Michael Ambrosino — the creator of NOVA — describes his early years at WGBH, an era of live and live-on-tape TV productions at the 84 Massachusetts Avenue studio in Cambridge.
Watch Video — Part 2 (57 minutes)
Transcript — Part 2
INTERVIEWER: June 18, 1998, the second hour of a conversion with Michael Ambrosino.
Michael we were talking about the fire at WGBH in 1961.
Do you remember any great stories about the fire?
MICHAEL AMBROSINO: Well, we were very lucky because several days before the fire, two cameras had been moved into a million mile Greyhound Bus that was sitting out back.
It was going to be the big mobile unit for ‘GBH.
And the day before the fire I think two black and white videotape recorders were moved in and that equipment plus loaned equipment from the Catholic TV Center allowed us to go back on the air the next Monday.
But after the insurance money came in and we bought new equipment and that was put to use,
we still had those two ancient black and white videotape recorders and Hartford had, or I guess the chief engineer had, contacted a company that specialized in the repair of damaged videotape.
And of course, you forget that when you have a fire, there’s water everywhere.
And there was soot, and there was muck, and there were pieces of charred paper and wood and pieces of the roof…
and this was all sitting in sodden masses on all the very delicate electronic gear.
And the company proposed something like $15,000 to repair each recorder and there was no way the station could pay that as well as, but we had the other two recorders and that would be fine.
And they said, oh, you’re the Boston station that burned down, the educational station?
Oh well, that’s different.
We’ll tell you what we do and you do that and you see if it works.
You take all the stuff out of the videotape recorders and you mix one part Vel and one part water, and you paint everything with it.
And then you hose it down and then you plug it in.
If it blows up, you replace it.
And this is what they were going to do for $15,000.
And that’s what the engineers did and most of the stuff had dried out sufficiently in the week with fans and with heaters.
And stuff they plugged in, blew up, and they replaced that.
And so we had four black and white tape recorders.
But if you’ve ever wondered how some commercial companies make their money that’s one of them.
It was no fun for three years operating out of seven or eight different locations.
The inner cohesiveness of the station really fell apart for awhile: management in one place and studios in another.
It meant very long days and great difficulty of moving things back and forth.
It was hard.
INT: So, you had mentioned the Eastern Educational Television Network.
Can you explain it a little bit more?
You had moved from the in-school programming now to the EEN?
MA: I was at home with the flu one day and Hartford Gunn called me at home and said,
I want you to help start a regional network of public educational TV stations in the Northeast.
There were two at the time, New Hampshire and Boston.
And we got together at Mittersill, and we actually planned with what were Boston and a bunch of committee Heads — Vermont ETV Commission, university presidents, League of Women voters — groups that had been for years testifying to committees trying to raise money to do this.
And, step by step, we actually put together a network which transmitted programs off the air to other people’s transmitters and kept relaying these signals from station to station and instituted videotape exchange.
We’d get together every three or four months and figure out what else we could exchange.
We had a huge staff, a secretary and me.
And the first job was to help get stations on the air and to exchange programs with them,
to start to build what eventually became the country’s first interconnected educational TV network …
which ranged from Boston up through Maine and up through Vermont through New Hampshire out to Western Mass, down to New York and Washington.
INT: When was that Michael?
MA: These were in the ’60s.
I joined in ’60 and left in ’64.
In that time, we had not only become an interconnected entity, but had invited places like San Francisco and other stations around the country to join us in the tape network in an informal way.
And that was good because it was the beginning of what has become the American Program Service which is a sort of public television secondary network and is now doing a lot of origination and commissioning rather than just distributing programs.
INT: Just to rehash, when you first came it was a local station broadcasting live for a very few hours a day and then eventually went to kinescope and tape and from then it went to a rotation of tapes and broadcasting on a small regional network.
MA: Remember this was not all the day.
We were signing on at about 5:00 and going off the air at 10:00 everyday, every weekday, and then Saturday was added and then School Broadcasting was added in the morning and then we go dark from 12:00 to 2:00 and School Broadcasting would come back on for an hour or so and then we’d go dark.
It was a lot of what was called test pattern.
You kept your test pattern up because when the man came to your house with the TV set, and he put it in your living room, and he plugged it in and connected to the antenna, he wanted to see a test pattern because that’s what he used to make sure that the tube gave you a real circle.
And the test pattern and music filled much of the air in those days.
And then we expanded to Sunday and then the hours groped up to 11:00 and at 11:00 we all went to bed.
INT: Did we have an audience in those early days?
MA: Yes we had an audience in those days.
