WGBH Educational Foundation History
Boston, Massachusetts 02134
Telephone: (617) 300-2000
Fax: (617) 300-1026
Sales: $187.43 million (2003)
NAIC: 515112 Radio Stations; 515120 Television Broadcasting
WGBH enriches people's lives through programs and services that educate, inspire, and entertain, fostering citizenship and culture, the joy of learning, and the power of diverse perspectives.
- WGBH debuts on the airwaves, broadcasting a live radio concert by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
- WGBH produces the French Chef series, starring Julia Child.
- The Public Broadcasting Act is passed, leading to the incorporation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting the following year.
- The Public Broadcasting Service is formed.
- WGBH produces Masterpiece Theatre, the first of a series of popular shows produced during the decade, including Nova, The Victory Garden, and This Old House.
- WGBH broadcasts the first transatlantic digital radio broadcast.
- WGBH launches its Web site, www.wgbh.org.
- WGBH completes the largest fundraising campaign in its history, raising more than $43 million.
- WGBH adds WGBH World, WGBH Create, and WGBH Kids to the selection of channels available to New England-area viewers.
WGBH Educational Foundation is an umbrella organization overseeing a number of public broadcasting properties. WGBH's properties include three public television stations--WGBH 2 and WGBH 44 in Boston, Massachusetts, and WGBY in Springfield, Massachusetts--and three public radio stations, WGBH 89.7 in Boston and WCAI 90.1 and WNAN 91.1 serving Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket. WGBH also operates a Web site, www.wgbh.org. WGBH represents the flagship station of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), producing one-third of the programming broadcast during PBS's primetime schedule. WGBH also serves as a major source of public radio programs. The major sources of WGBH's funding are corporate donors (21 percent), other PBS stations (20 percent), and individual donors (14 percent).
From its earliest roots, WGBH's leading role in the development of public broadcasting sprang from the beneficence of John Lowell. Lowell's father, Francis Cabot Lowell, pioneered cotton manufacturing in the United States, amassing a fortune that enabled his son to pursue his intellectual desires with complete financial security. Lowell, a Boston native born in 1799, sat on the city council and in the state legislature, traveled widely, and read voraciously, acquiring a large personal library that reflected his passion for learning. Lowell lived only to the age of 36, but before his death he ensured that later generations would have access to the intellectual world he adored. Lowell bequeathed $250,000 for the establishment of the Lowell Institute, whose endowment was used to provide free lectures to the citizens of Boston. In the decades following Lowell's death, the prudent administration of the Lowell Institute created a renowned patron of learning, an organization whose liberal stipends attracted some of the world's leading scholars. Lowell, as a benefactor of learning, lived well beyond 36 years. His institute served as a font of information for the public, one that served Boston's residents in the 19th century and into the 20th century.
The lectures sponsored by the Lowell Institute became an institution unto themselves. Residents of Boston were offered access to the world's great minds, and, through the publication of the lectures, the Lowell Institute was able to deliver its mission to a much larger reading audience. It was through the institute's efforts to reach a bigger audience that WGBH came into being, years before the federal government became involved in public broadcasting. In 1946, the Lowell Institute formed a partnership with six Boston colleges to broadcast its lecture series on the radio. At first, the lectures aired on commercial radio, but the series eventually found a permanent home on WGBH, a station that would become the exemplar of non-commercial, or public, broadcasting. WGBH, from its base on Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, debuted on October 6, 1951, when the station broadcast a live radio concert by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
It did not take WGBH long to make its mark in public broadcasting. The station's greatest achievements were made in television, an era that began in 1955 when Channel 2 debuted. WGBH began to distinguish itself in the 1960s, but the decade began sourly. The station's 10th anniversary was pocked by a fire that razed its facilities on Massachusetts Avenue, leaving WGBH homeless. The station relied on its community for space to house its operations until a new home could be found, using spare room offered by local broadcasters and universities to continue to broadcast and develop programs. WGBH operated without its own headquarters for three years, a chapter in the station's history that ended in 1964 when it moved to Boston's Allston neighborhood. Although the station's staff must have found their situation bothersome, they scored their first great success while WGBH searched for a permanent home. The station recorded its most notable achievements as a producer of programming for public broadcasting, and in 1962 WGBH unearthed what would become a fixture on television sets for decades to follow. One year after the fire dislocated the station, it produced three programs as part of its French Chef series, using a basement in a local gas company to feature the techniques of French cooking. Within a year, WGBH had educational television's first celebrity, a chef named Julia Child. For decades to follow, television viewers across the nation tuned in to watch Child prepare meals in her inimitable style.
