Honoring Public Broadcasting, Part I
VTR Date: October 18, 2007
William F. Baker discusses his television legacy.
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GUEST: Dr. William F. Baker
I’m Richard Heffner your host on The Open Mind.
And the last time today’s guest graced this table, he was sitting here, and I was sitting there…for Bill Baker was playing host then, honoring my program’s 50 years on the air, just as today we honor public broadcasting and particularly its New York flagship, Channel Thirteen/WNET for having kept Bill on the straight and narrow for 20 years now as its enormously successful and much honored leader.
CEO of the Educational Broadcasting Corporation, licensee of WNET/13 and WLIW/21 in New York, as well as a variety of digital and other innovative media ventures, in early 2008 William F. Baker becomes its President Emeritus, remaining an active member of a new management team headed by Neal Shapiro, former president of NBC News.
So that Dr. Baker will still be around. And one hopes he’ll continue those soothing, wonderfully mellifluous on-air promotions for his channels’ most satisfying presentations…”pitches”, if I may, showing his true broadcasting origins.
And it’s about those origins – in commercial television, of course, that I first want to talk with my guest. So Bill, tell us a little bit about how you got here from there.
BAKER: Well, first, it’s great to be here, Richard. I … the hardest job I ever had was sitting in your chair, interviewing you (laughter), so I know what you’re going through.
HEFFNER: You did a great job.
BAKER: I did. I actually thought I did because you were a great guest. We had a lot of fun. And people still bump into me and talk about it. But, but no … I mean you asked how I got here from there.
I mean I started out as a … like everybody … you know, a kid. And I was a kid in Cleveland, Ohio, that knew … when I was 13 years old that I wanted to be in the TV and radio business. You know I’d watch Arthur Godfrey on television and, and I’d watch the Today Show and, and I’d talk into the back of the vacuum cleaner pretending it was a microphone.
And by the time I was 15 or 16 I had a job at a radio station in Cleveland, as an engineer, playing records on a classical music radio station. And, and from there I just took, you know, I kind of Peter Principled my way all up to the top of a huge commercial broadcasting business of, you know, x number of years after that. So … I’ve been doing this for a long time.
HEFFNER: Was it fun at Westinghouse?
BAKER: Ahh, yeah … I was … manager of one of their television stations, the one in Baltimore where I, where I kind of got Oprah Winfrey her start and then I want to Hollywood and ran their big production company. And then to New York, thirty years ago, to be President of all of their television businesses and cable networks.
Yeah, I don’t know … I mean all of these jobs that I’ve had and I’ve had, really some incredible and still have … some of the most incredibly interesting jobs. I don’t know that I’ve ever described them as “fun”. I think they’re all … I viewed them as all hard work. I’ve taken them all seriously, I’ve always been scared. You know I’ve always felt like I’m on the edge of a cliff ready to fall off. And I’ve never felt like, “Oh, I’m just kind of coasting along, enjoying of life.”
As a matter of fact as I reflect back on 20 years of Channel 13, I think “Gee, why didn’t I take advantage of being the head of this thing and, you know, be making trips to Europe and visiting with the BBC and going … you know, going to Italy while they’re filming some of these great programs.
But I thought, you know, my job was to be back here shaking the trees, trying to get people to support the institution. Fighting the battles that had to be fought to keep the place alive. And, so, I never got to do some of those things that I thought would be fun, but maybe now I can. We’ll see.
HEFFNER: You sure shook a lot of trees.
BAKER: MmmHmm. Yeah, I did. Well, and I’m still shaking them. You know, I mean, it’s kind of … first it’s ah … it, it, by shaking trees, of course we’re referring to trying to raise money for these television programs …
HEFFNER: What else is there?
BAKER: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter) And, and it is, it is … it’s not as hard as I thought it would be. Of course, I had … coming from commercial broadcasting no experience at all in philanthropy. And I’m embarrassed to say that when my university … Case Western Reserve … came to me in Cleveland, a school that I had been in 12 years and was on the Board of, I wasn’t even particularly philanthropic to them … back in the says when I was making a good salary.
And then I got … I got this job in public television and I realized that it was totally dependent on philanthropy and I saw the great joy that individuals had in giving money to this institition. As a matter of fact, the thing that touched me the most is how selfless many people are.
I mean the people that have given us probably the most money are not necessarily the richest people. But they are the most selfless people and that is touching beyond imagination.
