Steve Schwartz, 74, Radio Jazz Host

Excerpts from the Boston Globe – April 24, 2017

Steve Schwartz began his last radio show like he had so many others, cuing up pianist Horace Parlan’s “Wadin” — the song’s bass line striding purposefully out of the speakers, backed by the subtle swish of brushes on cymbals. “Good evening and welcome to jazz on WGBH,” he said as the song’s last notes faded.

For jazz fans throughout Greater Boston and beyond, there was a hint of sadness in every tune he played during “Jazz from Studio Four” on July 6, 2012, as he edged closer to signing off a couple of minutes past midnight.

“As you may or may not have heard, this is my last program for WGBH radio — starting here back in 1985 and working my way towards bringing you jazz on a Friday night. And this will wind it up,” Mr. Schwartz said, before turning to the business at hand: more than three hours of carefully chosen music.

“The gentleness of his voice made his show easy to listen to, but he wasn’t just a great voice. He was knowledgeable about the music, too,” said Eric Jackson, a longtime colleague and host of WGBH-FM’s “Eric in the Evening” jazz show. “He knew the music. There are some announcers I’ve heard who I thought were abrasive, arrogant. Steve was this warm presence who invited you in when he was on the air with the sound of his voice and the music he played.”

Mr. Schwartz, whose tastes in jazz were first shaped by an interlude he spent in California as a teenager, died in Seasons Hospice in Milton March 25 of multiple myeloma. He was 74 and had lived in Jamaica Plain.

“My father wanted to make a change, so when I was 15 we moved to Los Angeles,” Mr. Schwartz said in an interview published on The Arts Fuse website. “It was there that I first heard jazz on the radio, and I was hooked.”

During those years, Mr. Schwartz “heard different musicians, Charlie Mingus, Chet Baker — people who really moved him,” said his wife, Constance Bigony.

Indeed, when Mr. Schwartz began hosting jazz radio programs after returning to Boston, “he advertised his show, especially in the earlier years, as ‘acoustic jazz,’ which says a lot about his musical tastes,” Jackson said.

“In later years, he would surprise me when I’d hear something with a little electric piano in it,” Jackson added with a laugh. “I’d think, ‘Wow, he’s playing that.’ ”

In 2012, WGBH eliminated Mr. Schwartz’s Friday show. Jackson, who had been on weeknights, is now on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

After the public radio station announced the changes to make room for more news and information programming, jazz fans were so upset that they protested and held a jazz funeral.

“It wasn’t a total surprise, but it is a loss,” Mr. Schwartz told the Globe a couple of weeks before his final show. Boston’s jazz community, he added, “is losing an important venue for musicians to promote their events.”

In a February 2014 video interview that is posted on YouTube, Mr. Schwartz said that “to me the best part of doing radio was being able to promote the local jazz scene: Who’s coming into Scullers? Who’s coming into the Regattabar? Who’s got a new CD out? Local talent, playing here and there. Online, you know, it’s — I hate to say the word — just jazz.”

Of all the perks of hosting a radio show for nearly three decades, he added, “I just want to say that promoting the local jazz scene one night a week was most, most gratifying.”…

WGBH hired Mr. Schwartz to run the equipment for a taped overnight blues show. Then he suggested launching a jazz show to fill the time between the end of the blues program and the beginning of Robert J. Lurtsema’s “Morning pro musica.” Mr. Schwartz eventually was hired as program manager, and also was the engineer for live jazz broadcasts at WGBH…

For Mr. Schwartz’s many fans, his last show was a eulogy of sorts — played out in favorite jazz tunes — though no one could have guessed he would be diagnosed with multiple myeloma only a few months later. He ended with a set of songs sung by Karrin Allyson. Ever the professional, he signed off as if it were any show, not his last.

“Thank you for your phone calls earlier tonight. They do mean a lot to me and it’s great to hear from you,” Mr. Schwartz said. “Have a good weekend. Thank you for listening.”

