Is the marriage between Christopher Lydon and WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) over? As the Phoenix went to press, the station and its marquee talk-show host were in what a station source described as a “cooling off” period. This same source, though, says it appears likely that the only way Lydon will be back is if he’s willing to capitulate completely — a prospect that is exceedingly unlikely. (Lydon could not be reached for comment.)
The losers are all of us. Once you get past Lydon’s demand that he and senior producer Mary McGrath share in the ownership of The Connection, once you get past their hefty $380,000 in combined salaries, once you get past WBUR general manager Jane Christo’s reputation for highhandedness, you’re left with this: Lydon and WBZ Radio (AM 1030) host David Brudnoy were the only two people still doing intelligent talk radio in Boston. And now Brudnoy is alone.
The Connection will continue. Lydon, in his public comments last week, claimed to be the “creator” of the show, and certainly its growth and popularity can be attributed in large measure to his engaging, eclectic style. But he didn’t create The Connection; WBUR did, and Lydon was hired six years ago, over several other candidates. He and NewsHour veteran McGrath — who, by the way, is the sister of New York Times Book Review editor Chip McGrath and Albany Times Union editorialist Jim McGrath — are good at what they do, very good. But they may have forgotten the old adage that no one is irreplaceable. For the moment, Bob Oakes is filling in as host; the station source says plans are already being made to find a permanent new host, although it’s still possible that Lydon and McGrath will return after their two-week suspension ends next week. Even less certain is the fate of the five Connection staffers who resigned in sympathy.
In a talk-show universe awash in stupidity, Lydon and Brudnoy stood as intelligent bookends. From 10 a.m. to noon (the show also repeats from 8 to 10 p.m.), The Connection would play host to guests ranging from the Dalai Lama to Edward Said, covering subjects that ranged from the Passion of St. Mark to the trials of Bill Gates. And from 7 to 10 p.m., Brudnoy would kick in with a more traditional show, hosting politicians and authors, arguing with callers, and just generally being his irascible self.
The temptation is to blame both Lydon and Christo, but come on. Lydon was reportedly earning $230,000, making him the highest-paid on-air personality in public radio, with the likelihood of going to $330,000 in the next couple of years. McGrath was at $150,000, with promises of more to come. Even if you believe, as I do, that they are worth it, when is enough enough — especially at a public radio station, where the bills have to be paid one $50 contribution at a time? WBUR, with a budget of $19 million, might seem more like a big business than a traditional public station, but it’s still dependent on the goodwill of listeners and corporate underwriters.
With The Connection moving into syndication (the Boston Globe reported that the show reaches a weekly audience of about 400,000 in 75 markets), Lydon and McGrath wanted to share in the revenue generated by growth. But it would seem that they were already sharing plenty. Car Talk notwithstanding, it’s hard to see why WBUR should be expected to part with an ownership stake in a news-oriented show that the station itself created.
So what does Lydon really want? A cynic cites the old sportswriter’s line: “When they say it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.” But the station source, though largely unsympathetic to Lydon, thinks Lydon’s telling the truth that it’s really about something else — “respect and love.” It was such concerns, rather than the need for more lucre, that were behind his missives to Christo addressing her as “Partner Jane” and his description of himself and McGrath as “venture broadcasters.”
Two and a half years ago, when then–Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle’s career was sinking in a mass of plagiarism and fabrications, Lydon went after him fearlessly (just as he had years earlier, when he exposed the way Barnicle had exploited racial tensions in the Charles Stuart murder case, in a piece for the Washington Journalism Review). It was entertaining radio, to be sure, but it was also important radio. Last Friday, Barnicle was yukking it up on his own talk show on WTKK Radio (96.9 FM); he and his broadcasting partner, Globe sports columnist Will McDonough, were thoroughly enjoying themselves at Lydon’s expense.
It would be a damn shame if Lydon’s legacy was to let the likes of Barnicle have the last word. But that’s the position he’s put himself in. Not to mention his listeners.