But I also see the joy there is in giving money. So I have become kind of personally philanthropic and I’m having a great time giving away my money.
HEFFNER: What now?
BAKER: Well, I mean … a couple things. First and most important. As you said in the lead-up, I’m going to stay at Channel 13, probably kind of a day a week. They, they … the Board and Neal Shapiro and Jim Tisch, the Chairman of the Board came up with this title, President Emeritus, which sounds pretty cool.
HEFFNER: It’s great.
BAKER: And, and I’ll be … I’ll be there, I’ll be still regularly on the air, I’ll be involved in, you know, station policy and kind of a, you know, a utility player in the rubber room. The … so I’ll be doing that a day a week and maybe a little bit more. But I want to do some other things. One is I want to produce some television shows myself. I had a long career pre-public television as a successful television producer. And I’ve always wanted a kind of … and, and actually, I’d say during that period …were the most for me the most personally satisfying. I felt like of all the jobs I’ve had in the TV and radio business, the only job I ever felt truly competent in was being a producer.
I mean I’ve never felt competent being President of public TV in New York, or competent running Westinghouse, or any of the other things I’ve done. But I did feel competent as a TV producer.
And, as a matter of fact, one of the most touching things happened to me in this … you know 50 year career I’ve had was a magazine in Cleveland called Cleveland Magazine … you know, the kind of the defining magazine of the community … did a … for their thirtieth anniversary did a … did a thing called, called “The people who’ve had … who defined Cleveland”. And Cleveland’s my home town and they had a list of 30 people … of all these famous people that you would even know … and certainly I knew … Carl Stokes and other kinds of people.
And I was indirectly one of them because they had a program that I created in Cleveland as having been something, a program called the “Morning Exchange”, that defined the community. And I thought, “What an honor it is to … you know … live in a city and have done something that somebody thinks defines a whole community.” So that was kind of pleasing to me. So at any rate, so one of the things I want to do is produce some television shows and of course I’m producing … will be producing them for Channel 13.
One show I’m doing, for sure, is tied to this book that I’m writing. And the book that I’m writing is called “Leading with Kindness”, which is a, a book about management. It’s being published by the American Management Association, it will come out sometime next year. And the …
HEFFNER: “Leading with Kindness”
BAKER: “Leading with Kindness”. Yeah. And, and, you called me Dr. Baker and that’s great I love it, and it’s true. I do have an earned doctorate, but and most people don’t know what that’s in. They think either I’m a … you know … plastic surgeon … or …
BAKER: … or a dentist … or an opthamologist … or something. But I’m actually a Ph.D. in organizational behavior and industrial psychology. And my co-author, who’s also a Ph.D. in industrial psychology, we’re writing this book … showing that all the psychological theory shows …that if you treat people right, you get a lot more out of them. You know, kind of the anti-Donald Trump approach of “You’re Fired”.
So we’re going to … we’re writing this book that the American Management Association’s publishing. And I thought I’d do a companion TV show to it.
HEFFNER: What kind of show?
BAKER: Well, you know, it will be some kind of a … you know, public TV documentary with a lot of these famous people who are in the book probably talking about their, their style and, and we’ll add all the components of theory, etc.
HEFFNER: Am I allowed to ask whether you applied all these theories in your years at Westinghouse and Thirteen?
BAKER: Yeah … well, you’re not the only one that’s ever asked that.
BAKER: As a matter of fact a number of people have said, “Oh, that must be handy to have a degree like that.” Well, you know, the truth is and I just got this wonderful award from the National Academy of Televisions Arts and Sciences as a management…management Hall of Fame award kind of thing.
And I was really touched and what I said when I received that award, I said “You know, management’s always scared me. I’ve always felt very inadequate and even though I’ve supposedly studied all this … I mean I studied it, I studied industrial psychology when they were looking at managing people in factories. You know, turning up the lights and getting more productivity. And stuff like that.
So I am, I am not really a nuanced, sophisticated manager. I kind of manage from the heart, I try to treat people the way I’d like to be treated. You know one of the dilemmas with management is that we all … the only place we usually learn management is from the people who have managed us. And most of the people who have managed us aren’t very good, you know. And if we’ve been lucky enough to have a few good examples, or if we’ve had enough bosses, you, you can kind of shift out what you think is the right way and the wrong way.