By Tom Reney – From Jazz News You Can Use

Friday night, as I was noting Day 30 of a cold virus, my friend Steve Schwartz was admitted to Seasons Hospice in Milton, Mass.

Yesterday morning, while driving east for lunch with my niece in Beverly and afternoon drop-ins at bluesman Peter Ward‘s 60th birthday gig in Cambridge and a visit with Jack Woker at Stereo Jack’s, I checked my messages during a routine stop at Natick Plaza on the Pike. There were several, but only one that mattered, the one with word that Steve died around four o’clock Saturday morning, one month shy of his 75th birthday, and several years into combating cancer and other grave health matters.

I last spoke with Steve two weeks ago. He was fairly upbeat with the latest on his wife Constance Bigony’s art work, reports on his three kids, Eric, Peter, and Jamie, and his grandchildren, and curious to hear more about our grandsons Bisbee and Atlas. It ended, as most calls did with Steve in recent years, with the hope that we’d be off gallivanting sometime soon.

Alas, today I know that Steve’s been released from a great deal of pain, and those of us who knew him have lost a good, kind, warm-hearted man.

I knew Steve for about 25 years. Before we met at a Joe Lovano concert that he emceed at the DeCordova Museum around 1990, I would hear him on WGBH where he hosted Jazz from Studio Four. I spent many Sunday nights returning from the Cape with Steve guiding the way, always with his mellow, down-home theme song, Horace Parlan’s “Wadin’,” kicking things off at 7 p.m., and often with the word that he’d returned from the Cape a few hours earlier.

Perhaps more than any other experience I’ve had as a listener to radio, it’s the memory of Steve’s references to Fisher Beach in Truro and the details of a meal he’d had in P-Town that give me a sense of why I needn’t be surprised when listeners tell me about some seemingly trivial bit of personal material that I’ve shared while hosting Jazz a la Mode. “Oh yeah, but how about the night when I played those rare 1941 airchecks by Lester Young?” Alas, it’s usually a personal anecdote that resonates most.

Steve and I shared a love of jazz, movies, fresh seafood, and bike rides. He’d owned a bike shop in Mattapan before his radio career began. He was a great fan of Preston Sturges films, especially Sullivan’s Travels, which he relished sharing with friends.

He grew up in Dorchester and spent a few years in Los Angeles during his mid- to late-teens. That’s where his love of jazz took root, and he was fond of recalling the day when Gerry Mulligan walked by as he was listening to a new Mulligan LP in the listening booth of a Santa Monica record store.

During his Boston youth, he sang in a street corner doo-wop group, and maintained friendships with his harmonizing homies Jeffrey and Hal. Like a true Bostonian, he didn’t know my hometown of Worcester at all before we met, but he was eager for a tour, and we finally got that done a few years ago. I got to show him the Valley too, and in recent years, we would meet halfway in Sturbridge for lunch.

Steve was the best kind of friend, one who was eager to hang on the next unscheduled day on the calendar. His opening line was often, “Two Jews sitting on a bench;” his favorite tag was, “News at 11;” and in notes, he borrowed from Thelonious Monk for his closing salutation, “Always know.”

While courting Meg fifteen years ago, I had occasion to spend dozens of weekends with her near Boston, and during that time Steve and I got together frequently to hear jazz and to ride bikes. In addition to negotiating the city’s busy streets, we took trails to Lexington and Concord; rode the East Bay trail south of East Providence; the Emerald Necklace of Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury, and Brookline.

We ate all over too: Belle Isle in East Boston, Mac’s Shack in Wellfleet, Red Wing in Walpole, Summer Shack in Cambridge, Twin Seafood in West Concord, always in pursuit of great seafood at establishments hospitable to bike shorts. Steve had a bead on every pop-up lunch spot in Boston, and while attending jazz conferences and festivals, we maxed-out per diems in New York, New Orleans, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Toronto, and Montreal.

