At a fork in his career path, GBH’s Jon Abbott reflects on how pubmedia can evolve and innovate

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Jon Abbott, CEO of GBH since 2007, sees collaboration and experimentation as key to public media's success.

Jon Abbott departs from Boston’s GBH Tuesday, ending his 15-year run of leading public media’s largest institution into the multichannel, multiplatform world of digital media. 

His many accomplishments in public media span a much longer period of time. Abbott points back to his start as a student broadcaster and jazz programmer at Columbia University’s WKCR and his summer internship at KQED in San Francisco as formative experiences. While working toward his master’s degree in business administration at Stanford University, Abbott wrote the strategy and business plan for KQED to adopt an all-news radio format in 1987. The audience growth and journalism expansion that resulted from that change influenced stations across the system over decades — including Abbott’s investments in a 2009 radio signal expansion that converted WGBH-FM to an all-news alternative to Boston’s WBUR. 

Abbott sees himself as a “builder” — one who looks to “find new ways of doing things” to advance public media as a whole, preferably in collaboration with other stakeholders. In this interview, he describes how enterprises built with PBS and station partners under his watch support experimentation and agile decision-making in fundraising, digital distribution and green lights for GBH’s national productions. 

He also discusses efforts by GBH and Station Resource Group to build a dataset of the newsgathering capacity of public radio stations. The study provided a snapshot of what Abbott calls “the largest distributed news network in the country.” Abbott sees it as public media’s “superpower” — one that can propel a new wave of growth, innovation and community support.  

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Karen Everhart, Current: When you were a kid, public broadcasting was what we’d now call a startup. What do you remember about watching or listening to public stations when you were growing up in New York City?

Jon Abbott: Back then there were no iPods, mobile phones or apps. I grew up in a rent-controlled apartment. There was one TV and one stereo. In my family, the stereo was Mom and Dad’s and the TV was Mom and Dad’s, too. I consumed a lot of media through the influence and guidance of my folks.

In New York, Channel Thirteen was a huge part of my life. I got to know GBH through being a devotee of Zoom. … On the public radio side, my dad was a big music hound and he listened to Columbia University’s radio station, WKCR. He was a huge jazz fan. I don’t think I listened to a rock ’n’ roll station until I was 13 or 14 years old.

My mother’s family were dairy farmers in Vermont. In the summers we would go to the Champlain Valley and visit my grandparents. They were old Yankees who would turn the electricity on in only one room. They said, “Would you like to watch TV with us?” And of course, I said, “Could we watch Gunsmoke or Wild Wild West or Bonanza?” They said, “No, but you can watch the The Six Wives of Henry VIII.”

I must have been 10 or 11 that summer. I thought it was the weirdest, most terrifying and frightening thing. And my mother says, “Well, it’s basically true.” I watched the first episode and got hooked. That summer I watched with my mom and my great aunt in the parlor.

Growing up in New York City, we didn’t have a car. We grew up going to the Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Coney Island Aquarium and the Bronx Zoo. That was my quartet. That notion of public interest institutions — the fact that you could have a palette that wasn’t just a commercial palette.

My parents both had made their way to New York, and they made the most of being in New York. And that included making the most of what was available in public broadcasting.

Current: What drew you to make a career in public broadcasting?

I had started going to jazz clubs with my dad when I was 10 or 11 years old. He was very interested in making sure I heard the greatest of the old guard. I ultimately ended up going to Columbia. When I got there, I walked into the radio station I had grown up listening to and said, “Hey, this might be fun.”

They gave underclassmen a test with 20 jazz questions. Invariably, everybody walking in loved Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. Most people flunked. It was like a conspiracy of the upperclassmen and the alums to make sure it was a rare underclassman who could get a shot.

Out of 20 questions on the test, I got 16 right. They came into the lounge and said, “Who the hell are you? … Did your brother go here? Did you get the test in advance?”  I said, “I’ve listened to this music all my life with my dad and I listen to the station. … These were all familiar to me.” They didn’t believe me.

They gave me another test of 10 more questions, and I got seven or eight of them right. They said, “Well, we’ve got no choice but to let you apprentice to a show.”

I apprenticed with a wonderful fellow named Ashley Kahn, who’s a big music writer. First I had a blues show, then a jazz show, and I became the jazz director. When I wasn’t in class, I was in the studios.