It was always more than the little old gray- haired ladies in Cambridge, which we were always accused of broadcasting to.
And even in those days, I remember discovering that people loved to learn — they hate to be taught, but they love to learn — and the proverbial cab driver would, if they knew you were from ‘GBH, would start telling you of programs that they had seen.
It wasn’t a big audience, but it was a very devoted one.
It’s not a big audience now, if you measure it up against the top 20 commercial shows, but I invite everybody to do a little experiment once a year.
If the newspapers ever print not just the top 20 shows, but the next 70 shows so all those programs that get cancelled over a season, that pulls 2’s and 3’s and 4’s, you realize that the programs on public broadcasting outdraw many of the programs that are 30 ranked and 40 ranked and 50 ranked on commercial television.
It’s just that we always hold ourselves up to those shows that are the blockbusters.
The audience is a genuinely connected one.
INT: So up to ’64 you were kind of deeply involved in the setup of the Eastern Educational Network?
MA: I was a suit, yeah.
INT: What happened in’64?
MA: Well, let me tell you one story about what happened before that because it was fun.
Those were the druggie days and Tim Leary was coming to MIT to give a lecture.
It was going to be difficult to film because it was going to be a lecture by candlelight.
A very enterprising Austin Hoyt grabbed Bloyd Estes and they went and shot this lecture and came home and started to edit it and it was going to be a wonderful local program.
The network heard about it and wanted it ready for the network and it was made for the network.
It consisted of Tim Leary with one candle glowing on the stage, sitting cross- legged at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium basically telling the kids they were fools.
They should not go to MIT.
They should dropout.
They should drop acid and they should really learn about themselves.
And for 20 minutes he held the kids spellbound.
And then Jerry Letvin stood up.
Jerry Letvin, Professor Letvin, is a physicist and a psychologist, M.D. doctor.
Not only was he very learned and had done a lot of research, some of it with Tim Leary, but he was the MIT guru.
When you were in trouble you went to Jerry, and Jerry, between smoking all his cigarettes, would tell you how he could help you.
And so he stood up and said to, directly to Tim Leary, who was still seated cross-legged by his feet, “Tim, we’re friends, we’ve done work together.
“Tell me as a clinician, what is it when a person hears smells and sees sounds, two weeks after dropping acid.”
And Tim looked up at him and said, “Oh I’d called him a visionary mystic!”
Oh, and the crowd went wild.
That was a nice put down.
And Letvin said, “Bullshit.
“It’s a … hematoma and you know God damn well it is”.
And for the next 20 minutes he sabotaged Tim Leary and told the kids what happens when they dropped acid to the chemicals in their brain.
This was a wonderful program, it was offered to the network.
In those days, you made 40 tapes, sent it to the top 40 stations, they played them a week, dropped them to the next 40 stations, they played them and on it ran.
And the stations complained.
Not that Tim Leary for 20 minutes was given an audience to tell the kids to drop acid, burn their brains, not that Jerry Letvin had savaged another human being without being chastised for 20 minutes, in the cruelest possible fashion.
But that Jerry Letvin had said, “bullshit.”
And they asked the program to be edited.
So they edited themselves, sent out 40 new tapes to 40 stations.
The stations complained.
Why did they complain? Because Jerry Letvin now said “bullsh…”. because in those days, you edited by taking the tape on the two inch reels and moving it over the sound head.
So, WGBH finally decided it would edit it.
A third set of 40 tapes was sent out to the network.
But as Director of the Eastern Educational Network, I informed my stations that they would have, if they wished, the unexpurgated feed from WGBH.
And of course, they all said yes.
First amendment!We will stand by our rights! We will say the dirty word! And then the telephone calls started coming in.
Well, we’ve had a meeting of our Advisory Committee and we….
so in the end, as with most stupid or brave things, only San Francisco and ‘GBH were going to run the offending word.
That is why my son Jonathan is named for John Rice who was then Program Manager, KQED San Francisco.
And that evening, only those two stations were to broadcast the offense … except the microwave linked north failed about one minute before 9:00.
A very astute transmitter engineer at WENH decided, I know what I’ll do I’ll save the day, I will pick up the off air feed from ‘GBH.
So in the end New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine with their managers knowing full well the offending word would not be there.
It says something about broadcasting then and now that the offense was a word rather than a thought.
It says something about public broadcasting, something about commercial television and I always remember it as sort of a pivotal idea that certain things really bring offense that big ideas don’t and it’s a big shame
INT: Terrific story, terrific story.
MA: It was true.