Steve was a gourmand of informal dining spots here, there, and everywhere. When word came down that Uglisich’s, a no-frills purveyor of alligator stew and oysters by the dozen was closing, Steve and his beloved Connie flew down to New Orleans for one last hurrah.

Steve’s was one of the great voices of Boston jazz radio. In that capacity, he also engineered and produced scores of concert broadcasts for WGBH and for Jazz Set, Jazz Alive, and other series on NPR. He engineered the Jazz Decades with Ray Smith, which for years preceded Jazz From Studio Four. He produced state-of-the-art profiles on such New England-based jazz greats as George Russell, Jackie McLean, Gunther Schuller, Archie Shepp, Steve Lacy, and Yusef Lateef. And he conducted several highly memorable panels at IAJE, including interviews with Dan Morgenstern and Nat Hentoff. Steve knew and was known by everyone in the business.

I’ll miss Steve more than I can say at this sad hour for I’m grateful to have enjoyed such an agreeable friendship with this truest of true friends. Rest in Peace, my man.

From Josie Patterson

For the 5 years or so that I was the business and marketing head of ‘GBH radio, Steve was a major presence at the station beyond his show, Now’s the Time. He, Eric Jackson, Ron Gill, Mai Cramer, Holly Harris, and Ron Della Chiesa pushed for jazz and the blues to be recognized as the amazing and genuinely American art forms that they are.

Steve and Margot Stage recorded Jazz Portraits, which Margot said were amongst some of the best of her work. Steve produced an Ellington concert at Berklee featuring Danilo Perez on piano; today Danilo heads the jazz department at the school. He guided the recording of the New Orleans annual Jazz Festival and other important jazz concerts. All of this was under the guidance of Marita Rivero, now the director of Boston’s African American Meeting House, and, I believe, the only female person of color to reach the Vice President level at WGBH.

I liked working at WGBH, on both the documentary and the radio side, and always felt it was a 12 year graduate program. The local public radio station was the part of the foundation where for awhile people could and did experiment with different art forms based on their own cultural traditions. Radio productions are less expensive to produce than film, and radio is an intimate medium that distinguishes it to this day from other kinds of media. I can only hope that ‘GBH Radio will once again embrace music from many cultures. People love music!

WGBH captioners featured in the Globe

From The Boston Globe — July 23, 2015

wgbh-captioningOnly a few people can claim a role in news and entertainment programs as varied as “The Daily Show,” “Orange is the New Black,” “The Price is Right,” and the “CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley.”

But Tim Alves and his team do all that and more at WGBH in Brighton. Alves is a captions operations supervisor with the public broadcaster’s Media Access Group, leading a small team that spells out the dialogue and sounds of about 14,000 hours of television, movies, and online video each year.

“This is essentially live, high-pressure copy editing,” said Alves, who worked for a New Hampshire newspaper and a Los Angeles television station before joining the captions team in 2006. “You’re working on extremely tight deadlines, and that deadline is right now.”

Alves’s Boston staff and a national network of stenographers type thousands of words daily for networks, movie studios, and such online operations as Netflix. Their captions serve the roughly 38 million adults who have some trouble hearing and millions more who read them on televisions in airports and other noisy public places.

For live broadcasts, only a stenographer using a special keyboard can keep up with speakers. If necessary, WGBH can farm out the task to a network of on-call freelancers whose feeds are transmitted to Boston and synchronized with the broadcast.

“In the morning, I come in and I’ll do offline work,” Alves said. “We have scripts and video, and we’ll marry the script to video.” Later, he may switch to a program like “The Price Is Right,” which is beamed to WGBH at 11 a.m. — the same time it’s aired to many viewers.

Alves’s team has a broad portfolio. It captions Public Broadcasting System programs such as “Downton Abbey” and “Nova.” Other networks pay for the services of the WGBH stenographers, who write captions for such shows as “NCIS.”