So, we use some theory, we use some examples and we also thought we’d try to get into the drinking water of America. That, that the right way to manage people is with kindness. And these days, too, the whole new workforce that exists … there are young people coming into the workforces … 1) don’t treat companies like they’re going to stay there the rest of their lives because they know they won’t. And companies don’t treat them that way. Nor do they … so, so you have to treat them right if you want to hang on to them.
HEFFNER: Well, of course, if my information is correct, and it goes back a generation …
BAKER: MmmHmm …
HEFFNER: … you were brought into 13 by a man who I thought was the best manager in the world, Frank Staton.
BAKER: Mmmm. Yeah. I would agree with that.
HEFFNER: Story true?
BAKER: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. Frank Stanton was the luminary former President of CBS, one of the great … matter of fact …the reason I went and got my Ph.D. is I want to be the next Dr. Frank Stanton. I never quite got to his level of competence. But he’s a … he was a genuine hero, recently deceased. And was … the man who fought for the First Amendment with Congress and a matter of fact was prepared to go to prison in order to have the government not interfere or get the sources from some news cast that they were doing.
And, but at any rate … Stanton offered me, asked me to breakfast one morning at the Harvard Club where he breakfasted regularly and he said, “Bill I’d like to talk to you about the most important job in television.” And I thought, “Wow, this is exciting, I’m going to be made President of CBS.”
BAKER: Well, I didn’t know it, but he was on the search committee, Chairman of the search committee for public TV in New York and he offered me the public TV job. And I took it.
HEFFNER: And he was right in his description.
BAKER: Well I didn’t know, I didn’t think so at the time. And, as a matter of fact I was kind of … I was, what, only 38 years old or something and I said, “Gee, you know, Frank, what an honor. You know it’s really quite something. But you know I’m a commercial guy and, you know, [making] a respectable salary. Taking a big pay cut and all that stuff, does that make any sense at this, this point in my career?”
So I said, “You know, I’d like to think about it. But I really don’t think this is the time for me.” So I went home, talked to my wife, Jean Marie, who’s a nurse practitioner. Is now, wasn’t then … was a regular nurse and who never ever cared about money or the, you know, business fame. And said, “You know this is the job for you, you can do more good there than anything you’ve ever done. That’s … you’re crazy if you don’t take it.” So I just listened to her and to Frank Stanton and took that job and said I’d do it for two years and then go back to the business of making money, and that was 20 years ago.
HEFFNER: And you’ve been happy ever since.
BAKER: I have. I mean …there’s no question … I could never go back to the other life. This, this public service television life … public service media is really a very high calling. There’s no question about that.
HEFFNER: Interesting. Another person from commercial broadcasting …
HEFFNER: … succeeds you.
HEFFNER: As CEO of Thirteen and 21.
HEFFNER: What’s the connection … will, will the public broadcasting world continue to draw upon people from the commercial …
BAKER: The commercial world? I think it’ll do both. I mean, you know, a lot of … for example the President of PBS, Paula Kerger, is from Channel Thirteen. Her, her only background in the media business was at Channel 13, first in development and then in a, in a senior management.
So, so I think public television will draw on just the best people. Some will be from public television. Some will be from other places that are not even media related and some from commercial media.
I love my successor … you know, it’s a wonderful feeling to be … leaving a place and knowing the person that is coming in to your old spot is someone 1) that you could really personally respect and like very much personally. But think more importantly he can kind of carry the institution to the next level. Because just keeping Channel 13 and 21 and public television what we have been, while that’s wonderful, it’s not enough. It’s a very dynamic world, a dynamic business. We need somebody with, with, you know, a whole new set of skills, a new … a new eye looking at this. Neal is a genuinely sophisticated and talented guy, but on top of everything else …and the most important thing and the reason I was so happy we hired him and more important, happy he said, “Yes”, because you talk about a pay cut … he, you know, he took a big one (laughter).
Is 1) he has the values, he has the values of what public television is about. His values are really terrific. And second, he’s a nice person. So … and, and, people living in New York have already seen him on, on the air. And he has his look, you know he wears the suspenders and I wear the bow tie … we’re a great combination. (Laugher)
HEFFNER: I trust that you are going to stay on the air as in my opening comments.
BAKER: I hope so. I mean I expect very much to do it. We had lunch the other day … yeah, lunch the other day … actually this week with the wonderful folks from Movado, who, who pay for the radio spots that I do. And allow them to run on radio stations in New York
And they asked me to stay on and do that for the station. And of course I’m doing them for Channel 13. They don’t pay me … they pay … but the buy the air time for Channel 13.