INT: So at the end of’64 where were you at that particular moment?
MA: Tired of being a suit.
I realized that my future in public broadcasting was probably going to take over the National Association of Educational Broadcasters.
You know that just seemed like more administration, I didn’t want to run a station.
And I told Bob Larson that he was overworked.
What he really needed was an assistant program manager and I knew somebody who could fill the job.
I then left the network and became Assistant Program Manager to Bob Larsen and suggested Don Quayle, who had radio experience and television experience and had been radio manager here at WGBH and he took over as my replacement at EEN and built it into the empire that it is today.
He ran it for four years and then John Porter took over and ran it for 20 years.
INT: Well, what did you do when you were Assistant Program Manager?
What are your great accomplishments?
MA: Oh yes, I scheduled the station.
I decided what programs went where, you know, obviously with Bob’s concurrence and changes.
I helped oversee local programming and national programming and continued doing that up until 1969.
INT: What was in your early years of Assistant Program Manager, what was a day like?
How would a ‘GBH programming day run?
What would you see on the air?
MA: Where’s my list?
INT: Well sort of, I mean, you don’t have to have it exact.
MA: Well it was interesting.
We were then really expanding what we were doing.
There were a lot of arts programs.
It was usually high arts.
I mean if it was music, it was classical music.
Too, there was a jazz program.
But it would be…
instead of the one or two camera with one piano, it would be the symphony broadcast or it would be music in rehearsal, it would be opera.
There would be dance.
There was dance early, even in 84 Mass Avenue, we made the national program “A Time to Dance” that Greg Harney directed, Jac Venza produced, and it had all of the great names of dance.
I mean, it is a treasure trove for the dance historian.
Julia Child had started by then because we had the mobile unit in the post fire days.
Those programs were recorded in Cambridge.
You forget that it was very hard.
Dave Stuart, just did a recent piece in “Current” about Julia and he left out an essential point, I thought.
Hartford could not sell Julia to public broadcasting.
It wasn’t serious enough, it wasn’t high art enough.
There was a meeting of the television stations of the nation in Denver.
We all met in a bar in one of the ghost towns out in the woods in Denver, and Hill Bermont, the program manager of Georgia, Atlanta, Georgia, made a very impassioned speech that it was all too high art and he ended by screaming at Curt Davis, “When, when will we stoop to Swan Lake?”
And the answer was never!
It was only after Curt Davis left as being head of “Culture” did we “stoop” to something that was as prominent a ballet as Swan Lake.
The stations were now starting to do what were real political programs, documentaries about the way the nation worked and about the way the nation didn’t work.
So that “NET Journal” and you know we would try to feed programs into that.
I had seen a fellow called George Page who had done a documentary in Georgia called “Blockbusting Atlanta Style” — a wonderful program about how white real estate operators would try to introduce a black family into certain neighborhoods, the rest of the families would flee, the real estate operators would buy the houses up very cheap, sell them dear to black families.
And Hartford was looking for a documentary producer and I suggested he look at George.
George was working here several weeks later and he and Don Fauser and Austin Hoyt started making many of those early series and programs that tried to analyze the way this country was working at the time.
INT: And George Page then went on to WNET?
MA: WNET did more documentaries and then became the person in charge of “Nature” and ran that series into the great series that it is today.
INT: And George Page’s voice is well associated I think with public television.
What are some of the other important things that you were doing?
MA: “The Reporters”.
I was fascinated with the uproar at this station some years ago when the “Nightly News” went off the air because I had lived through several uproars like that in the past.
An educational station just doesn’t have enough resources to have a real news presence in the community.
The first news programs were basically talk with Louie Lyons and they never really progressed much further than that: a 15-minute reading of AP wire copy.
There were a variety of strikes that went on in the newspaper industry, and KQED, probably the most resourceful of the educational stations at the time, created something called “Newsroom” in which they brought all the reporters in and basically looked as if they were having an editorial meeting and they would say, Fred, what’s the story on your page today?
And Fred would say what the important news happened in his area and then he would be questioned by the other people as they would in an editorial meeting.
WGBH did one of those as well and out of that grew the idea that well maybe we could have a nightly news presence and I forget what the first one was called.
I’ve got it written down here as the “Reporters.”
INT: I think you’re right.
It started from a Globe newspaper strike and then it led to the “Reporters.” Wasn’t Allan Lupo one of the first….
MA: Alan Lupo was on it, Sharon Rivo, Joe Klein who’s now known as the Mr. Anonymous from “Primary Colors.”
These were ‘GBH reporters going out and finding stories.