A National Network Takes Shape in the 1960s
WGBH's commitment to the French Chef series produced what became the station's hallmark program, but it was a piece of legislation passed in the 1960s that enabled WGBH, as well as the other public broadcasting stations scattered throughout the country, not only to survive but to flourish. The one glaring difference between commercial and public broadcasters was the enormous advantage held by commercial stations to collect revenue from advertisers. Revenue from advertisers provided a wellspring of cash for commercial stations; public broadcasters, who were reliant exclusively on donations, struggled to stay afloat. Beyond the most obvious difference between the two breeds of broadcasters, non-commercial stations also suffered from a lack of support from among their own. Commercial stations operated as part of networks, giving them the same sort of advantages a chain of retail stores enjoyed over independent, mom-and-pop stores.
In the late 1960s, national leaders sought to ameliorate both disadvantages endured by public broadcasters: those of funding and those of structure. The federal government first funded public broadcasting in 1962 through the Education Television Facilities Act in 1962, but the U.S. Congress realized the necessity of greater action. In 1967, the Public Broadcasting Act was established, stipulating, according to the text of the legislation, that "a private corporation should be created to facilitate the development of public telecommunications and to afford maximum protection from extraneous interference and control." A nonprofit corporation, "which will not be an agency or establishment of the U.S. Government," was incorporated the following year, marking the formation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). (Once matured, the CPB would fund more than 1,000 public television and radio stations nationwide, using an annual appropriation from the U.S. Congress.) In 1969, a year after CPB was formed, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) was created, making public broadcasters such as WGBH into non-commercial versions of commercial networks.
With funding and structure provided by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, WGBH could play a much larger role on the airwaves, a medium not envisioned by John Lowell, Jr., but a means of fulfilling his mission, nevertheless. Through CPB and PBS, WGBH and other public affiliates could share programming of national interest and share in the benefits of a national distribution infrastructure. More than any other public broadcasting affiliate, WGBH seized the opportunity available to it in the wake of the Public Broadcasting Act, occupying a singular spot in the realm of public broadcasting. WGBH became the flagship station of PBS, the paradigm of a non-commercial broadcaster. Public broadcasting was generally not associated with producing programming of sweeping national interest--the "hit shows" more readily associated with commercial, network television--but WGBH produced a series of widely popular favorites, belying the stereotype of a public broadcaster.
WGBH came to the fore in the 1970s, a decade that saw the station fully exercise its skill as a producer of programming. WGBH's content, after the creation of CPB and PBS, could be shared nationwide with other public affiliates, but the station was also building its own collection of broadcasting properties, becoming a mini-network within a network. The year the Public Broadcasting Act was passed, Channel 44 debuted, first airing in September 1967. In 1971, WGBH licensee Channel 57, broadcasting from Springfield, Massachusetts, became part of the station's fold, the same year WGBH created its Caption Center, which introduced captioned television programs for deaf and hearing-impaired viewers. WGBH's three stations, as well as other PBS affiliates, were provided with several notable programs during the 1970s, all produced by WGBH. In 1971, Masterpiece Theatre, hosted by Alistair Cooke for the next 22 years, debuted. The following year, Zoom first aired, a television program created for children and performed by children that ran for nine years, winning three Emmys during its first incarnation. In 1974, WGBH unveiled Nova, a science-based program still viewed by PBS viewers 30 years later. One year after the debut of Nova, WGBH producers directed that a small section of the station's parking lot be removed to make room for a garden. The Victory Garden used the plot for its first show, beginning a run that would last for decades. In 1979, after a decade of spectacular success, WGBH added another arrow to its quiver of programming when the station's producers filmed the remodeling of a worn-down Victorian mansion, marking the debut of This Old House. The show became the most-watched half-hour series on television.
