Remembering the original WGBH

Art Singer is president of the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

Fifty years ago this past September, as I began an intensive one-year Masters of Communication Arts program at Boston University, I also was approved for a volunteer internship assignment at Channel 2. And for most of the academic year, on several late afternoons a week, I would take the twenty minute walk from BU across the Charles to the station’s studios on the MIT campus for a night’s work.

Who knew at the time it was to be the very best part of my graduate year and would direct a good part of my career?

84 Massachusetts Avenue

To enter the building that housed the WGBH studios was from the beginning a thrilling experience. The feeling was one of being part of grand experiment (this educational television) and also due in large measure to the fact that most of the programs I was assigned to as “crew” were produced and aired live.

As I recall, we’d begin with the children’s show, underwritten by Hood’s, at 5:30 pm and then jump to the inimitable Louis Lyons and the News at 6:00pm. A distinguished journalist for the Christian Science Monitor, Louis would unabashedly read from his notes with an occasional look up over his spectacles to remind himself and the viewer that was on camera.

At 7 p.m., one night a week, legendary theater critic Elliot Norton held forth for a half hour and his guests would be the elite of Broadway whose shows were trying out in town before opening in New York City. There in the guest chairs would be the likes of Rogers and Hammerstein or Julie Styne, or the directors, producers, and stars of the shows.

And scattered elsewhere on my assignments were tapings of other shows. These ranged from Brandeis President Abe Sachar’s “The Course of Our Times “series to Madame Anne Slack and her “Parlons Francais” French language instruction show (Madame Slack would say “Bonjour mon ami” then wait for the viewer to repeat the phrase while she mouthed the words in support). The same late afternoon or evening Eleanor Roosevelt and other luminaries might be taping shows as well.

Studio A, 84 Massachusetts Avenue

The studios were constantly in use. And with so much of it being live, everything was or seemed to be in continuous motion. The likes of Dave Davis and Greg Harney seemed to be everywhere. The man himself, Hartford Gunn would make an occasional appearance in the halls or on the set . And the atmosphere bubbled over with energy and knowledge, talent and creativity.

This was educational television and we were there at the infancy of what many of us sensed could be a new direction for broadcast television. I may have been learning broadcast history and production theory at BU, but here I was learning what actually was necessary to create a TV program, And to boot, I was getting a bonus education –in current events, theater, language, cooking, and journalism.

And music. My most favorite assignment was being on the crew for the live telecasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. At the time, the BSO performed with some regularity at Sanders Theater in Cambridge. And on a number of Tuesday evenings, we were there to capture and broadcast the event. I don’t believe that GBH had permanent cameras and mikes in the hall. I believe everything had to be trucked over and set up anew each time.

The producer responsible for these major productions was Jordan Whitelaw. And I can vividly recall attending, along with the director, the camera operators, the audio guys, the switcher, and others the rehearsals in Jordan’s office.

After personnel assignments were confirmed for each of us in the room (most often mine was as a lowly cameraman assistant), we would do a mock production of the evening’s program, each attendee having been given a “shot sheet” to note which shots were assigned to which camera.

Next to Jordan’s desk was either a phonograph or a tuner-turntable-and speaker arrangement. And ready for play was an LP recording by the BSO in most cases performing the very work(s) on the Sanders program that week. We’d all settle down, pencils and paper in hand and Jordan would begin:

“Camera One ready with wide shot of the orchestra. Take Camera One. Ready for opening credits. Roll credits. Camera Two ready to follow Munch as he enters stage right. Ready Two, take Two. Follow him to the podium. Camera Three on First Violin. Ready Camera Three, Take three.”

This continued through the playing of the entire piece. To me it seemed brilliant, but now I suspect that he was mimicking the pre production approach used by the NBC Symphony or the New York Philharmonic on network TV. Yet it could be that he was breaking new ground. Who knows?

Truth is we were all breaking new ground. That ‘GBH experience made a convert of me and I remained hooked for more than 35 years in what became the public broadcasting business.

Yet through all those years, no coverage of an event, development of a series, no dramatically successful nights of on air pitching, gave me more insight and purpose and pleasure than my intern days at this offbeat, eclectic, determined operation known as WGBH-TV Boston.

Gifts and Reminiscences

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series The Don Hallock Collection
Photo by Don Hallock

“There you stood, on the edge of your feather, …. expecting to fly.”

—Neil Young

Well, we’ve shared in one hell of an affair! And if the events of the year 2000 are any indication, the romance is very far from over.