The group also captions live events, including the Grammys. Every night, a stenographer plugs into a feed of CBS News to write live captions. A WGBH staffer will quickly “butler” the stenographer’s output, cleaning up any mistakes before the program is made available online.

“The technical term we use to describe those employees are steno-captioners. They’re extremely skilled, and they’re very focused,” said Alves. Often, he said, captioners will get into such a groove that they won’t remember what was said just seconds earlier.

Seven thousand video tapes transferred to digital

From WGBH Archives — July 2014

On March 11, 2013, WGBH Media Library and Archives’ Archives Manager Keith Luf and Digital Archives Manager Michael Muraszko loaded 7,010 tapes from the WGBH vault onto 12 palettes, which were then shipped via an 18-wheeler to be digitized at Crawford Media Services in Atlanta, Georgia for the American Archive of Public Broadcasting.

Only a few months later would the WGBH MLA in collaboration with the Library of Congress be selected as the permanent home for the American Archive collection, an initiative to identify, preserve, and make accessible as much as possible the historic record of public media in America.

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WGBH’s tapes were stored in 306 archives boxes, totaling 459 linear feet (longer than 1 1/2 football fields!) and comprising more than 6,400 hours of content. In many cases, the archives staff knew only the program title of the tapes — they often knew nothing about the recorded participants.

The content dated back as early as March of 1947 and was as recent as 2005. The MLA sent material on 15 different video and audio tape formats, the majority of which had exceeded the manufacturer’s intended lifespan. MLA’s Keith Luf compared the situation to a child’s 18 year old cat, which everyone knew wouldn’t — and couldn’t — be around much longer.

In June of 2014, WGBH’s 6,400 hundred hours of content was returned. In addition to the original 7,010 tapes, the content was delivered as digital files on a second copy — on 17 LTO-6 tapes…. stored in one box!

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And with the digitized material came a new ease of accessibility — the MLA staff have been able to easily watch or listen to the digital files and discover content they never knew had been sitting in the vault for all these years.

Among the new discoveries includes a 1967 10-minute monologue by American historian and activist Howard Zinn on the social unrest of the times; a recorded speech given by JFK in either 1962 or 1963 at the Armory in Boston; and a 1975 video recording of a cello class taught by Harvard professor Mstislav Rostropovich, who during the recording asked a graduate student in his class “What kind of a name is Yo-Yo?”

As additional funding has become available, the MLA has recently coordinated with Crawford on the digitization of 800 more hours of 3/4″ videotapes and 1/4″ audiotapes, which will be shipped out next week.  Who knows what we’ll find next!?

Boston-based ‘Frontline’ names new executive producer

From Boston.com — 5/13/2015 

Frontline founder David Fanning has stepped down after three decades as the executive producer of the landmark public television series. He will be replaced by Raney Aronson, the show’s deputy executive producer.

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This is the first time the top leadership position at the Boston-based investigative documentary series has changed hands.

In its 33 seasons, Frontline has won every major award in broadcast journalism, including 69 Emmys, 31 duPont-Columbia University Awards, 17 Peabody Awards and eight Television Critics Awards. Fanning received his own Lifetime achievement Emmy in 2013.

Fanning will stay with Frontline and, beginning June 1, will develop new projects as executive editor at large, according to a statement released by WGBH, which produces the show.

Aronson has been with the series since 2001.

‘Frontline’ Getting a Change in Leadership

From the New York Times — 5/13/2015

“Frontline,” the PBS documentary series, is getting a leadership change for the first time in its 32-year history. The founding executive producer, David Fanning, is stepping down at the end of the month, and Raney Aronson, the colleague he has been grooming for several years, will take over.

Mr. Fanning, 68, said that he wanted to start making documentary films again, and that he needed to step aside for the show to continue to thrive.

“This is a generational shift,” he said. “There’s no question about it. That’s a discussion that Raney and I have had for some years now, about bringing some younger producers in, identifying them, looking for the next generation. We want ‘Frontline’ to survive.”

