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
After 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.”
“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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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?”
PBS is putting together a list of significant national “firsts” for PBS and public media. We already have a timeline covering WGBH from 1946 to 1978, and many entries include national innovations. Now, we’re looking for your recommendations and verifications for more!
Please remember, the following are not yet verified, so add your recommendations, corrections, and confirmations in the comments box at the bottom of this post.
Recommendations (to be verified)
1958: WGBH acquired an Ampex VR-1000A and became the first NET member to use videotape recording techniques. (More.)
1960: WGBH produced A.R. Gurney’s first TV drama, Love Letters. The only recording was destroyed in the fire.
1963: WGBH received its first Academy Award for Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World Fred Barzyk reports that it was the first and only Academy Award to ever be given to an educational television station.
1966: Julia Child was the first educational television personality to receive an Emmy Award.
1968: WGBH produced the first double-channel TV show, What’s Happening Mr. Silver? Viewers were asked to put two TVs six feet apart, tune one to Ch. 2 and the other Ch. 44. Six months after the first broadcast, WNET WNDT (Ch. 13) and a commercial station (Ch. 9) were the only other stations to do the same thing.
1972: PBS pioneers the development of captioning, making television programs accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.
1972: Nam June Paik, renowned video artist, creates the worlds first video synthesizer. During the broadcast of one of his works, Paik blew out the WGBH transmitter. It is now on display in a German Museum.
1974: NOVA, the first weekly science documentary series, joined the PBS lineup.
The Chicken that Ate Columbus
1980: WGBH Workshop and QUBE, the largest interactive service in the country, produced a live interactive drama, The Chicken that Ate Columbus.” From David Atwood: QUBE was launched in 1977, I joined them as Manager of Production and Operations in the fall of 1980 in time (as I remember) to be there for “The Chicken that Ate Columbus.”
1980: This Old House, the first home-improvement program on U.S. television, tackled its first fixer-upper
1987: Created the first digital audio broadcast.
1990: PBS makes television accessible to blind and visually impaired audiences through the launch of the Descriptive Video Service (DVS).
1994-95: Created the first audio streaming server (featured Frontline Waco: The Inside Story) and the concept of the web as the companion to the TV program.
1998: PBS Digital Week features the first national broadcast of a high-definition and enhanced digital program, Ken Burns’s Frank Lloyd Wright.
1998: PBS becomes the first national broadcaster to distribute high-definition (HD) programming to member stations for broadcast.
1999: Created the first live radio and television streams and established a presence on Apple’s QuickTime TV.
Henry Morgenthau’s Negro and the American Promise is first to have an all black discussion on race in America. Featuring James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Dr. King, the interview made the front page of the New York Times when broadcast, and was later made into a book.
Catch 44 was WGBH’s first public access series. Although only broadcast locally, it made the front page of the WSJ and the BBC emulated it, calling their series “Open Night.”
The first environmental documentary was Austin Hoyt’s “Multiply and Subdue the Earth” on PBL.
Vietnam, a Television History, was the first long-form doc coverage of the Vietnam War.
The first coverage of tennis on TV was WGBH’s coverage of Longwood.
ZOOM was the first show created by kids (they supplied the content), for kids (who sent up to 30,000 letters per week).
Did Al Potter and Greg Harney do the first trans-atlantic broadcast for ETV?
The Victory Garden was the first series to follow the planting and growing of a garden in real time.
This Old House was the inspiration for the commercial sitcom Home Improvement.
WGBH was the first broadcast station to air stereo sound on their FM station which was in sync with he BSO concert on Ch. 2. This engineering feat was then taught to other PBS stations by our engineers.
Was NOVA the first PBS station to produce an IMAX film?
PBS’s ongoing negotiations to curb per-hour costs of producing programs and to assert more control over content are increasing friction with its largest producer, Boston’s powerhouse WGBH, according to sources at other stations with knowledge of the situation.
For a period until just four days before the second-season premiere of the gem of this season’s PBS schedule, Downton Abbey from Masterpiece Classic, the approval of PBS broadcast rights for the series hung in the balance as WGBH protested the network’s contract demands.
By any metric, “Downton’’ has hit a home run. Nationally, it has more than doubled PBS’s prime-time audience. Locally, “Downton’’ is enjoying a 5.8 rating, twice as high as “Masterpiece Classic’’ ratings last year. It is too early to know if that translates into increased memberships or pledge commitments for WGBH…
I loved the first season of “Downton,’’ with its obsessive attention to the “law of the entail,’’ which forbad the earl’s daughters from inheriting their father’s magnificent property…
Season two has a phoned-in quality; miracles occur where skillful writing might have intervened, subplots wax and wane randomly. But I am an originalist snob. I’m one of those people who can’t understand why anyone would watch NBC’s “The Office,’’ a show stolen character for character for character and situation for situation from Ricky Gervais’s much funnier British show. But what the heck, it’s television.
Emboldened by the success of the British period drama “Downton Abbey,” one of the most critically acclaimed shows on television, PBS now faces the challenge of translating the buzz and enthusiasm for the show into donations to local stations and public financing. A stodgy pledge drive or traditional pleas for contributions would probably fall flat with viewers. So, PBS decided to fit “Downton Abbey,” which begins its second season on Sunday, into a broader effort to spruce up its prime-time lineup.