For many of us, the feather’s edge came early in our lives and our careers, during a magical time spent together in sunless rooms rehearsing flight. Perhaps we knew, though I fancy not as clearly then, that we were building an important part of the cultural foundation from which the soul of our society takes wings. Elements of that ideal had been and were being enunciated in those germinating years, but likely none of us could really have imagined how grand an edifice it was destined to become. And given a perpetuation of the spirit which dictates that ” … ideas have merit …,” we’ll likewise be amazed, in decades yet to come, at how our dreams and labors have birthed the future.

Those of us who began our careers together did indeed expect to fly … and fly we did. Together, we forged our various chariots of fire — sometimes more driven by, than driving, them. Blessed few of us have crashed, though on occasion, having flown a bit too near the sun on underfunded or ill-imagined wings, we may have come away a little singed. A reassuring number are still on the road, though, and have laid down impressive track records.

Our feather, WGBH, was never just a workplace … and still appears to be far more than that. To call that place a way of life might over dramatize a bit, but not by much. Major strata of our lives, daily and over time, have revolved around our doings there.

In this room much of what came to be known as Public Television first appeared. And in the room next door the same transpired for radio. Those who labored here strove to equal, and surpass, the best that broadcast media had to offer.

It was a place where dreams were dreamed … and many more were born, or made their way beyond this room, than ever found their way through the transmitter, or onto film or tape. The entire industry has been influenced by things that happened here and by the people who made those things take place. It was the genesis of waters still running strong.

And what has the rest of the broadcast world taken to itself from our tradition? Far more than many in the business realize, for the nature of our contribution has been not only the spectacular and concrete, but a broad array of essential intangibles. Amongst them: an insistence on quality of product and an abiding belief in the intelligence of our audience; an insatiable curiosity about our world and the understanding that knowledge is liberating and uplifting; a celebration of diversity and a respect for differing paradigms; an appetite for penetrating insight and for truth (flattering or otherwise).

Our tradition dictates that the world consists of more than simply titillation, and promotes a deep concern for preservation and dissemination of the best that human beings are, and the best they have accomplished. Our self-maintained freedom from the constraints of commercialism and “bottom line” thinking, while costly in pursuit of creativity and excellence, has insured a remarkable purity of output. An automatic byproduct of that independence has been a very special stubbornness, developed through fashioning multitudes of silken purses from little more than fantasies and gaffer’s tape. There’s more included in that legacy, of course, but by most criteria, any breed of intelligent media owes some of its virtue to these standards set by Educational, and later Public, Broadcasting. This could not have come to pass without the people and the spirit that nursed it into being.

For we more “mature” alumni, recorded media have ushered into our experience a strange and paradoxical anomaly. When we listen to and view today’s Public Broadcasting offerings, and especially the WGBH product, we are in a very real sense partaking of, displaced in time, our own legacy. In each hour spent with that programming we’re the beneficiaries of our own good works.

Beside and beneath the obvious pleasure of working together, old and young, we’ve shared a deep and abiding belief in the mission of Public Broadcasting. If we’ve found ourselves in disagreement, that has more often been, I feel, only over how that mission was to be best realized.

When television and radio cease to be recognizable as such (a process of transmogrification which is even now underway) Public Broadcasting, and the legacy of WGBH, will live on, though possibly not as such, and in forms increasingly more difficult to recognize. That’s, of course, because public media is more than just a thing. Beyond a philosophy even, it’s a paradigm — a way of experiencing and enriching the world and life.

In the words of one alumnus (and reflecting the sentiments of virtually every other I’ve had the recent pleasure of communicating with) it is reassuring to know that “the ‘GBH magic was not a fantasy.”

The opportunity to create this Web site has been an extraordinary gift. I was going to keep it simple, but happily I failed at that. And the response from all who’ve visited, supported and contributed to the effort has been profoundly touching — a literal embarrassment of riches. I’m deeply grateful for the privilege of knowing, and growing with, each and every one of you.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I’ve been nursing this page for quite a long time — and here’s the reason why. Rarely do we get the chance to render thanks to large groups of the people who’ve been important to us … all at once. In this case, it’s one of the web-producer’s perks — and he’s hereby claiming the option.

So consider yourself roundly and collectively thanked. His gratitude at having known you all, and shared with each, is deeper and broader than he can calculate. It’s the kind of thing that makes a life worthwhile.

You are a living blessing … and don’t you forget it.