Published on Saturday, February 17, 2001 in the Boston Globe
'Connection' Personnel Quit over WBUR Rift
by Mark Jurkowitz
Just one day after WBUR-FM suspended ''Connection'' host Christopher Lydon and senior producer Mary McGrath for two weeks in the wake of an acrimonious contract dispute, most of the show's staff resigned yesterday, further jeopardizing the future of the popular six-year-old call-in program.
The resignations coincided with the start of a public groundswell that seemed to be running against WBUR's action, with angry e-mails posted on the station's Web site and the first rumblings of petition drives and underwriter boycotts. The station meanwhile announced that ''Morning Edition'' host Bob Oakes will host ''The Connection'' next week.
The ''Connection'' staffers who resigned yesterday during a meeting with top WBUR officials, including general manager Jane Christo, were associate producers Jake Shapiro, Hitesh Hathi, and Katherine Bidwell, and technical director Dan Furst. The status of another staffer, Amy Macdonald, was uncertain yesterday.
''We quit because we're as much `The Connection' as Chris Lydon and Mary McGrath,'' said Hathi, who described the meeting with WBUR brass as ''very civil.'' ''We essentially said to the station that we can't work at the station without Chris Lydon and Mary McGrath.''
''It's been a very tightknit team,'' added Shapiro. ''The thought of jumping into a watered-down version or altered attempt at `The Connection' without them is inconceivable.''
''This has been, by so many miles, the best staff I've ever worked with,'' said Lydon yesterday. ''It's not only the pride of WBUR, these are glorious people, and they've put their lives on the line for something they love.''
Christo had no comment on the staff resignations. But in a message posted yesterday on the WBUR Web site, she said, ''We made two generous proposals to `The Connection' host and senior producer, which they chose to turn down. In November, as a sign of good faith, WBUR raised both of their salaries to levels that make them the highest paid host and producer in public broadcasting. We also offered them an opportunity to earn substantial bonuses. It was their decision to press on with more demands.''
As reported in yesterday's Globe, Lydon and McGrath recently had their salaries bumped to $230,000 and $150,000, respectively. They were also offered an employment agreement that would have upped that to $280,000 and $165,000 by November 2002, with the potential for a $50,000 annual bonus. (A station source indicated that Christo's salary is less than McGrath's.)
The Feb. 15 letters given to Lydon and McGrath announcing their paid leaves of absence alleged workplace insubordination and accused them of rejecting ''normal management oversight and established WBUR policies.'' But the core of the dispute is the stalemated negotiations over McGrath's and Lydon's desire to share in the growth of ''Connection'' revenues after the show began being syndicated by National Public Radio in early January. The program is now carried by about 75 stations and reaches more than 400,000 listeners weekly across the nation, with about one-third of those tuning in from the Boston area.
In a Globe interview on Thursday, Lydon said, ''Brand new markets and new media and new revenue streams mean a new agreement with the people who invent the program every day.''
Christo told the Globe, ''Their fundamental desire is ownership. ... I said, `No. We can't do that.'''
A number of observers say that ever since the nationally syndicated ''Car Talk'' wrested ownership of the program from WBUR in 1992, Christo has been determined to not let that situation recur. ''They have the rights and ownership,'' she said. ''`The Connection' is a news show. It's not the same at all.''
With both sides hunkering down for now, yesterday was a time for reactions to start pouring in. WBUR spokeswoman Mary Stohn said that as of late afternoon, the station had received about 150 e-mails and 125 phone calls, with most callers expressing the sentiment, ''We want the show, we love the show.''
Comments on the WBUR Web site leaned heavily toward the pro-Lydon view, but they varied. Lydon's ''attitude is so superior I almost don't care if he comes back,'' said one writer. Said another: ''As long as Christo remains at the helm of WBUR, they can forget about my contributions.'' Another wished a plague on both their houses.
At the station yesterday, the atmosphere was tense and reportedly divided between fans of Lydon and those somewhat stunned by the size of his and McGrath's salaries.
''It's really weird,'' said one knowledgeable observer. ''It feels sort of like a coup d'etat just occurred and this isn't going to work out.''
So sensitive was the situation yesterday that many of the interested parties simply ducked for cover. Officials at Boston University, which holds the WBUR license and has oversight of the station, declined to comment. An NPR spokesman said that organization would also have nothing to say about the matter. Yet it was the NPR syndication deal that triggered the dispute, and a Lydon e-mail to NPR president Kevin Klose describing WBUR as ''a system of harassment that calls itself management'' was specifically cited as ''unprofessional and deceptive'' in the suspension letter.
Even as the staff resignations further roiled the situation yesterday, both sides seemed interested in cooling the rhetoric.
''Would we reconsider if things worked out'' and Lydon and McGrath returned after the suspension, asked Hathi. ''We certainly would.''
Lydon said he wouldn't respond positively to the ''take it or leave it, my way or the highway'' terms for a deal. But, he said, ''This is eminently resolvable and obviously resolvable.''
While asserting that ''absolutely, positively the `Connection' will continue ... and we're working on a contingency plan,'' Stohn said, ''Our hope is Chris and Mary will come back.''
If that isn't the case, the show's principals might get the chance to test the waters elsewhere. Station officials did not return calls yesterday, but new FM talk station WTKK, trying to establish itself with big local names, could conceivably be interested. A WBZ-AM assistant program director, Bill Flaherty, said there probably wouldn't be room on his schedule for a Lydon program, but ''I think it's great for what it is. He and [David] Brudnoy are neck and neck.''
At WRKO-AM, which has a syndication deal in which talk host Howie Carr participates in profits, program director Al Mayers was asked whether he might be interested in pursuing Lydon should the rupture with WBUR become permanent.
''Absolutely,'' Mayers said. ''We're always looking for great people, and Chris is a great talent.''
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company