Howard Spurgle was a member.
Howard was the most professional of the group and he had the education beat and the problem was, was at the editorial meetings, Howard would present five, six, seven, ten stories on education and the executive producer had to be very careful that you know education didn’t carry the whole night, but Howard was right there with his stuff and the rest of the people were running around, trying to found out what was going on.
We also did the conventions, and I remember the convention when Chub Peabody was nominated in the Hines Auditorium.
Sharon Rivo was directing and all the reporters were covering the floor and at 2:30 in the morning Chub Peabody, who had just been nominated by the convention, turned to the reporter who was interviewing him and said, do you think anybody’s really up and listening to us?
And the reporter sort of looked out into this vast empty scene and no, I guess we’d better call it a night.
And that’s how we went off the air.
‘GBH was doing an auction then, of course, and in those days they were a bit less hectic than they are now.
We would stop and dance for a half hour.
I remember Olivia doing jitter bugs on the stage.
We would raise, I guess, a $100,000 a year and think that was great.
I don’t know if auctions are cost efficient these days, but in those days they certainly did bring the community together.
Thousands of men and women, mostly women, went out into the community and scoured things and really found out that people did really feel that they belonged to the station.
INT: Do you think that the fire and the auction were the two major catalysts of really bringing WGBH into predominance in this awesome community or do you think it was the other programming like Julia Child and “The Reporters?”
MA: I think it was the other programs.
I think the fire and the auction just reminded people that we were here.
INT: We were a local station, weren’t we? I mean, when did we become national? When did it really start happening?
MA: From the earliest days it sought national.
I think “Discovery” was distributed nationally.
“Science Reporter” was distributed nationally.
We had one of the first kinescope machines and we would record programs.
In those days, national programming meant local programs that were recorded and sent out. And then you’d get maybe a $100 to do better visuals and then the program facilitators at the Educational Television and Radio Center would make some suggestions and then they would make some suggestions as to the kind of series that they could use looking for a balance in their schedule and then they made the programs themselves.
Stations like WGBH and the rest had to sort of fight to get their nose in.
And they assembled producer staffs in New York to do “NET Journal” and, you know, Fauser and Austin and George Page would have to fight their way into those series.
It’s the natural progression.
INT: The emergence of WNET or NET as it was a division, became kind of an important part of the structure of the network in those days where ‘GBH was a supplier, but it was really a network operation called NET that was really functioning as the kind of major distributor of programming, am I right?
MA: Well there was a station called WNDT, New Dimensions in Television, that went on the air, of course, it was struck by the union and I hate to say this guys, but I and a bunch of people from ‘GBH scabbed, went down, put them on the air, they went off the air right after that opening program, it was with Ed Morrow, and then for two weeks negotiated and it went back on the air with a union contract.
It thought itself the most important station in the world.
It had as its manager, Dick Heffner, a very self-important man.
That station sort of made us all feel as if we were just hicks, but I don’t think they ever came up to the job in terms of doing the really great things.
The Ford Foundation demanded that NET in New York and WNDT merge because they were tired of funding the two groups.
And then of course they became the national producer and it even became harder for other stations, including WGBH, to get in to the documentary area or the cultural series because they had the facilities, they had the staff, they had the commissioners, they had the producers and they became a real necessary and vibrant part of public broadcasting and probably that’s where the more daring programs were made.
INT: Such as’?
MA: “The NET Journals.”
INT: The series the “Dream Machine.”
MA: What was the name of that program?
INT: “Great American Dream Machine.” Did you have anything to do with it?
Some of the real fun things came too.
A sense of humor was to be brought…
INT: “The American Family”
MA: “The American Family” by Gilbert?
INT: I forget.
MA: “The American Family” was a program about the Loud’s … cameramen living and a husband and wife living with them for months …
Over the objections of the head of documentaries at the time.
Jim Day merely took $80- or $100,000 out of the budget and gave it to these independent producers.
“The Great American Dream Machine” was segmented pieces that allowed a lot of creative people, including somebody who’s sitting on the dias, to make segments for that program.
INT: Mickey Lenley, oh my.
MA: You …
INT: … and the animator, Fouser’s dear friend…
MA: He did all the openings for the Boston Pops, all the animated openings.
I can’t remember…
INT: It sounded as if the culture in the high arts was now moving into a news program, into documentaries, into coverage of local conventions.
It sounded like the very quality of the kind of programs and the very subject matter of the programs of WGBH was changing radically in the early days of the ’60’s?
MA: Yes, we were moving from the educational TV station to the public television station.
