Jonathan Abbott, chief executive of Boston’s GBH, plans to step down in December, signing off after a 15-year run in which he emerged as one of public media’s most influential leaders in the nation.
“I think I have another chapter in life,” Abbott, 59, said in an interview, noting that he has worked in public broadcasting since graduating from business school in 1988.
GBH said on Wednesday that it has launched a search for Abbott’s successor, which will include input from staff and the community. It has had just three leaders over the past five decades.
Abbott has steered GBH’s move beyond over-the-air broadcasting, reorienting the organization as streaming services and social media have increasingly dominated the news and entertainment landscape.
He has overseen the development of new channels and digital platforms to deliver GBH’s nationally syndicated programming to a wider audience. Under his leadership, it bought WCRB-FM, a deal that allowed GBH to remain true to its classical music roots — WGBH radio went on the air in 1951 with a live performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra — while converting the flagship station to an all-news format.
Abbott also helped GBH raise $215 million in the largest capital campaign by a public media outlet, and increased its endowment more than eightfold to nearly $525 million.
“Jon has put GBH ahead of the curve,” said Lee Pelton, a GBH trustee and CEO of the Boston Foundation.
Ann Fudge, chair of the GBH board, said Abbott has been a superb leader driven by a passion for the civic and educational mission of public media. He has worked to diversify the organization and broaden the appeal of its programming, she said.
Fudge also cited Abbott’s support for the merger of GBH’s Springfield TV station with New England Public Radio, a combination that has extended public media’s reach throughout southern New England.
“He’s open to learning and doesn’t think he knows it all. He has the energy to work on many fronts,” Fudge said. Most important: “He’s a good soul,” she said.
Both Fudge and Abbott acknowledged that GBH has more work to do on diversifying its staff. Last July the organization disclosed that 80 percent of its workforce was white. The report came a few months after the organization hired its first chief inclusion and equity officer.
Abbott said he has been laying the groundwork for his departure since the end of 2020, when GBH completed the capital campaign. He said he’s comfortable leaving now because GBH is financially strong and has made significant progress in delivering content to audiences when and where they want it, whether that’s on TV, a laptop, or a smartphone.
“This is not pandemic related,” he said, dismissing the suggestion that he’s the latest local CEO to join the “Great Resignation.”
GBH is the largest provider of programming to PBS, with iconic shows including “NOVA,” “Frontline,” and “Arthur,” the children’s cartoon that ended this week after 25 seasons (though it will continue in repeats and with new content on other platforms). Its local newsroom has 110 journalists, up from just a dozen before the format switch in 2009. Abbott’s decision to go head-to-head on news with WBUR was controversial, but both stations have grown their audiences.
“Jon is admired far and wide in public media circles and beyond. And deservedly so,” said Margaret Low, CEO and general manager of WBUR, who called Abbott a friend, a frequent collaborator, and occasional competitor.
Born and raised in New York, Abbott got involved in public media while still an MBA student at Stanford University. In the summer after his first year, he did a study for the president of KQED in San Francisco on how the public radio station could switch to all news.
“Those were the best 10 weeks of my life,” he recalled.
He worked at the station during his second year to help make the format change, and then joined full time after graduation. He stayed at KQED for five years, eventually running marketing and development.
Abbott then moved to PBS in Washington as senior vice president of development and corporate relations. That’s where he met Henry Becton Jr., who was the head of WGBH and lured him to Boston to become its general manager in 1998. Abbott became chief executive after Becton stepped down in 2007.
“Jon’s numerous contributions to the growth and sustainability of public media have been remarkable,” said John Lansing, chief executive of NPR. “He has been an excellent partner to NPR.”
GBH, which has about 850 employees, is solidly profitable on an operating basis, Abbott said, with revenue of $287 million in 2021. He earned $719,000 in fiscal 2020, according to GBH’s most recent 990 filing for nonprofits.
Abbott, who lives in Newton with his wife, doesn’t have any post-GBH plans yet other than “to relax and reflect.”
After 24 years at GBH, he said, “I think I have done all the things I set out to do or imagined I could do.”