We were right there west of Harlem. All the greatest players loved the radio station because we treated them with respect and adoration. I had the chance to meet these extraordinary people who came to the studio all the time to play or be interviewed.

When the Blue Note Jazz Club opened … for nearly two years, I produced Live from the Blue Note for broadcast. And then I would try to get a record release. I was successful for my first month, which opened with Max Roach. The second week was Dizzy Gillespie, the third was the Modern Jazz Quartet and the fourth week was Betty Carter. It was a lot of fun. It was when I realized that the community really loved and admired what WKCR was doing — that they respected the work, the artists and that it was trying to do something distinctive for New York audiences. The station had a kind of cult following. I knew what it was about because I’d listened for a long time. Then I got to be part of it and be in an environment with creative people.

I applied to business school at Stanford, saying to them, “Public broadcasting is pretty cool. I’d love to get some management training so I could do it.” I figured I wasn’t going to be an announcer, a host, a behind-the-mic creative or continuing to produce. … Now that I look back, I realize I found joy in being around creative people and creating an environment for them to feel like they could do their best work. That’s what I love about the mission and purpose of public broadcasting and the joy of working with some of the most creative people around.

‘Why be smaller than we need to be?’

Current: I’d like to pivot now to PBS Distribution, which has been a real game changer for the PBS National Program Service and signature series like Masterpiece. As a PBS board member and a co-founder of PBSd, you’ve observed how that income has been invested over time. Where have those revenues made the most difference in the content that’s presented by PBS?

Abbott: I credit [PBS President] Paula Kerger with the genesis of PBS Distribution and colleagues like Andrea Downing, [now president of PBSd]; David Bernstein, [former VP and GM of GBH Enterprises and PBSd co-president, who retired in 2021], and Andy Russell, now [president of PBS SoCal and KCET] in Los Angeles. They were all in the small group of us talking about it. At that time, PBS had about 60% of home entertainment distribution, and GBH had about 40%. The group got together and said “This marketplace is changing, and we’re small enough. Why be any smaller than we need to be?”

“One of the things that I’ve learned in 30-plus years in public media is we’re a confederated system, but our ability to adapt, evolve and innovate is very much connected to our work together and the alignment we create with each other.”

Digital was coming. The notion of bringing their 60% and GBH’s 40% together into a company where we could literally move together collectively into those emerging markets for digital distribution was critical. We were watching the old back end becoming the new front end.

We used to think about home video DVDs and VHS as back-end — they would be distributed after a broadcast. … It was important money and resources, but it wasn’t predictable, and it came in late.

Then streaming comes along. With licensing arrangements, we can speak with one voice through PBS Distribution and, as that marketplace evolves, secure better deals for the full scope of our library. 

What it fundamentally changed as streaming became so prominent — you could look at the history of streaming of your library and your titles. You could make a much more accurate prediction of the value of your work in that environment. Over time PBSd allowed PBS, GBH and producers to have a more predictable front-end way of thinking about how valuable content will be when it streams.

… It’s substantially changed both drama and children’s programing. Those are the two biggest areas of significance now. … Were it not for PBSd — and being able to approach greenlight for a project counting on licensing revenue — we would have a different drama pipeline, substantially different. We wouldn’t be able to imagine the predictability … of the capital we can put into drama.

The same thing is true for children’s content. PBS has been able to make a steady commitment to one or two new series a year for the last 10 years. They understood that with PBS’ extraordinary reputation for children’s programing, being in that marketplace and having PBSd, talking with prospective licensors and partners, would make all that difference. Honestly, we would look dramatically different … in both drama and kids if we hadn’t built PBSd.

Current: How have you invested GBH’s share of PBSd earnings?

Abbott: We factor it into the risk we can bear when I greenlight new seasons of all our projects. … An important thing to bear in mind is that station dues pay somewhere on the order of 50% of what it costs to create programming. Sometimes it’s 60%, sometimes 45% — it depends on the project. Sometimes PBS can commit more beyond station dues because of PBSd. And producers basically have to figure out how we close the gap. Foundations, sponsors and, in GBH’s case, being able to rely on a stream of revenue from PBSd. That allows us to look at the aggregate across a year of all the projects that we’re trying to greenlight.