We were moving from seeing ourselves as the extension of the Harvard University extension classes to a station that actually look into how the nation worked.
I was doing a lot of stuff that dealt with the coverage of the UN.
In ’67 the Arab-Israeli war broke out.
We were covering the United Nations when there was no morning programming right up until 5:00 when we would go into our regular stuff.
And in those days you just bumped the schedule.
I mean we never thought that the schedule was filled with such wonderful programs that we couldn’t wipe it out for a moment’s notice for coverage of important events.
There were war and anti-war protests and the station was involved in those.
KQED was doing a lot of stuff out on the streets.
I remember at one point when the students at Harvard took over buildings and President Pusey would not speak to them.
And Studio A was emptied and a huge table built and the students and some of the board of overseers or the Board of Directors of Harvard sat in that room and basically talked to Nathan Pusey via WGBH’s transmitter.
I remember being in this studio, myself on camera, after the bombing of Cambodia and for two or three nights in a row broadcasting what people in the City of Boston could do to protest the bombing in Cambodia.
I remember, in the death of Robert Kennedy, commissioning programs on poetry and music that influenced Robert Kennedy and calling Fred Rogers saying …
“I’ve commissioned two or three half hours.
“If you could do a half hour we’d then have two hours of programming for children … because all they’re going to see is dead bodies going past Capitol steps.”
And Fred said, “Oh, we’re already making that one.”
And so, you know, we used the Eastern Educational Network and the stations had something for children during that time.
PBL was created by the Ford Foundation to be an experiment on Sundays, two and a-half hours of interconnection, you know, a rental of big telephone lines and the whole country was pulled together, a new staff was pulled together.
And again, the fight as to whether WGBH would get into that kind of program.
I remember going to a little play with Greg Harney, in a little theater directed by David Wheeler, watching a very tall guy and a very short guy in a play called “The Dwarfs” by Pinter.
The tall guy turned out to be John Voight, the short guy was Dustin Hoffman and the decision was should we televise that as part of PBL.
Greg directed it.
INT: The acronym was Public Broadcasting Laboratory.
MA: Public Broadcasting Laboratory.
It was to show what we could do if somebody would give us enough money and in those days, of course, the funder was the Ford Foundation, they did everything.
INT: Was Dave Davis at the Ford Foundation at that time?
MA: After ’67 he was.
There was the “James Brown Show.”
Martin Luther King was murdered and the cities burned.
Boston did not burn.
James Brown was doing a concert the day after King died, and the Mayor suddenly realized that 12- or 13,000 black youngsters would be let out of the Boston Garden at about midnight and probably would walk through town on their way to Roxbury because there were no buses or the T wasn’t operating and decided that was not to be done.
He got in touch with WGBH.
I was called into Hartford’s office at 5:30 and asked if we could go on the air from Boston Garden by 8:30 because the Mayor was going to buy the house and every TV station in town was going to tell kids not to come.
An argument ensued among the executives at WGBH whether this was a good idea.
At which point I said, “You continue talking. If you want me on the air by 8:30 I’m now leaving.”
I got in touch with three men, the four men that I knew could get us on the air by 8:30 — Greg Harney, Russ Morash, David Atwood and Al Potter — and we screamed down to the Boston Garden.
We laid out the cameras, and about two hours later I met Mr. Brown and his bodyguards and with an alpaca coat on his shoulders.
I thanked him very much for allowing us to televise the concert and he said, “What television?”
At which point, he and Tom Atkins, the Mayor’s black assistant, got together and talked about it and an hour later they came out and agreed, yes we could televise.
And we broadcast that program once and twice and I think three times that night.
About 1,000 people had come and were allowed in to the concert.
Brown brought Mayor White onto the stage.
The two of them basically said to the City of Boston,
“This city is different from other cities and this city should not burn.”
And the major conflagrations that were happening all over the country did not happen here.
Interesting use of media at the time and interesting that WGBH was asked to do it.
INT: I remember Louis Lyons crying on the air when Martin Luther King died.
MA: No, when Bobby Kennedy.
INT: Was it Bobby?
Bobby Kennedy was shot after Martin Luther King.
Louis Lyons arrived.
I arrived at the station, Louis arrived at the station, Fauser arrived at the stage.
Louis demanded to go on the air immediately.
He was in an absolute rage.
I was the only executive at the station.
I cancelled the program at the time.
Louis went into the studio, Fouser directed, and he basically said, “This nation is rotten,” and gave a four or five minute editorial, a statement, about his thoughts of the depths that we had descended to.