WGBH continued to demonstrate its creative skills as the station entered its fourth decade of existence. Among the most notable new shows that premiered during the 1980s was Frontline, a weekly program renowned for its style of investigative journalism that debuted in 1983. In 1988, WGBH produced American Experience, a weekly history series that became a mainstay of public broadcasting. Aside from the station's achievements as a producer of award-winning content, there were technological achievements to be celebrated during the decade. In 1985, the station's radio property aired the first transatlantic digital broadcast, broadcasting Bach's St. Matthew Passion live from East Germany's Leipzig Gewandhaus. Within two years, WGBH aired the first transpacific digital broadcast, enabling listeners to hear the New Japan Philharmonic play a live concert in Tokyo. WGBH's efforts to serve the deaf and hearing-impaired also made broadcasting history in the 1980s. In 1986, WGBH and an affiliate of the ABC network, WCVB-TV, became the first stations to close-caption their newscasts on a regular basis on the local station level.
WGBH in the 1990s and 2000s
WGBH's influence as an innovative educator and entertainer increased during the 1990s, despite escalating pressure from politicians determined to reduce public broadcasting's funding. In 1990, WGBH's Descriptive Video Service (DVS) was introduced nationwide, giving blind and visually impaired viewers supplementary narration to television programs. In 1995, the station launched its Web site, www.wgbh.org, giving the station an online presence and the ability to distribute its content through another media format. The following year, WGBH Radio, Public Radio International, and the BBC World Service co-produced The World, a global news and public affairs program that aired daily coast-to-coast. In 1997, the station became the first broadcaster to win six George Foster Peabody Awards, which recognized outstanding achievement in radio and television. The station repeated its record two years later, the same year it produced a 25-hour international broadcast, PBS Millennium 2000, a series that was watched by an estimated one billion viewers.
As WGBH entered the 21st century and neared its 50th anniversary, the goal of securing the station's financial future grew paramount. Attracting capital had been a perennial obstacle since the station's founding, but after a decade of budget cutbacks and persistent efforts spearheaded by the Republican Party to further reduce funding to public broadcasting, WGBH executives looked toward fundraising with particular zeal. In 2000, the station began the most ambitious fundraising effort in its history, endeavoring to raise $33 million by the end of the year. "Expanding the Vision," as the campaign was named, represented the station's efforts to gain the financial footing to fund the next generation of programs and services and to aid its further conversion to digital broadcasting. By the end of the year, WGBH exceeded the goal of the largest capital campaign in its history, raising more than $43 million from nearly 20,000 donors.
As WGBH prepared for its future as a noncommercial broadcaster, the station figured to remain the driving force behind public television in the United States. Although its sources of revenue declined during the first years of the 21st century, dropping from $207 million in 2000 to $187 million in 2003, WGBH stood on firm financial footing, buoyed somewhat by the sale of trademark rights and real estate in 2002 and 2003. The station balanced its operating budget for the 23rd consecutive year in 2003. In 2004, WGBH added several new channels to its roster, unveiling WGBH World, WGBH Create, and 'GBH Kids.
Principal Subsidiaries: WGBH 2; WGBH 44; WGBH World; WGBH Create; 'GBH Kids; WGBH On Demand; Boston Kids & Family TV; WGBY 57; WGBH 89.7; WCAI 90.1; WNAN 91.1.
Principal Competitors: ABC, Inc.; The NBC Television Network; The CBS Television Network.
- Albiniak, Paige, "Mission Most Mind-Boggling," Broadcasting & Cable, July 26, 1999, p. 41.
- "Boston Stations to Closed-Caption," Broadcasting, January 6, 1986, p. 185.
- Lambert, Peter D., "FCC Gets Copy of WGBH-TV Mapplethorpe Broadcast," Broadcasting, August 20, 1990, p. 59.
- Littleton, Cynthia, "PBS Takes Proactive Approach to Sponsorship," Broadcasting & Cable, May 5, 1997, p. 39.
- Whitney, Daisy, "WGBH-TV Rolls out Digital Asset System," TelevisionWeek, November 24, 2003, p. 24.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 66. St. James Press, 2004.