After messy split from WBUR, Christopher Lydon returns
Twelve years after parting company with WBUR-FM after a rancorous contract dispute, Christopher Lydon — former host of “The Connection,” a daily talk show that once aired on 75 National Public Radio affiliates — is returning to the station.
Starting in January, Lydon, 73, will host an hourlong program titled “Open Source with Christopher Lydon,” to be broadcast live on WBUR 90.9 every Thursday from 9 to 10 p.m. Joining Lydon is his longtime producer, Mary McGrath. The station will make a formal announcement of the new show Wednesday.
Under the arrangement, finalized roughly six weeks ago, Lydon and McGrath will continue to produce their own podcasts, links to which will be posted on the radio station’s website. WBUR will rebroadcast “Open Source” on weekends, at a time to be determined. It will replace “The Moth Radio Hour,” which moves to Fridays at 9 p.m.
On the new show, listeners will be invited to call in, text questions, or register opinions via social media. One query that might come up: After such a nasty divorce, how did this happen? “Honestly, I think there was this ‘why not?’ impulse,” Lydon said Thursday, speaking at the WBUR offices.
That was quite a change from how things used to be. Former “Connection” listeners will recall Lydon’s split with station management over who should control rights to the nationally syndicated show. In 2001, Lydon and McGrath bid to get a piece of the action, but ultimately failed and were fired.
Last February, Lydon began appearing every Thursday on the “Open Mic” segment of WGBH 89.7 FM’s “Boston Public Radio” broadcast with cohosts Jim Braude and Margery Eagan . The chatter about his potential return to NPR intensified then, he said.
It did not hurt that the competition between WBUR and WGBH for talk-show listeners has been heating up in recent years. Beginning in 2009, WGBH revamped its format to focus on news and talk programming, adding shows hosted by Emily Rooney and Callie Crossley while eliminating its classical music offerings and cutting back on its jazz programming. Braude and Eagan joined the WGBH lineup early last year after their WTKK show was canceled.
“I wish there was more rivalry,” said Lydon, laughing. “ ’GBH should have grabbed us years ago. There’s a lot more content to be had in this town.”
Lydon cited Boston’s “transformation” as a global city compared with its more provincial profile two decades ago, and the wealth of new talent and activity the city has spawned in areas such as science, technology, music, literature, filmmaking, and academe. His intention, he said, is to tap into these new sources in an engaging, conversational way.
“I think I have a skill in drawing out people who are making history in their own fields,” he said. The exposure on WBUR should drive traffic to his website, Lydon added, which has been underwritten by visitors’ donations and by a Brown University fellowship he has held.
“It’s supported, modestly, by angels here and there,” he said in answer to a question about funding sources. WBUR, he added, “has made a very generous commitment” to him and McGrath to produce the new show, although he did not say how generous it is.
According to WBUR general manager Charles Kravetz, after being hired three years ago he began casual talks with Lydon about reconnecting with his former radio home. They got more serious as summer ended.
“I’ve always been a great fan of Chris’s persona, his intellect, his love affair with Boston,” Kravetz said Tuesday. Encouraged by listeners who asked about bringing Lydon back, “it suddenly seemed it was the right time for Chris and for us” to strike such an arrangement, Kravetz added.
He declined to provide details of the contract, saying only that it has a finite time frame and is renewable. Lydon, he noted, has been an early adopter of digital technology and that fits with the station’s aim of building listenership over multiple platforms.
Lydon’s resume is certainly multidimensional.
A Roxbury Latin and Yale University graduate, he began as a print journalist for the Globe and the New York Times, then moved on to anchor WGBH-TV’s “The Ten O’Clock News” show for 14 years. After the broadcast was canceled, in 1991, he experimented with webcasting before launching a quixotic run for mayor in 1993 (he got 3 percent of the vote).
In 1994, Lydon was brought in to host “The Connection,” which went into national syndication three years later. By 2000, “The Connection” was reaching 400,000 listeners, and both Lydon and McGrath were paid handsomely, $230,000 and $150,000 respectively. Under a proposed contract, they stood to be paid substantially more in coming years.
However, when they insisted on an ownership stake in the broadcast, they were first put on paid leave and then let go. Neither side stayed silent about the divorce, which Globe media reporter Mark Jurkowitz then described as “part principled crusade, part ego-drive stalemate, and part Pier Six brawl.”
After Lydon’s departure, WBUR auditioned several hosts before settling on radio veteran Dick Gordon. Four years later, WBUR canceled “The Connection,” citing budget cuts and disappointing ratings.
Lydon says he is happy to be back. “As I’ve always said, Boston is the frontal lobe of the universe. There’s so much to talk about here.”