Mr. Fanning’s new title will be executive producer at large. He said he would also have an opportunity to “beat the bushes for major funders and donors and new sources of revenue for the series,” he said.

Mr. Fanning began preparing Ms. Aronson for the job years ago, and in 2012 all but named her his heir apparent when he gave her the title of deputy executive producer. He said her leadership would be critical for keeping the show relevant at a tricky time in the media business. He also said bringing in “new blood” was important to keeping the long-form documentary series alive.

“If we don’t do it, it doesn’t get done,” he said. “There aren’t many places left in the world, in television certainly, that does this. You can’t expect the independent film community to operate under the banner of journalism because it’s often not what they do. This kind of journalism matters and these hourlong films, 90-minute, two-hour films, the big multipart series, we do become real works of record. We need them in the culture.”

“Frontline,” which had its debut in 1983, is produced by WGBH in Boston. Over the years it has won 69 Emmys, 31 duPont Columbia University Awards and 17 Peabody awards. “Frontline” recently won awards for a documentary on ISIS and the National Football League’s concussion crisis.

Ms. Aronson, 44, joined the show in 2001. In the last few years, she has made it her priority to work on joint-journalism projects with organizations like ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting and ESPN (the latter pulled out of the concussion documentary “League of Denial,” before it aired, to great controversy). She is also working on partnerships with digital outlets like YouTube and Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism in order to find new ways to broadcast their work.

She said she had been “given the gift of time” over the last three years to work on these types of partnerships before stepping into the big job.

“In a lot of ways, we’ve been working on the ideas that I care about, like working aggressively to find new audiences,” she said.

But with every prospective deal with a player in new media, she said, her job remained fundamentally in line with what Mr. Fanning created decades ago.

“When I look to the future, my biggest gaze is on making sure we always protect the big important work we should be doing,” she said. “That is what I care about most: protecting the big important journalism.”

Boston Red Stockings items on ‘Antiques Roadshow’

From the Boston Globe

antiqueR2Here’s an episode of “Antiques Roadshow” that fans of the WGBH series won’t want to miss.

At a taping in New York City on Aug. 9, a “Roadshow’’ guest entered the Javits Convention Center with a stunning trove of old-time baseball stuff inherited from her great-great-grandmother, who’d run a boarding house in Boston in the early 1870s.

The memorabilia includes extremely rare baseball cards of members of the Boston Red Stockings and a letter written by several team members to the owner of the boarding house. Three of the most famous names in early baseball — Harry Wright, his younger brother George Wright, and Al Spalding — were just a few of those who added their words to the letter.

Imagine the owner’s surprise when the collection was appraised by sports memorabilia specialist Leila Dunbar at a cool $1 million. “This is the largest sports memorabilia find in the 19-year history of the series,” Marsha Bemko, executive producer of “Antiques Roadshow,” said Tuesday in a statement.

No word yet on when the Red Stockings episode will air, but we hear it will be one of three New York-based segments slated for 2015. Can’t wait.

Valerie Gunderson, 59, budget director

From Jon Abbott

gundersonDear WGBH colleagues,

It is with great sadness that we share the terrible news that our colleague Valerie Gunderson has passed away. It came as a dreadful shock when we learned of her death on Saturday. It’s our understanding that she died in her sleep. She left us far too soon at the age of 59.

Valerie was a key member of the ’GBH family for more than 25 years—for the last many years as Director of Budget Operations. All those who worked with her know what a special person she was. She was passionate about WGBH and took enormous pride in working here. Her belief in ’GBH’s impact and accomplishments came through in everything she did. She built a wide network of friends and admirers at every level and in every ’GBH department. She was thoughtful, witty, whip smart (as she proved when her team shared the trophy just weeks ago at the WGBH spelling bee) and, colleagues recall, always there with a comforting shoulder. She was known for wearing a shade of purple every day. To speak of her in the past tense is simply surreal.

