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What’s next for WBUR?

It took just three weeks for everything to fall apart for Jane Christo, the talented, driven, dictatorial, fear-inspiring general manager who over the course of 25 years transformed WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) into one of the most influential public stations in the country.

On September 17, Christo announced that ’BUR would sell WRNI (AM 1290), in Providence, and its sister station, in Westerly, Rhode Island, after acquiring the stations just six years ago for some $2.4 million. The announcement set off a furor among Rhode Island donors. And it led WBUR’s license-holder, Boston University, to delay the sale until Rhode Island attorney general Patrick Lynch could complete an investigation of the stations’ finances (see "Don’t Quote Me," News and Features, September 24 and October 8).

Within days, Boston University revealed that it was conducting its own investigation after receiving an anonymous letter — purportedly from current and former WBUR staff members — accusing Christo of mismanagement and nepotism. After revelations that WBUR and WRNI had run up millions of dollars in debt during the past few years, Christo’s departure suddenly began to look inevitable. Last Friday, WBUR announced that Christo would resign (see "Media Log," BostonPhoenix.com, October 8). Her final day at the station will be this Friday.

"I am extremely proud of the significant contribution that WBUR has made to public radio here in New England and nationally. I am confident that when concluded, the internal investigation will show that the allegations of improper conduct against me are baseless," Christo said in a prepared statement.

So where does WBUR go from here? According to Boston University spokeswoman Nancy Sterling, it is not yet clear who will run the station after Christo departs. An interim general manager likely will be chosen "this week or next week," Sterling says, declining to comment on whether candidates for that post are internal, external, or both. As for finding a permanent replacement, Sterling says, "I don’t think that has been determined yet. The most important thing is finding an interim general manager. Then a search will be launched for a permanent general manager." (On Wednesday afternoon, after the Phoenix went to press, BU announced that Peter Fiedler, a university executive with broadcast experience, had been named interim general manager. See "Media Log," October 13.)

Attorney General Lynch says Christo’s resignation will have no impact on his investigation into whether money donated to WRNI by Rhode Island residents and foundations was properly handled by WBUR. "On the very day that she announced her resignation, BU provided many of the documents that I requested," Lynch says. "And I think that illustrates the good faith that BU has insisted it will have." Lynch adds that his staff has informed the office of Massachusetts attorney general Tom Reilly about some of the details of the investigation, but he declines to say what, if any, action Reilly may be taking. On Tuesday, Reilly spokeswoman Sarah Nathan declined to confirm or deny whether Reilly is investigating WBUR.

Gene Mihaly, whose Foundation for Ocean State Public Radio raised some $2.5 million for WRNI, says he hopes an arrangement can be worked out so that Rhode Island can continue to keep a public station on the air. The problem, Mihaly says, was Christo’s profligate spending, adding he believes ’RNI can be run on a bare-bones budget of $500,000 per year. Asked about the impact of Christo’s departure, Mihaly says, "I think it makes it easier to have a dialogue with BU. It sort of clears the decks a bit, and hopefully we’ll be able to sit down and talk this through with the people at BU — to what end, I don’t know yet. But my feeling about Jane’s going is that it was the right decision for all parties, but a very sad thing. [She is] a terribly talented woman who really built that station. But there’s no question that communication had broken down completely between us and WBUR."

So how will Christo’s long reign at WBUR be remembered? To be sure, her accomplishments were significant. By transforming the station into a 24-hour news service at a time when real news was practically disappearing from the commercial airwaves, Christo created a vital media institution. And by offering five hours a day of nationally oriented, locally produced programming in the form of The Connection, Here and Now, and On Point, she positioned WBUR to compete directly with National Public Radio. In fact, a deal she cut with the satellite service XM is widely seen as superior to the one NPR has with XM’s lagging competitor, Sirius. (Lagging, that is, until last week, when Sirius signed Howard Stern.)

"It’s widely acknowledged that she’s done a great job with the station and really built it up from nothing," says Mike Janssen, who covers the radio beat for the public-broadcasting newsletter Current. "I think across the country, it’s definitely been a subject of conversation. People are watching."

Christo regularly fired talented employees for little or no reason and ran the place as though it were her personal realm. Her 2001 firing of Connection host Christopher Lydon and his senior producer, Mary McGrath, briefly rallied the staff to her side, since Lydon and McGrath’s bid to become part-owners of The Connection was widely regarded as an unreasonable demand. But it cost WBUR its signature personality and biggest star just as the economy was beginning to go soft, depriving the station of millions in corporate underwriting. And the long list of enemies Christo has accumulated over the years became a factor when the bungled WRNI situation suddenly left her vulnerable.

Issue Date: October 15 - 21, 2004
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