And for themselves. So, they’re lovely people and I’m happy to do that and obviously I’ll be hanging out on the Pledge Drives. And, so, yes, I’ll be very … I will continue to be very visible.
HEFFNER: Well, I wasn’t thinking so much of visibility …
HEFFNER: … though I love to watch you ….
HEFFNER: … don’t misunderstand me.
HEFFNER: … but it’s that voice; it’s that wonderful radio voice … now did you do announcing when you were in commercial television?
BAKER: Yeah. I, well I … started out, as I said as a radio engineer. Then as a teenager I hosted a little teen show … teen interview show back in the sixties, called “Teen Time” on radio.
HEFFNER: Yeah, but …
BAKER: So that’s where I …
HEFFNER: … teenybopper Baker doesn’t seem to
BAKER: … no, no, no … but this is … no, I was interviewing famous people …
HEFFNER: Oh, I see.
BAKER: … like the Beatles, and, you know, there are lots of famous people of that era. And then, and then, so I was doing a little radio interview show. I wasn’t, you know, and playing some records … then I … early on in my TV career … for a short time I was a booth announcer at a commercial television station in Cleveland and butchered it one day … this is a great story. Never forgot … I gave the wrong time … I couldn’t read straight, anyway I was so scared and nervous in this announce booth live … you know … this is when they had live booth announcers … one night in prime time and I, I totally destroyed the station. And the next day my boss came in and he said, “Bill, how do you like it here …
BAKER: … your last … your last day?
HEFFNER: He didn’t mean it.
BAKER: No, he did. He fired …that’s how I got fired. And the interesting thing was … about five years later I came back as head of that station … as manager of the station and he was, you know, working for me, and I went to him and I said, “You know, I really appreciate your firing me, it was the best thing that ever happened.” (Laughter)
HEFFNER: Well, it’s the mellifluous tone that gets me on these radio …
BAKER: Oh, you’re nice to say that.
HEFFNER: Were you serious before when you say “you whisper?”
BAKER: Yes. Well, on the, on the WQXR … on the Movado radio spots …
BAKER: … I actually whisper into the microphone. Another thing that you … even you don’t know about me … and we’ve been friends for decades, is that I collect microphones and I love interesting … I mean, because I’ve been in this business for so long that, you know, microphones and clocks have been part of my life, and I love them. And, and we use a really wonderful Neumann microphone at Channel 13 … actually that I bought and gave to the station … and I whisper into the microphone. And it gives it that very personal kind of … I don’t mean whisper/whisper … I mean, you know, whisper … but a subdued voice.
But the audio equipment … Channel 13 has probably the finest audio facility of any television station in America. Why do we have that? Not because Bill Baker likes microphones, but because we are the biggest producer of performance programming … opera, ballet … symphony. So you have to have an incredible audio facility which we have and I take advantage of that (laughter) when I do my radio spots.
HEFFNER: Bill in all of the things that 13 does …
HEFFNER: … I was there at the beginning …
BAKER: You sure were.
HEFFNER: … I presented the first budget …
HEFFNER: And our first budget was $2 million dollars … what’s yours now?
BAKER: Approaching $200 million … now.
HEFFNER: That’s incredible.
BAKER: Yeah, it really is. Yeah, yeah. It’s very … we’re a … I mean I think most people assume Channel 13 is a big not-for-profit, but I don’t think they realize how big we are. I think in operating size we’re … excluding the hospitals and universities, we’re … you know, we’re among, if not the biggest not-for-profit in New York. And that’s saying a lot, given the scale of not-for-profits in this community.
The thing that touches me the most in a lot of ways, and I was talking to my staff about this the other day, saying, “You know, in the 20 years I’ve been President, the thing that would destroy an institution like 13, because all we have is the trust of the audience, the people that watch us, the … and, and according to all the research, we are the most trusted … we, public television, are the most trusted institution in America … over government, over religion, over all other media, etc. … trust.