We faded to black, came up with reports of the death and then went back into regular program.
All of broadcasting was sort of held in abeyance over the next couple of days except for the funeral.
INT: Quite a moment.
MA: Louis Lyons was quite a man.
INT: Well Louis was, by nature, a very, how should we say, conservative journalist.
He was a reader of copy, he did not express in any emotional way of how he felt, his words were always very carefully selected, and in this one he really just was in an outrage.
MA: Not exactly.
Louis was a man of great passion.
He may have read his copy in a mild way, but his idea of the news was to tell you what the news was, and then with his 40, 50 years of knowledge, was to tell you what it meant and it was his own perspective and it was quite strong at times.
He was the news presence of the station for many years.
He and Bob Barram did Regional New England News.
He was head of the Nieman Fellowships and ran that with great distinction for a number of years.
And everyday he would come and the smallest of the trees in front of WGBH — the one that is dying because it gets the least water — would be picked over by him as he walked in.
He never forgot that he started life as a agricultural reporter and would always tell you what was happening in the agricultural fields.
INT: I don’t want to make too short of a period of time up, you know, when you were Assistant Program Manager, but when did you go on camera Michael?
I mean you had your own show there for awhile?
MA: I had been on camera before.
I did a lot of stuff on the auction.
I was the only person I think at WGBH who still had a working actors equity card, I mean, I was professional theater background.
I had interviewed all of the candidates….
I had done a lot of stuff in the ’50s … on-camera interviews.
I had interviewed, in the ’60s, all the people running for Congress.
And in 1969 we were going to do a program that dealt with the high arts and it was to be a critical evaluation of opera, music, dance, theater in Boston.
And I said, gee, we do that all the time.
Why don’t we do something that’s really on the streets.
Let’s get out and do something.
There had been only one series that had ever done that in our lives and what was the name of that program?
It was called “What’s Happening Mr. Silver” produced by you.
I thought we should really be doing that.
That’s where we are, that’s where the studio, but this piece should be out there.
And Michael Rice, who was then Program Manager, said, “Well, what would it be like?” And I said, “I’ll tell you Monday.”
Monday I came in with a proposal, he said, “Oh that’s interesting, who will do it?”
I said, “I’ll do it.”
He said, “But you’re assistant, associate then, director of programs.”
I said, “I’ll do both jobs.”
He said, “Who will appear as host?” because in those days every show had to have a host.
I said, “I will be the host.”
The only person with professional theater training.
We started out to make a series and I forget who the first director was…
The first director was Fred Barzyk and the first couple of shows were shot out the side of the mobile unit because that was as mobile as we could be.
You then designed a rig for the back of the bus and we could shoot 270 degrees off that.
And I remember Greg McDonald, god bless him, driving the truck, no it was on camera, Greg was driving, somebody was on camera …
We were on the Mystic River Bridge at about 8:00 in the morning at the head of rush hour and you were talking in the headsets to the truck driver, to the cameraman, and I was listening in and you said, “Slower, slower, stop”.
And you were then directing, we were doing a program about the environment of the city, you were shooting smoke stacks.
And Greg said, “Fred we’re parked on the Mystic River Bridge in the middle of rush hour”.
And your response was, quote, “We’ve paid our toll.”
INT: That’s true.
We got the shot and moved on.
MA: We paid a Boston policeman with a motorcycle $27.00 and we could go anywhere.
Lee Polk and Jerry Slater from WNET came up to see us do ” Michael Ambrosino‘s Show” and they couldn’t believe what we were doing because the City of New York and its regulations and the unions…
There’s no way you could run a cable on the sidewalk.
No way you could stop, as we did, in the middle of Harvard Square and put me on the top of a chair for a half an hour, stopping direct traffic in all directions to do a lead-in.
We quickly discovered in that series that we could either do a studio show with studio segments or we could do exterior segments, but we didn’t have enough money to do both and you, god bless you, said, we’ll do it all outside.
And so we did credits, and everything.
And we did in those days 18 programs in 28 weeks.
About half were videotaped and half were film.
Boy, that’s with just reversal film.
There would be a day for shooting, a morning for videotape editing or a day or a day and a half of film editing.
Dick Bartlett cut most of those.
And it was my attempt to remind myself … a primer of what could be done outside.
Some were interviews, some were little documentaries.
There was a program about Inman Square, there were programs about pollution, there were programs about dawn.
We showed little rock concerts, we showed what autumn was like, we showed what flying was like.
We did a program about Boston Harbor.