Valerie played a critical role in stewarding our annual budget planning and forecasting, monitoring all budgets and ably assuring that the Foundation finished every fiscal year on target. We relied on her leadership in helping guide and track our special R&D investments on new projects, supporting innovation with our editorial teams.

Valerie came to WGBH after a tour of what she called “off-off-off-Broadway” acting, while also working for Columbia Pictures. Her stories from that experience were legendary and hilarious. She left the stage and New York to focus on a public service MBA at BU with the specific goal of landing a job at WGBH. In fact, she wrote her Master’s thesis on WGBH and its impact on the state and the country. She called ’GBH her dream destination and knew it was the place for her. And it was. Valerie started off in the Budget Office, then served as Business Manager for the launch of The World until returning to head up the Budget team.

Valerie loved France and traveled there often with her husband Ted. They enjoyed exploring Beaune and had a large community of friends there. She was a very proud Hoosier, growing up in Fort Wayne, attending Indiana University in Bloomington, and returning frequently to visit family and friends. She and her husband made their home in Harwich, but Valerie kept an apartment in Brighton to avoid the daily commute. She volunteered her time and financial skills with the Brighton Main Streets program.

In times like these, our sense of community is heightened as together we try to make sense of the tremendous loss of someone so vibrant, in the prime of her life. Valerie’s family is planning a celebration of her life on the Cape, and we’re planning a gathering here at ’GBH where we can share our remembrances; QuickNooz will advise when that’s been scheduled. Condolences may be sent to Valerie’s husband (Ted Osiecki, 2 Locust Grove Rd, Harwich, MA 02645) and, in lieu of flowers, her family welcomes donations to her favorite charities: Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston (mspca.org) or HopeHealth Hospice in Cape Cod (hopehealthco.org).

We can honor Valerie by showing special kindness to each other, and especially to her closest associates, as we grapple with this sudden and untimely loss.

In shared sadness,

Jon, Ben, and Vinay

Jon Abbott, WGBH CEO and President
Ben Godley, COO and Executive Vice President
Vinay Mehra, Chief Financial Officer

Emily Rooney steps down from “Greater Boston”

From the Boston Globe

rooneyAfter 18 years, Emily Rooney is stepping down as host of WGBH’s nightly news and opinion show “Greater Boston,” and will instead focus on “Beat the Press,” the weekly program she also moderates, the station announced Thursday.

In addition, Rooney, the daughter of the late great Andy Rooney, will become a “special correspondent” to WGBH News and continue to appear regularly on 89.7, WGBH’s radio station.

“When I came to WGBH in 1997, I was an on-air rookie tasked with shaping a nightly news and public affairs show that would be accessible to everyone,” Rooney said in a statement. “I’m proud of the program we’ve fine-tuned over the years and grateful to WGBH for giving me the chance to reinvent myself. It all happened in large part due to the loyal and dedicated staff who have stayed with the show all these years.” 

New GBH children’s program won’t be available on TV

plum-landingFrom the Boston Globe

“Plum Landing,” an all-digital production, is designed to teach children ages 6 to 9 about environmental science — using games, animations, and short live-action videos.

Instead of sitting in front of the television for half an hour, young viewers are encouraged to undertake “adventures” by drawing pictures of wildlife, for example, or going outside to take photos. And the show is accessed mainly by smartphones, tablets, and computers.

Fred Barzyk Aims to Kickstart Drama

This entry is part 13 of 22 in the series The Fred Barzyk Collection

Director Fred Barzyk began his career at Boston’s WGBH, experimenting with television and the emerging form of video.

He produced dramas for iconic series NET Playhouse and American Playhouse, as well as a cult-hit sci-fi thriller for PBS, The Lathe of Heaven. From there, his cutting-edge documentaries, dramas and educational programs ran on HBO, NBC, ABC and CBS. He directed an array of stars the likes of Morgan Freeman, Christian Slater, Dan Aykroyd, Rosie Perez, Matt Dillon, Claire Danes and Lily Tomlin.

