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Waves of anxiety
What’s next for WBUR and Jane Christo, its embattled general manager? Plus, polling pugilistics, and liberal radio comes to Boston.

LAST FRIDAY AFTERNOON, employees at WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) were told to gather for a meeting in the station’s third-floor cafeteria. As some staff members ate ice cream, general manager Jane Christo announced that the fall fundraiser was going well. But then she veered into unexpected territory. Christo told the staff that the next day’s papers (the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, and the Providence Journal, as it turned out) would report that Boston University, the license-holder for the station, was investigating an anonymous letter, purportedly sent by current and former employees, accusing her of nepotism and mismanagement. She offered assurances that the charges were untrue. And she repeated a rule well-known inside the station: under no circumstances should anyone speak to the media.

In just a few short weeks, Christo — under whose dictatorial rule WBUR has both thrived and chafed — has gone from the undisputed leader of one of Greater Boston’s most admired media institutions to someone whose fate is the subject of daily speculation. Ever since her surprise announcement last month that she intended to sell ’BUR’s Rhode Island stations — Providence’s WRNI (AM 1290), and its sister station, in Westerly — Christo’s world has been unraveling (see "Don’t Quote Me," News and Features, September 24). First, Rhode Island’s attorney general, Patrick Lynch, and governor, Donald Carcieri, asked Boston University to halt the sale until questions about WBUR’s finances could be answered. Then BU’s interim president, Aram V. Chobanian, announced he would honor that request — an unprecedented rebuke to someone long accustomed to getting her way.

The anonymous letter, the contents of which were reported by the three dailies, made public a number of issues that had long been whispered about in off-the-record conversations. The station’s employment of at least a dozen Albanian immigrants through an agency run by Christo’s husband, Van Christo, an Albanian-American. Christo’s hiring of family members. A printing contract that sources say is held by another family member. The manner in which the station has managed federal grant money. Christo’s personal use of station-owned vehicles. The "Citizens of the World" tours, portrayed by some as money-losing junkets, although others defend them as an opportunity for Christo to schmooze with potential big contributors.

Now, not only are these accusations out in the open, but they are being investigated by the university, the one institution charged with overseeing the station. According to reliable sources, Massachusetts attorney general Tom Reilly is looking into the charges as well, although Reilly’s spokeswoman, Sarah Nathan, would neither confirm nor deny that. (BU spokeswoman Nancy Sterling says the university informed Reilly’s office about the letter last week.) After 25 years in charge, Christo is suddenly the subject of speculation as to whether she will be able to hold on to her job. Whether Christo stays or goes, the culture of fear and secrecy over which she has long presided has been shaken to its core.

"She was an audio visionary, if you can have such a thing. But she was too ambitious — arrogant and egocentric. It’s sad," says Bruce Gellerman, a consultant/teacher/author who was fired by Christo as the co-host of Here and Now several years ago. Inside the station, feelings appear to be mixed. Though surely some, if not many, would like to see Christo leave, there is also a sentiment that despite her dysfunctional, abusive management style, any successor might embark on a round of cost-cutting that would harm the quality of the station.

Christo, through station spokesman Will Keyser, declined to be interviewed. Keyser himself would not comment on the questions swirling around WBUR, referring an inquiry to BU spokeswoman Sterling. According to Sterling, the charges contained in the letter — which she would not release — are being investigated by the university’s general counsel and auditors, a process that she estimated would take two weeks to complete. Asked about Christo’s job security, Sterling replied, "That would be very premature to speculate about, because there are no investigation results available at this point."

WBUR is more than a radio station — it is one of the city’s leading cultural icons. If it’s not quite in the same league as Harvard, Mass General, or, for that matter, WGBH — the public-broadcasting giant that runs Channels 2 and 44 and WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) — it compensates by being more a part of the city’s everyday life. (Ironically, WGBH emerged this week as a leading contender to buy the Rhode Island radio stations.) By offering a combination of programming from National Public Radio and the BBC World Service, and five hours a day of its own shows, Christo has turned the station into an essential part of the community fabric.

But that fabric became frayed in 2001, when Christo fired Christopher Lydon, the first host of ’BUR’s The Connection, and his senior producer, Mary McGrath, in the midst of an ugly contract dispute (see "Bobos in Radioland," News and Features, April 27, 2001). Christo won the public-relations battle by revealing that Lydon and McGrath, who were seeking an ownership share of the program, had turned down a chance to earn as much as $280,000 and $165,000, respectively. (Both Lydon and McGrath declined to comment this week.) But regardless of whether one thinks Lydon and McGrath were being reasonable, the fact is that Lydon was the station’s signature personality. His successor, Dick Gordon, is a smart, able broadcaster. Still, in retrospect Lydon’s departure looks like a turning point for WBUR — and not one for the better.

What has become increasingly apparent in recent weeks is that WBUR has been strapped for money ever since the dot-com economy collapsed, a calamity that sources say had a ruinous effect on corporate underwriting, and that occurred right around Lydon and McGrath’s departure. Station spokesman Keyser’s denials notwithstanding, few believe that the announced sale of WRNI is about anything other than money. The Providence Journal has reported that, according to tax documents filed by the separately held WRNI Foundation, the station ran a deficit of $9.4 million between 1998 and 2003. The Journal also reported that, in filings with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), WBUR stated it had lost some $4.7 million during that same period, although Keyser told the Phoenix that figure is more a reflection of CPB’s reporting peculiarities than it is of the true financial health of the station.

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Issue Date: October 8 - 14, 2004
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