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Lydon returns
A true original’s long exile finally comes to an end — but not without complications or controversy
Related links

Christopher Lydon interviews

Downloadable MP3 interviews with the likes of William F. Buckley, Julia Child, Norman Mailer, Dick Morris, Cornel West, and the folks behind Music for America — and much more.


Launched shortly after Lydon left WBUR, it’s a good guide to what he’s been up to in the intervening years.

Blogging of the President: 2004

A favorite stop for fans of Howard Dean’s technologically savvy presidential campaign. Lydon’s content is prominently featured on the site.

WUML Radio (91.5 FM)

The student-run radio station at UMass Lowell, which will be Lydon’s new on-air home base. A good place to get news on students’ ongoing efforts to stop the administration from taking over the station — a characterization with which the administration disagrees.

Public Radio International

The public radio service that will distribute Open Source, the new program being put together by Lydon and his producer, Mary McGrath.

IF CHRISTOPHER LYDON is feeling any schadenfreude this week, he’s not letting on. But who could blame him if he does? Just a little more than four years ago, he and producer Mary McGrath were fired by WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) general manager Jane Christo in the midst of a very public, very ugly contract dispute. Then, last fall, Christo resigned during an investigation into whether she had mismanaged the Boston University–owned station’s finances. Now Lydon and McGrath are back with a new program, a new place on the Boston dial (WGBH Radio, 89.7 FM), and a new, unlikely partner: UMass Lowell, which will eventually become their base of operations.

"It’s going to be very nice to be back," Lydon told me this week. The new, one-hour show — to be called Open Source — will be heard Monday through Thursday at 7 p.m., and will be distributed through Public Radio International (PRI), National Public Radio’s smaller rival. He expects it to be similar to The Connection, the WBUR program that he and McGrath launched in the early 1990s. The main difference, Lydon says, is that the new show will be more tightly integrated with the Internet, through streaming audio, podcasts, e-mail, and blogs, which will give him a potentially international audience right from the first day, and will lend Open Source an interactive flavor as well. Indeed, he says he and McGrath may begin to offer the program over the Internet even before going on the air. On Source is scheduled to debut locally on May 30, and to be offered nationally through PRI starting on July 4.

"I hope the range of the listenership will basically be global. Through a very active Web site, we’ll be engaging people before, during, and after the program on each subject," Lydon says, declaring himself to have "a blogger’s enthusiasm about this." He adds: "We just want to make the show incredibly zesty and original and fresh.... We’re just happy to be cranking." Says McGrath: "It’s an incredible opportunity for us, and we’re enormously grateful to everybody" — that is, PRI, WGBH, and UMass Lowell.

On the surface, moving up the Charles River from one public broadcasting powerhouse to another would seem like such a no-brainer that you wonder why it took more than four years to accomplish. Granted, there may have been some lingering hard feelings over Lydon’s departure from WGBH-TV (Channels 2 and 44) some dozen years ago. He had anchored The Ten O’Clock News, and left not long after the show was canceled. Still, WBUR’s loss should have been WGBH’s gain. And now it will be.

Lydon’s return to the local airwaves will not be without complications. The start of WGBH’s signature jazz program, Eric in the Evening, hosted by Eric Jackson, will be moved from 7 to 8 p.m., which will certainly prove unpopular with some listeners — ironic, given Lydon’s own love of jazz. WGBH spokeswoman Lucy Sholley says of Lydon and Jackson, "We’re very happy to have both of these major talents." The station will continue to broadcast jazz 56 hours a week, she says, and is looking for ways to expand its online offerings as well.

Lydon will also be competing for the intelligent news-and-talk audience with WBUR, which broadcasts On Point, hosted by Tom Ashbrook, from 7 to 9 p.m. (Lydon’s old show, The Connection, now hosted by Dick Gordon, is broadcast live from 10 a.m. to noon and rebroadcast from 9 to 11 p.m.) Nevertheless, a new high-quality show can’t help but be welcome — especially given the iconic status Lydon achieved with The Connection during the 1990s. And Lydon’s program will fit nicely into the slot once held by David Brudnoy, the legendary WBZ Radio (AM 1030) host who died in December. Since Brudnoy’s death, ’BZ has filled the 7 p.m. hour with news. Brudnoy’s replacement, Paul Sullivan, doesn’t start his own talk show until 8 p.m.

So far, though, the biggest stumbling block to Lydon’s on-air comeback has been his association with UMass Lowell and its student-run radio station, WUML (91.5 FM), a 1400-watt station whose reach encompasses the Merrimack Valley. For the next year or so, Lydon’s program will be produced at WGBH while a new studio is built on the Lowell campus; after that, he and McGrath will move Open Source to Lowell. The affiliation with Lydon is described by the administration as a way to raise the university’s profile while providing more opportunities for students. But students and community activists charge that this is just the latest in a series of assaults on their station’s independence. And they vow that WUML will not be taken from them without a fight.

LATE LAST Thursday afternoon, March 3, the Merrimack Valley airwaves were crackling with righteous indignation. WUML was broadcasting Wall of Sound, and the day’s fare was classic doo-wop. In between tracks, the young female host urged her listeners to get on over to the O’Leary Library, where a protest meeting was gathering within the hour. She also played a tape of a local Cub Scout den yelling its enthusiasm for WUML, a recording it had made during a tour of the station. Given the context, it was a not-so-subtle reminder that the station is part of the community.

Some 60 students, alumni, and community activists filled about half the seats in a dark, concrete-bunker-like auditorium inside the library. For about an hour, they shared their anger and talked about ways to stop the administration from doing what it quite obviously has the right to do. They itemized their list of grievances. A couple of years ago, the university took the weekday 5–to–10 a.m. slot and handed it to the Lowell Sun, which wanted to produce a news-and-information show. Earlier this year, the deal with the Sun was quietly terminated — though the time slot remains in the hands of the administration, which has hired broadcasting professionals to fill those hours. Now, the administration is negotiating not only to bring in Lydon, but to broadcast the Lowell Spinners, a Red Sox minor-league affiliate.

"We don’t want to be in charge of retyping Christopher Lydon’s transcripts," said Nate Osit, a sophomore English major who is the station’s general manager. Later, he said that the protest was "not so much about baseball and Chris Lydon as it is respect for the students and service to the community.... In five years, who’s to say that we won’t just be another NPR repeater station?"

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Issue Date: March 11 - 17, 2005
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