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Fred Barzyk, left, directs the volunteer cast of Treasure Hunt, the second scripted drama in a trilogy he created for Chelmsford TeleMedia, a public access channel in Massachusetts. (Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Mann)

Now, the director who won Peabody and Venice Film awards is asking for $4,000 on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to produce the final short film of his drama trilogy on death. It’s set to air on a far different outlet than those that previously showed the works of his professional career: Chelmsford TeleMedia, the public access channel in a Massachusetts town about 25 miles northwest of Boston.

Barzyk, who says he never retired from WGBH, he just lost interest in its slate of productions, is having fun — a lot of fun.

He brags that he persuaded TeleMedia’s programmers to run the opening installment of the trilogy, The Journey, his 2011 tribute to Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame, one Saturday in May, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Or, as he says, “over and over and over and over.”

The Kickstarter campaign backs filming of The Waiting Room, a tale of seven fictional characters who come to realize that they don’t actually exist. As with the two previous films, everyone involved in the production — the cast, crew, composer, musicians, technicians, prop wranglers, set dressers — are volunteers, many retirees. The first two installments had been funded by the Chelmsford Cultural Council, TeleMedia and Barzyk himself, but new backing was needed to green-light the closing drama.

If the Kickstarter campaign meets its goal, Barzyk says, part of the funding will allow him to stage a dramatic closing shot involving the release of “1,000 black balloons filled with helium” at the Nashua Municipal Airport in nearby New Hampshire.

But the biggest budget items cover the cost of gas to transport the actors to town, and food for everyone participating in the production.

“He feeds us well,” says Stephen Mann, the cameraman on Barzyk’s first two films. It was Mann who helped Barzyk set up the Kickstarter campaign; Barzyk had never heard of the crowd-funding site until Mann suggested that he try it.

As he writes in an email, Barzyk views the project with a sense of nostalgia: “An Old Timer tries to create the Early Days of ETV!!!!!”

Freedom to experiment

He began working for the Boston pubcaster in 1958, just three years after it went on the air; a massive fire there in 1961 destroyed some of his early pieces. By 1968 he was heading up the station’s experimental unit, later called the New Television Workshop.

The workshop created video art before the genre even existed, and its projects were fueled by “the freedom to do what could be done only by a TV station just finding out what it could really do,” he says. Among his innovative productions was “the first double-channel broadcast,” which presented a single story through simultaneous broadcasts on both of WGBH’s TV channels. One showed comedians Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding appearing to walk between TV sets tuned to channels 2 and 44, trying to find their scripts.

In 1979, he directed The Lathe of Heaven for WNET’s Television Laboratory, a critically acclaimed, surrealistic science fiction film that drew a 10 rating in New York and an 8 in Chicago, according to Nielsen. Twenty years later, its still-rabid fan base persuaded WNET to digitally remaster and repackage the film with additional material for rebroadcast on pubTV stations (Current, May 1, 2000). “I can’t tell you how many people tell me how important that film was to them when they watched as teenagers,” Barzyk says.

Even Barzyk’s mainstream work embodied that early, edgy spirit of public television: He executive-produced Puzzlemania, a live, two-hour, interactive children’s program from New York’s WNYC-TV in 1987 and ’88. He was executive producer and director of Destinos, a 56-episode drama-based Spanish language telecourse that ran on PBS from 1988–92, receiving six academic and production awards; it remains a top-selling Annenberg Media learning series. In 1994, he produced and directed Breast Care Test, hosted by Jane Pauley, which showed women how to examine their bodies for cancer. And The Ryan Interview, an Arthur Miller play starring Ashley Judd that he directed, was the first high-definition drama to run on PBS, in August 2000.