And I remember we finally were getting it right, I think Dave Atwood was directing at that time, and we had … you were directing, Inman Square?
INT: Inman Square.
MA: You directed that one, and I remember we came in, the show went out on Tuesday nights so we came in probably on a Monday morning and Ralph Schuetz walked up to us, with tears streaming down his face and holding two, two-inch cans of tape and said …
“I have tapes two and three of ‘Michael Ambrosino’s Show’,” and we said, “Where’s tape number one?”
And he said, “We recorded Governor Furcoloon over it last night.”
So, we made a show of tapes two and three.
Luckily, you had said that the six to eight minute intro that we had shot on tape one was no good and we should do it over and that was on tape three and that was the Inman Square program.
INT: An important factor, at least the Boston history, was that was the first time that a little seafood place had been showcased on camera has gone on to become probably Boston’s number one seafood restaurant, Legal Seafoods.
MA: Legal Seafoods.
George Burkowitz gave me a lesson on how to buy fish.
He stuck a fish in my face and said, “Smell that, smell anything?”
I said, “No I don’t smell anything.”
He said, “Ah, it’s fresh fish.”
INT: We have to get to this point …
You and WGBH went separate ways there for awhile….
There had been a putsch in 1967, there was a change in management, and having been told I would be program manager, I wasn’t.
I ran around the country for three months.
San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington flew me out.
I came back to the station and said, you know I don’t want to go anywhere.
I’m going, the terrible, you know, all the macho stuff is I should quit now, you choose Michael Rice instead of me.
No station around the country for the next five or ten years is going to make the kind of programs that this place can make.
So, I stayed.
In the middle of making that series “Michael Ambrosino‘s Show,” I guess I said to myself, you are the programmer you thought you were.
Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was that I was not made the program manager.
I think Michael made a better program manager than me.
I think he gave more freedom to people like you than I would have given you in “What’s Happening Mr. Silver.”
And he gave me that freedom in “Michael Ambrosino‘s Show.”
In the middle of that, I told the station to fill my job.
That if I came back, I would come back to do something else and Mark Stevens was made Associate Director of Programs.
It was also a sort of a personal thing.
I was going to be 40 in June and I had literally been working since the age of five, when my mother made my first apron in the store and I felt the 40th year was mine, nobody else could have it.
I quickly discovered that Fulbright gave a pittance and you had to teach somewhere.
Guggenheim gave less and the Ford Foundation was not interested in giving me a grant to sit on my duff in Northern Italy and contemplate what I do next.
And the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had a fellowship, but the previous year it had been at Nippon Hoso Kyoki , NHK in Japan, and although I still spoke some Japanese from 18 months in the service there, I knew that I would go to a foreign network in a fellowship and be an observer and that wasn’t for me.
And about two months later it was announced that the 1970, ’71 fellowship would be in London at the BBC and I said, that’s mine.
And I applied for it and went after it and four days before I was 40, in which I would be ineligible to receive it, I got the grant and that really changed my life and changed my ideas about programming forever.
INT: So, how did it change and what were those ideas?
MA: Well, the BBC said, we have a wonderful plan for you.
We’re going to set you up in nine different divisions, you know, one month at a time.
The first month you’re going to eat with everybody and I said, you know if I were 21 that would be great, but I’m 40.
I didn’t come here to look at all of your different divisions.
I came here to work.
You’ve got a very pugnacious program that goes out 45 minutes every night, BBC One, called “24 Hours” it was news and current affairs, had three production teams that worked in rotation.
If I’m any good and I get assigned to that, I’m going to actually work there and get the kind of experience that I want.
And the BBC being the BBC said, “Oh, you’ve got your own ideas, that’s fine.”
So for the first month, I did eat with everybody from Hugh Whelden to David Attenborough, to the heads of radio, to the heads of all the major divisions, the drama, music, opera, etc.
In radio in overseas and then in television.
And then I went to work.
Monday, I observed.
Tuesday, I was given an assignment.
I was given an assignment which I later learned had been given to two other people and it had been rejected.
A young associate producer on the program had proposed an interview by a well-known British rock star and the executive producer of the program was so entranced in getting to meet him that he directed it himself.
A filmed interview, 45 minutes long, without one cut away, no pictures of the apartment, no pictures of his bedroom, the socks, the books in the bookcase.
And so the other people had cut it and it you know had butchered it.
Coming out of “Michael Ambrosino‘s Show,” we had done video editing, snap editing.
We’d done a lot of it and I was not an expert, but certainly was more expert than they were.
I had found a piece of music that this fellow had done, in a recent film, and edited the interview to the beat of the music he had been performing.
