Henry Becton: The great sense of possibility

Henry BectonAt a December 4, 2007 meeting of WGBH staff, longtime President Henry Becton ceremoniously passed the baton to Jon Abbott, who stepped in to the presidency in October after serving as Executive Vice President and COO. According to Cynthia Broner, their remarks met with a prolonged standing ovation for Henry’s nearly 38 years at WGBH. Henry remains at WGBH part time as Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees as well as senior editorial advisor.

Introduction by Jon Abbott

The accolades for Henry Becton have been pouring in from all quarters since October, when I had the honor of succeeding him as WGBH president. And this morning we want to add to those.

For 37 years at WGBH — 24 as president — Henry has been a creative and visionary force for all of us, and for the larger public broadcasting system … and indeed all of broadcasting.

For 37 years at WGBH — 24 as president — Henry has been a creative and visionary force for all of us, and for the larger public broadcasting system … and indeed all of broadcasting. He led WGBH to national prominence as a production powerhouse, technological innovator, and media-access pioneer — all the while keeping a steady eye on WGBH’s local identity, editorial integrity, and strength of purpose.

The good news is that Henry’s not going away. In fact, he’s just moving down the hall a little bit. We’ll continue to benefit from his wisdom as Vice Chair of our Board of Trustees, alongside David Mugar and Howard Jacobson and working with Board Chair Amos Hostetter. He is continuing on, as well, as senior editorial advisor to WGBH.

But we want to thank Henry this morning, and salute him. I know that in addition to his broad accomplishments and leadership, Henry has played a positive, encouraging role for many of us in our professional lives. Please join me in recognizing Henry and thanking him for all he has done for WGBH and the work we each do.

Remarks from Henry Becton

Thanks, Jon.

When the PBS Board was here a few weeks ago, I met a new PBS Director who has just stepped down as president of the North Carolina University system, and so we were comparing notes. She said, “Well, Henry, you and I are now what they call PIPs. Do you know what that is?” I was thinking this must be some regional slang from the great Smokey Mountains. “No,” she said, “a PIP is a Previously Important Person!”

So, now that I’m a PIP, I can tell you that it feels good to know that ’GBH is in such excellent hands with Jon Abbott and the senior management team, and to sleep soundly at night knowing that the buck doesn’t have to stop on my desk anymore, but on the desk or desks of those in whom I have great confidence.

Jon and I have been struggling over what kind of staff event to have to acknowledge my recent PIP-dom.

First, we knew we had to delay it because of all the other events going on in October and early November. Then it seemed too odd to have the kind of big roast of the type we gave, say, David Liroff when he went off to CPB. Because I’m not really going anywhere.

So we settled on the metaphor of the passing of the baton — of a relay race, and this part of today’s event is going to be a baton passing. Literally. And we’ll do the hand-off in a few minutes.

But before we do that, I want to reflect a bit on what’s changed during my years at the helm and what remains the same.

I came to WGBH in early January 1970, so I’m only a few weeks away from my 38th anniversary. But even before I was an employee of ’GBH, I was a fan of public TV and radio. I think I was actually watching when Julia Child famously dropped a chicken she was preparing on the Studio A kitchen floor, and then in front of 5 million TV viewers said, “It’s ok, dearie, just pick it up: no one is watching!”

I came to Boston to go to law school. But in my third year, I took a filmmaking course at the Carpenter Center at Harvard, and made two short animated films that were shown on Channel 2, on Flickout (a very’70s title).

After teaching for a year, I decided filmmaking was the career for me, and I applied for a job at WGBH as a producer trainee. Two weeks later I got my rejection letter, and as I was reading it the phone rang to offer me the job. Any organization that chaotic had real potential for improvement, I thought!

I got the job and began a rotation through different assignments, starting with three months working on the studio crew. I never intended to make WGBH my career. I thought I’d be there a year or two and then move on. But they kept offering me better and better jobs, and I stayed.

When I arrived at ’GBH … we were very excited about the mission of public broadcasting. There was a great sense of possibility; we could take risks and try anything, and more often than not we’d succeed in creating some exciting new series!

