John Kerr: Stalwart at WGBH

Sam Allis, The Boston Globe —  4/11/2004

You know his face, if not his name, if you’ve ever channel-surfed through WGBH-TV during one of its fund-raising drives. He’s the one with glasses and beefy build of a lineman who stands square in front of the camera, guileless and earnest, trolling for dollars between cuts of a Roy Orbison concert tape that just won’t go away at money time.

(The Orbison show, including Springsteen, Tom Waits, and Elvis Costello, is great the first 17 times but by the 63d, it’s just plain not. Public television people: Feel our pain.)

The man has done this over and over and over and over and over. By the time he retired a few weeks ago after 32 years at the station, John Kerr was its most visible face, and thus the most recognizable face of public television in town.

He gets noticed everywhere he goes. Once, a man sitting next to him on a flight to Boston handed Kerr a 10-dollar bill and said thanks during the descent to Logan.

If he never tires of the recognition, he did get bored pleading for the kindness of strangers. Hell, a Labrador retriever would. “It is boring,” says Kerr. “But the fear factor never goes away. You never know what’s going to happen when you’re live.”

Take the time the set collapsed around him as he was interviewing Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler. Or the one when he was talking to a local business titan who faced the wrong way for the cameras. When a technician crawled onstage and put his hand on the man’s calf to redirect him, he screamed.

And there is always the 4-minute on-air segment he had to stretch to 28 minutes because of a technical glitch. He later learned that his soliloquy had bested Masterpiece Theatre in the ratings.

Kerr bets he has logged more on-air television time over his career than anyone else in Boston. He notched a routine 20.5 hours over the two weeks of on-air trolling for dollars last December and close to 50 minutes during his final gig on March 20. (The station totals 274 hours of on-air palaver a year, including its auction.)

For much of his run at WGBH-TV (Channel 2), Kerr was in charge of on-air fund-raising, which, I’m sad to report, remains the most effective means of attracting new members for public broadcasting of all stripes. And they matter, given that WGBH loses about 40,000 of its 200,000 members every year, many of whom migrate back.

He leaves with no successor. His job has been eliminated and the plan now is to train a broad bench of people to spread the on-air duties. Two volunteers, Cindy Bailen and Anne Williams, are already familiar faces.

In the WGBH pantheon of faces, there was David Ives and then everyone else. Ives, its second president, was all Adam’s apple and bow tie, drawn in the Brahmin tradition to self-parody for a greater good. (He once rode a circus elephant telling viewers he’d do anything for money for Channel 2.)

Current president Henry Becton, in contrast, chose a low profile, which kept Kerr the front man for years. He knew that he could never ape Ives and opted for another strategy: “I decided to be constant.” No flare, no glare.

Kerr, an irritatingly young-looking 65, knows how quaint his on-air spiel sounds these days given the changes in fund-raising. (Consider the $40 million that Howard Dean raised on the Internet.) “I’m now an artifact,” he says. “I don’t know how to fund-raise on the Net. The next generation at ‘GBH will invent new ways to fund-raise.”

The man began there as an intern in 1960, a mere five years after the place went on the air. He left to make money selling stocks and returned for good in 1972. Kerr was with it through the storied years of chaos and invention and intimacy. (While manning the station switchboard in 1960, he fielded a call from an older woman with bad hearing who asked WGBH to turn up the volume.)

With him goes a huge piece of institutional memory. Through the mid-’70s, WGBH would mail 2-inch tapes of its shows to other public broadcasting stations around the country. This was called “bicycling.” Later, Kerr and his counterparts from what he calls the other “producing” public stations — San Francisco, New York, and Pittsburgh — would hop on planes and proselytize the virtues of on-air fund-raising. In Philadelphia, the quartet went on the air on behalf of the local public station there.

In the early days, he would take the outgoing station mail to the Central Square post office on his way home at night, and deliver some of the original WGBH umbrellas, now museum pieces, given out for $30 donations during fund-raising drives. He remembers when, pre-ZIP code, contributors were instructed to send their checks to WGBH, Cambridge 42. He wrote fund-raising copy for everyone from actress Carol Channing to mime Marcel Marceau.

We need not romanticize fund-raising. It remains a root canal of a thing. The question remains why we can put a man on the moon but not devise a palatable money pitch. Another is how an intelligent person could ask for dough all those years like a riff from “Groundhog Day” without being committed. Never mind. No one in these parts had more fun doing the right thing than John Kerr. Over and over and over.

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