Retrospectives of his work ran in 1997 at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Mass., and in 2000 at the Haggerty Museum of Art at his alma mater, Marquette University, in his hometown of Milwaukee.

Barzyk remained active with WGBH until 2001. “I didn’t really retire,” he says, “I just wasn’t interested in the shows they were doing anymore.”

“Hell, I want to do drama”

Although Barzyk had lived in Chelmsford since 1971, town leaders “didn’t know who I was,” he says, “and I liked that.”

But by 2004, they discovered that a television pioneer lived in their midst and approached Barzyk about working at their public access television station, located in the basement of Parker Middle School. “I walked up to the school, rang the bell, signed in and had to work my way through all these kids to get to the studio.”

Fred Barzyk, left, with cameraman Stephen Mann, a former pubcaster at KTEH in San Jose, Calif., now part of KQED. "I learn something every time I work with him," Mann says of Barzyk. (Photo: Courtesy Stephen Mann)
Fred Barzyk, left, with cameraman Stephen Mann, a former pubcaster at KTEH in San Jose, Calif., now part of KQED. “I learn something every time I work with him,” Mann says of Barzyk. (Photo: Courtesy Stephen Mann)

He discovered a subterranean treasure trove of TV gear. “High-def equipment, Final Cut Pro — I could do more shows than at WGBH.” Barzyk started out by producing a behind-the-scenes documentary on the town’s big Independence Day parade. He shot features on the senior center and restaurants. “Finally, I said, ‘Hell, I want to do drama.’”

And so he did. Treasure Hunt, the second short film in the series, premiered in May at the Chelmsford Center for the Arts. In it a soldier returns from World War II and gives local kids a treasure map that leads them to toys. “He disappears, and then they discover he’s already dead,” Barzyk says. “That one was written by a guy across the street from me.”

That’s the magic behind Barzyk’s work with TeleMedia, says Mann, his cameraman. “It’s all pretty much just people from town. Out in the field, it’s not unusual to see 12 or 18 of them, with more behind the scenes.”

Mann says Barzyk’s deep belief that art belongs to the people springs from his many years in public broadcasting. “Nobody actually owns the piece,” Mann says. “Fred grew up professionally at PBS, and ‘public’ is their main emphasis.”

Mann also worked in the system, at KTEH in San Jose, Calif., now part of KQED, some 20 years ago. He runs his own company, MannMade Digital Video, from the nearby town of Westford.

Collaborating with Barzyk “is certainly not what I thought it would be,” Mann adds. “For somebody with his resume, I expected a no-nonsense attitude, someone who wouldn’t tolerate mistakes. It’s exactly the opposite. I’m constantly amazed at how he overlooks screw-ups by the crew — and that happens often, with all the untrained volunteers.”

As Pete Pedulla, a staff producer at TeleMedia, says, “Most volunteers we have to train, but here was one who could train us, in a way.”

Barzyk loves the creative process. “What I have is total freedom,” he says. “And I have all the equipment I need. Most of the volunteers are retired, so I have to make sure they don’t have heart attacks — I can’t push them too hard. And volunteer actors, just like when I started at WGBH.”

Barzyk, Mann and all the volunteers plan to shoot The Waiting Room one weekend in September. The characters “are coming to the end of their fictional lives. They’re all in a waiting room. They all realize they’re not people; they only exist as characters. They eventually go out to catch a plane to God knows where.”

Matthew Scott, general manager of TeleMedia, says the film will most likely premiere on the big screen at the arts center; several hundred townfolk turned out for debuts of the previous installments.

Barzyk is already excited about the trilogy’s closing scene. “Steve built a helicopter camera, and it will take off and fly up into the clouds” as the cast and crew and the volunteers, all dressed in black, release the black helium balloons, he says.

That shot is characteristic of Barzyk’s style, Mann notes. “He loves to end movies with the whole crew in the picture.”

“I have fun,” Barzyk says. “Why do anything, if not for fun?”