When we greenlight a project, we’re saying, “We will raise the rest of the money.” We are typically carrying $35 million to $45 million of risk during the year. PBSd is incredibly helpful in that regard, but then so is the work of our sponsorship group and foundation development group. We work to make up the difference such that we can guarantee and deliver our projects.

Current: As big [Subscription Video On Demand] providers struggle to win subscribers and pivot to ad-supported business models, is PBSd at risk? Or do you see the challenges ahead more for Passport and other streaming platforms?

Abbott: The opportunity of PBSd … as new platforms and questions come about, is not only creating revenue streams to support our work but also being in front of audiences. We’ve built the ability to anticipate those changes and to pivot.  For example, with FAST [Free Advertising-Supported Streaming TV] and AVOD [Ad-Supported Video On Demand] channels, the fascinating thing is going to be how much consumers end up using those channels. We’ve got an Antiques Roadshow FAST channel that we’re experimenting with now on Tubi, Xumo, Plex and Roku. …You may find that that’s the new playground for at least some portion of your consumers.  What’s changed profoundly … is that you have AVOD and FAST providers and virtual MVPDs [Multichannel Video Programming Distributors] like YouTube TV. 

I can give you an example of the reach. In Boston, over 5% of television households watch television on YouTube TV. If we hadn’t worked all together with PBS to get the YouTube TV deal, that’s 5% of Boston, of my community, that would not have had access to Channel 2. 

When you talk about FAST and AVOD, PBSd is in a position of helping us manage a thoughtful, collective way of asking, “Where are our consumers, how do we get there and how does it fit our economic model to continue to be able to reach consumers — and also to be able to find ways to continue to develop capital resources to continue?”

‘Pathways to secure support’

Current: When you started out in development, public media stations relied on pledge drives to build their membership programs. Now there’s a great sense of urgency about the performance of pledge and the need to improve digital fundraising. What needs to happen for public media to successfully make this pivot?

Abbott: If you look at the growth of public media fundraising, pledge drives and even direct mail, think about all of them as a mode of connecting with somebody who can be a supporter. There was a time when we weren’t well-organized about our pledge drives or direct mail. A lot of people talk about pledge, but they forget there was a wonderful window of time in the mid-1980s when public media got its act together about direct mail. That seems kind of like something from the Pleistocene era.

At that time, I was at PBS Development. We were looking at all the pathways we had to secure support. This is a theme I’ve been proud of throughout my all my work in public broadcasting. … If we’re going to learn and grow together, we have to do it together. That’s true of how we learned how to execute pledge drives, and how we learned how to do direct mail. The same is going to be true in digital platforms.

Creating a means to test and explore best practices and to rapidly share those practices and scale them — whether it’s newsletters and other forms of digital communication that allow us to collect prospect names more efficiently and build out a regimen of communications that get someone to connect with us. Creating an environment of testing.

That’s why we created the Contributor Development Partnership, CDP. We realized that, much like PBSd, we needed to create a means where groups of stations could collaborate, test ideas and ideally kind of create a Bell Labs for this work and push forward ideas that would work fastest.

One of the things that I’ve learned in 30-plus years in public media is we’re a confederated system, but our ability to adapt, evolve and innovate is very much connected to our work together and the alignment we create with each other. There’s that old African proverb, “If you want to get somewhere fast, go alone. If you want to get further, go together.” That’s honestly one of the truest things I’ve learned in any confederated social enterprise. This is true of the environmental movement and of public health. We have so much opportunity in front of us when we work together to examine the challenges and opportunities and figure out what our mode of action can be.

For the YouTube TV deal, we pulled the Major Market Group together, worked closely with PBS and moved everyone through examination of that opportunity. When PBS was negotiating the deal, they walked into the Major Market Group meeting and said, “What do you think? Can we do this?” The Major Market Group was ready to vote unanimously. We collaborated on what kind of an arrangement for the future could work out for stations to secure the kind of carriage they needed. That comes with an orientation around the system and around alignment so that we can actually go farther together.

Gambling on radio expansion

Current: You made a big investment on radio signal expansion in 2009 when you converted GBH’s flagship radio channel to all-news and created a dedicated classical service on WCRB. By contemporaneous news accounts, it was a controversial decision and financially difficult for a while. What convinced you at the time that it was the right move, especially to go up against NPR News powerhouse WBUR for news listeners?

