For Belmont-raised Margaret Low, it’s a doubly sweet homecoming.
WBUR-FM said Monday that the former NPR executive, who most recently ran The Atlantic’s events business, would take over in mid-January as its CEO and general manager. It’s a high-profile hire for the Boston radio station after a period of turmoil.
Low, 61, has spent much of her career in Washington, D.C. Now she is returning to the region she moved away from shortly after college, and to the public radio world she left in 2014 after a 25-year stint with NPR .
“My parents were WBUR listeners,” Low said in an interview. She said she is thrilled to be back in a place where “the connection is deep and the experience is poignant.”
WBUR said that Low’s extensive news skills combined with business success at The Atlantic magazine’s events division made her the ideal choice to lead the station as it confronts challenges in the fast-moving media industry. Low also will have to manage the station’s sometimes contentious relationship with Boston University, which owns WBUR’s broadcast license and whose decisions have at times frustrated management and staff.
“Her CV speaks for itself,” said Paul Gannon, chair of the WBUR board of directors and head of the search committee. “She just has a very uncommon combination of EQ [emotional intelligence] and IQ — she makes people feel good and feel at ease, and she knows how to make decisions.”
Her hiring comes eight months after WBUR parted ways with general manager Charlie Kravetz, who significantly expanded the station during his eight years at the helm, including its move into podcasting and the opening of CitySpace, its local programming venue.
Kravetz was highly regarded but took a hit for his handling of Tom Ashbrook, who was forced out as host of the nationally syndicated show “On Point” after a review found he had created a hostile work environment. Kravetz’s departure followed a February vote by about 100 workers to unionize amid complaints about the work environment.
The Ashbrook firing and the sudden departure of Kravetz had unsettled many in the newsroom. But with the union vote and start of contract negotiations, spirits have lifted, said Max Larkin, a WBUR reporter.
“We are a long way from where we were before the vote,” said Larkin, a union steward. “We’ve learned a lot. . . People are more optimistic and more outspoken. The mood is basically optimistic.”
WBUR staffers said Low’s hiring has only added to that optimism.
Low has spent the past five years running The Atlantic’s events business, which hosts the three-day Atlantic Festival as well as a slate of “summits” examining social, political, and economic issues. Live programming has emerged as a new source of revenue for many media companies, and a way to attract and retain subscribers. The Atlantic has been a model for other news organizations.
Scott Fybush, a radio industry consultant in Rochester, N.Y., said Low’s knowledge of the events business drives home that WBUR sees itself “as much more than just a radio station. It’s a different set of skills than what they would have been looking at 20 years ago.”
Before The Atlantic, Low spent 25 years at NPR, starting as an overnight production assistant on “Morning Edition” and climbing through the ranks to become senior vice president for news, where from 2011 to 2014 she oversaw 400 journalists as they covered major events such as the Arab Spring, Hurricane Sandy, and the Boston Marathon bombings.
Earlier, as NPR’s vice president of programming, she took the hit show “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!” out of the studio and on the road for many of its broadcasts, and oversaw program acquisitions such as “Car Talk” and “Fresh Air.”
Low said WBUR is an “extraordinarily strong institution with 850,000 listeners” and a loyal donor base. But she acknowledged that “for any media organization there are significant challenges. The challenge for people’s time and attention. The challenge to ensure you are economically sound. The challenge to make a difference in your community.”
Low will take over an organization with an annual budget of $40 million and 225 full- and part-time employees. It has raised $29 million in its first capital campaign, which has a target of $40 million.
Low praised WBUR’s newsroom, saying the station has a “deep reporting bench” and was committed to local journalism. Asked what kind of stories she would prioritize, Low said “accountability, investigative,” and helping people “understand the city they live in.”
“One of the most important jobs today is shoring up local journalism,” she said. “It’s imperative for our civic life and our democracy.”
In a move that may signal BU’s commitment to giving WBUR more autonomy, Low was named chief executive — a title not held by Kravetz — as well as general manager. Unlike previous major announcements, the station’s statement on her hiring did not include a comment from BU leaders.
BU agreed in May to share control of WBUR with the station’s board of trustees, which was renamed the board of directors. Prior to the agreement, board members were advisers with no decision-making power. BU gave a newly created executive committee responsibility for oversight of WBUR’s finances and the authority to hire and fire the station’s general manager.
It’s been a period of high-level management changes for New England public radio.
WBUR’s local NPR rival, WGBH-FM, is searching for a new GM after Phil Redo said he would retire in July 2020.
In September, Jim Schachter was named CEO of New Hampshire Public Radio, after serving as vice president of news at WNYC-FM in New York for seven years.
Senior WBUR news executive Sam Fleming filled in as interim general manager after Kravetz left in March and was a member of the search committee.
“Margaret understands the heart and soul of what makes public radio special,” said Fleming, who will return to his previous job as managing director of news and programming.
Low left Massachusetts to attend the University of Michigan, where she earned a degree in English. She returned briefly after graduation, and then moved away.
“I don’t know [Boston] as an adult,” she said. “I want to understand the arts and cultural institutions, the politics, and the place in a deep and meaningful way.”