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