So that everything had a cadence and Thursday night of that week, an 18 minute piece on a little known rock star called Mick Jagger went out on BBC One and I was no longer an observer, I was then a member of the staff.
It’s interesting that I owe my whole future in programming to him.
I worked on that program, a dear man left his position as an associate director of the program and allowed me to take over because the American elections were on and so I was directing teams of film makers in America to cover Rockefeller, to cover Bob Drinan’s run for Congressman, the first Jesuit to go to Congress.
We had satellite feeds and that was a rather glorious four or five months.
And I wrote that up hoping that public broadcasting would do something like that instead of the sort of newsroom approach that we were following.
I then spent about four months watching something strange called “Features Group” make documentaries out of programs that we normally would have thought of as educational television or further instruction.
Programs about music, about dance, about the arts, about science and technology and religion and these were very popular documentaries on BBC Two.
At that time in England commercial television had come in and BBC One was reorganized to give them a real fight for their money because BBC One had been losing its ratings and all the educative kinds of shows went to BBC Two.
And about a month before I was to come back to America, Bob Larsen came over and we took a seven hour walk talking about if I came back, what would I come back to do?
And he asked me what I would like to do?
And I said, I want to take over Channel 2.
I think we should separate local and national programming.
Local programming is going to be screwed by the impetuous for national and he said, “No ‘GBH will never separate the two.”
“What else would you like to do?”
I said, “Well I think I would like to start a science series.”
And May the first, 1971, I wrote a five page letter to Michael Rice outlining basically what a science program for public broadcasting would be like.
INT: And of course we all know that’s “NOVA” that came out of that five-page letter.
MA: Yes, I came back to WGBH on a Rockefeller Grant for a couple of months to develop a science project.
Actually Michael’s letter welcoming me back, welcomed me back to do “Michael Ambrosino‘s Show” and maybe to create a science series.
I also was developing a project called “Dying” because one of the Michael Ambrosino programs was going to be about leukemia kids at Childrens Hospital.
And another project which failed.
Development took a year, raising the money took another year and a half and we actually went on the air in 1974 in March with the first 13 programs in the “NOVA” series.
INT: And the BBC and all that connection at BBC and WGBH were co-producers, am I right in saying that?
MA: Not co-producers as much as, it would not have happened had we not taken on the strand technique that BBC had created.
INT: The strand technique?
MA: Well there was no way in hell anybody was going to give me the millions necessary to do 13 new science programs and we were not equipped to make 13 new science programs in a series.
If we would make three or four ourselves with BBC producers that I brought over, with American associate producers and PAs who could then be trained to do this, and we co-produced one or two with BBC, and we bought some of their best award winners that they made in the last 10 years.
We could spread that money out and get more programs for a few dollars and actually create a TV series that meant that the programs we made had to come up in quality to the award winners that we were buying because I had 150 programs to choose from for the first series.
So, we were off and running.
INT: In that first year or two of “NOVA,” which of the shows are you most pleased with?
What are the ones that really stand out in your mind?
MA: “Why Do Birds Sing”.
Typical I think of “NOVA” is that it would take a subject that you’ve never even thought you’d be interested in, and show you something that was just so stunning and so beautiful that it made you look at the world a little differently.
Recently, the National Science Foundation gave an award to “NOVA” in its 25th year and I told a little story that I thought the perfect “NOVA” was a film about a lot, a vacant lot, done by a “NOVA” producer in such a way that you would never think of a lot as ever being vacant again.
And I think that is the charm of a series like that.
That, yes, it could deal with things like the “Plutonium Connection” by John Angier, in which we showed that stolen or lost plutonium could be made into a terrorist weapon and had it checked with scientists in Scandinavia.
We dealt with the issues of bombing and whether bombing was effective for the First World War up through Vietnam and showed that indeed it wasn’t effective and did not destroy the morale of any population, it only galvanized it.
Along with the public policy questions of whether there was enough water in the country to feed Los Angeles.
There were these films that took place, you know, infinite delight of beauty, that just looked at a desert and shows what happens in a desert in a course of a year …
That dealt with bird migrations and how they can travel thousands of miles and come back to the same place.
The inner beauty of finding out how the world worked.
It was never meant to be a science series.
I think it is not a science series, it uses science to show how the world works.
Excellent tool, as film-making is an excellent tool.
INT: Well from a viewer whose benefitted much from “NOVA,” thank you for writing that five page memo.
I’m glad you came back.
The end of our second hour.
June 18, 1998 with Michael Ambrosino.