And if that trust would collapse because there was some kind of a scandal or we were doing something wrong or I was on the take or somebody else was on the take … you know … some … you know things can happen but, I mean something where a very senior person was doing something criminal or immoral … it would destroy the place. And I said, “You know, in the 20 years that I’ve been there … I said, you know, we’ve had, we’ve had lots of controversy … the right kind … television programs that were controversial … that we took some beatings on, but we’ve never had a scandal. And I, I thank my staff, particularly my financial people and others who have watched the books, have watched the operation … my lawyers, you know, people that are kind of unheralded in the TV business, but yet so critical to the organization, have kept an eye on every nickel in that place. So I’m very proud that, you know, that … you know that I think the place has been in good hands for a long time and those people are there.
HEFFNER: Are the nickels coming in the way you want them to?
BAKER: No. No they’re not. And, and it is a bit of a dilemma and, you know, this is a little inside, but this is the right program to talk inside with, with one of the founders of the business on top of everything else … is that, is that … I would say, you know, the station is very sound and solid, but it is not growing. You know the membership is actually slightly going down. Corporate underwriting is holding, but going …so all of our numbers … our different, you know, revenue lines, and we have multiple lines, you know, government, foundations, individuals, but particularly the … the most important ones, the individuals … lines are going down. And I don’t know why. I mean they’re not rapidly going down, but, you know, our, our costs go up about 3% a year which is quite modest. But our income isn’t going up 3% a year. And that hurts. So, so our normal operating income. So we don’t know why. We know that there are a lot of choices, we know that television has … you know, you people are paying $150 cable bills, so you know, we assume they think also … well why add another 50 bucks a years, a hundred dollars a year, you know, to help to support Channel 13 as much they love it.
And I think people assume that we get money from cable and other sources, which we don’t. So, it’s a real worry and it’s a challenge and, and I’m not terrified, but I’m concerned. And I don’t have any easy answers yet.
HEFFNER: I, I wasn’t …
BAKER: Our ratings are good, by the way. Our ratings remain good. And by the way you should know … I don’t even know if you ever look at the ratings of your show. Sometimes I see, when I watch … I look at our daily ratings, we get the same ratings that the commercial people get …and of course, Channel 13 is much stronger than any of the cable networks. And, and very often competitive with the most, with the most successful commercial stations. But very often your show on Saturday … whoop … right up there at the top. It looks pretty good.
HEFFNER: I love that.
HEFFNER: I won’t even ask you to say it again, but I love that.
BAKER: It’s true.
HEFFNER: Bill, we just have a couple minutes left for this …
HEFFNER: … program, but you promised to sit there …
HEFFNER: …and do another program. You say you have no magic solution. Is anyone thinking of something that sounds right, possible for the financial situation?
BAKER: Well, I mean, I mean … we have done a lot. One is that we’ve cut a lot of costs and we, you know, continue to be very conscious … looking at, looking at our operating costs.
The other is we’re looking at the concept of membership. Maybe that’s, maybe that’s a passé thing. Maybe we should get people to think more in terms of simple philanthropy, that they’re donors. And that way, if you’re a donor, you might donate more than once per year. You know, if you’re a member you think, “Well, I kind of give you my 50 or a hundred bucks once a year and that’s it.” If you’re a donor you might do it more than once a year.
So I don’t know. The, the good news is those who are donating to us are actually donating at higher levels than they ever had. The problem is that pot of people. The people carrying the weight of this big institution, there are fewer of them and we’ve got to get more people in the tent.
HEFFNER: And government?
BAKER: Government has recently been improving. But of course, government has been the toughest fight of all and we’ve come close on two or three occasions, in my career here, of being literally zero’d out. And if we would have been zero’d out, we would have been out of business.
HEFFNER: So, it was true. It wasn’t just crying …
BAKER: No, no, no, no. Well, we don’t … yeah … no, no, no, we don’t’ make any of that up, of course.
HEFFNER: What do you see now with government?
BAKER: Well, I mean I think that government is, is … I don’t think government if going to go away, even though in the last … in one of the last budgets I think President Bush zero’d us out. But the Congress put us back in.
HEFFNER: That’s been the story …
BAKER: And that really has been the story … and then we were worried that, you know, that the public would think we were crying wolf. “Gee, they say it’s going to end and then it doesn’t. What is all this about?”
Well, all this is true. I mean, you know, if we wouldn’t have fought back each time and really it wasn’t us fighting back, it was the public on our behalf, we would have been out of business.
HEFFNER: That’s the point at which I say …
HEFFNER: … let’s pick it up next time.
HEFFNER: Thank you for joining me today, Bill Baker. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. For transcripts of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.