When I arrived at ’GBH we had about 100 employees and a budget of about $6 to 7 million; no endowment. And I remember it was always touch and go whether we had enough cash to make the payroll every two weeks.

But we were very excited about the mission of public broadcasting. There was a great sense of possibility; we could take risks and try anything, and more often than not we’d succeed in creating some exciting new series!

Today there are some 950 of us working here, an annual budget of close to $200 million, and an endowment of a little over $63 million. Our services and audience reach are vastly greater than they were in 1970. You know well the roster of all the things we are doing now which we hadn’t even imagined were possible back then.

What hasn’t changed is our mission and that sense of possibility I remember from the early ’70s. It has been my conviction through all these years that there will always be a place for high-quality, educational content that offers a real alternative to what commercial business models will support.

The commitments that are part of the long form of our mission statement won’t be found on any P&L spreadsheet:

  • 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.

There were times in the 1980s and early ’90s when cable TV seemed to many people to provide much of what public TV had done. We now know that that was an illusion. And when the Internet and broadband came along, cable couldn’t any longer be the gatekeeper that it once was, blocking public TV from adding new services. I think we are once again in an environment where anything is possible for WGBH. It reminds me more of what it was like in the early ’70s than any time in between.

But if we’re going to succeed at taking advantage of those possibilities, we’ll need to continue the internal change initiatives we began in the last few years: We need to continue to evolve our business processes to bring them in line with best practices elsewhere and with the more competitive environment. We’ll need to realize the synergies of greater internal collaboration and teamwork across departments and projects. And we’ll need to explore and develop new revenue streams that are compatible with our mission.

The goal of these changes, of course, is to better support our mission; to have the resources to invest in new programs and services; and to realize the great possibilities in front of us.

The … most important advantage we have is the caliber and dedication of all of you who make up this WGBH community. Whatever credit I’ve gotten for the achievements of ’GBH during these years is due to your accomplishments.

We have three great assets as an organization that make me very confident in our future success.

First, we have developed very powerful brands that can cut through the clutter of an increasingly crowded media field.

Secondly, we have an extremely high level of trust among the audience. You’ve read the Roper Polls.

The third and most important advantage we have is the caliber and dedication of all of you who make up this WGBH community. Whatever credit I’ve gotten for the achievements of ’GBH during these years is due to your accomplishments.

If you’ve been in my office you may have seen a large photograph on my wall of the staff and crew of the original Zoom series in the mid ’70s. There are some 30 people in the photo. I keep it there as a reminder of how many people and how much teamwork it takes to produce a major project, from producers to studio techs to fundraising and Physical Plant … from the on-air kids to the choreographer … from NABET and AEEF to management. There are people in that photo who are still here — although their hairstyles have changed — and there are sadly those who are no longer with us, but whom we remember well.

For me, that picture symbolizes the greater WGBH community, and I treasure it. You and this community are why I have stayed here for 38 years; you are the reason why I don’t really want to be anywhere else. And you are the reason why I’m so optimistic about our future.

One of the most important things a CEO can do is help identify and develop a strong successor for his community. And I’m proud of the smooth transition to the capable leadership of to Jon Abbott.

Jon really understands and is passionate about our mission. He has demonstrated great strategic sense about how best to develop our new digital services. He has a great marketing sense of how to expand our share of attention in this cluttered environment. He has the respect of all parts of the system nationally, and has already earned a top leadership position among his system peers. And he works tirelessly on our behalf.

So now’s the moment for the symbolic passing of the baton.

Perhaps belatedly, but proudly and ceremoniously, I want to hand off the baton to Jon Abbott. Here we go!

Jon Abbott

Thank you, Henry.

I should note that one mark of the widespread respect and affection for Henry is The Becton Fund that was launched by donors to our Breaking New Ground Campaign. That fund will continue on — nurtured by the Major Gifts team led by our new VP for Development, Win Lenihan — when the Campaign draws to a close at the end of this month, and the Fund will support producers and editorial efforts that carry on Henry’s legacy of excellence.

So … following Henry as president is a little like following Larry Bird onto the parquet floor at the Boston Garden. Fortunately for me, there is a terrific team of talented people and assets firmly in place as I step into my new role.

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