Abbott: Let me trace it back to maybe the most exciting experience I’ve had in my professional life. I was between my first two years at Stanford in the summer of 1987. The Iran-Contra hearings were going on. All my classmates at Stanford were working in Silicon Valley in the early days, in consulting and investment banking. Remember, I had started there with this crackpot idea about taking that training and figuring out how to work in public broadcasting. KQED was the dominant and significant public media organization in San Francisco. Tony Tiano was the president, and he came down for what was called the “Brown Bag View from the Top.” I think six people showed up. I was in the front row, and I went up after I’d heard him talk. I said, “Hey, Mr. Tiano, do you think you might have something for a budding Stanford MBA?” He surprised me and said, “Actually, we might. … Come up and visit us next week.” When I got there, Tony said, “We have this idea that, confidentially, we can take KQED all news.” I said, “I’m all in.”

“We build an argument around the connectedness, the trust, the accountability that allows newsrooms to continue to earn the investment of their communities. That’s the miracle of public media.”

For the next 10 weeks, I was their summer intern and consultant. I wrote the strategy for the format change. … We had surveyed listeners — the whole bit. Eight and a half weeks into my 10 weeks, Tony says, “We’ve been reading all of your reports. I’m calling the board together over the weekend. We’re going to do this.” They’d gone wall-to-wall with the Iran Contra hearings. He said, “We don’t know when the hearings are going to end, but we’re never going back, and we’re going to adopt your plan.” Those 10 weeks were the most exciting and vivid for me to basically write the business strategy for the first major-market all-news public radio station in the country. At that time, the competition was two very successful commercial news stations, KGO and KCBS in San Francisco.

In my second year at business school, I took all my classes so that they ended before noon. Then I ran to the parking lot and drove up to KQED and worked there every afternoon, just praying that I could get a job. We basically worked to implement the format change. That was maybe my proudest moment because I got to be there in that moment of conception. 

A year and a half ago, we did a study together with Station Resource Group and NPR. From 1987, 35 years later, to realize we now have over 125 newsrooms in public radio.

Fast forward to 2009 in Boston and GBH with our mixed format — not unlike what I first analyzed for Tony back at KQED — the audience for the mixed-format station had not grown in 10 years. The gamble there felt like deja vu all over again. Here there was a different question. It was alongside the remarkable work of ’BUR. I’m a ’BUR member. I love the work they do. But I’m also a kid who grew up in New York City — a big, cosmopolitan place with a lot of ideas, an extraordinary range of issues. And the kind of comparable conception was, alongside all the accomplishments at ’BUR, is there room for a second all-news public radio station? For our conception, there was room with a higher focus on local and, hopefully, a different sound and an ability to differentiate by creating a larger landscape for the unique work that public media sets out to do.

And we saved classical music by buying ’CRB. It was destined to be another music format or something else. By buying it, we were able to preserve classical music in a town that loves its music. So we built out the classical format and then we just we wrote a strategy with colleagues like Phil Redo and other talented people — and basically gambled.

You’re right, for a year or two, I took all manner of hard questions from people across Boston saying, “What are you doing? Why do you think there’s room for it?” I said, “We have a 9-inch pie plate right now with what’s on offer in Boston. I believe we can be a 15-inch pie plate. I believe in creating more and creating an environment of two stations, striving to do the best work for our community.” This is Boston. It’s greater Boston. We’ve got the world’s greatest research universities, life sciences, innovation and education. I said, “Gosh, if any city could do it, we’d like to take the chance that we can pull it off in Boston.” And we did.

As the New York City kid into getting all manner of questions and “Are you sure you’re not going to fail?” — I knew my job was on the line with this thing. If I knew the person well enough, I’d say, “Wait a second, I’m from New York. You’re from Boston. Who’s got more faith in the interests, appetites and needs of Boston — a kid from New York or you from Boston?”  I felt like I earned my Boston stripes by illustrating that there’s plenty of room for the great work of ’BUR and GBH.

Current: What has been the audience impact for listening in Boston overall?

Abbott: WBUR continues to do extraordinary work; we do extraordinary work. We were able to launch our Boston Public Library studio and we’re present there with Boston Public Radio. … Across the work that ’BUR and GBH and do, there’s more experimentation, more effort at what public media can offer a great city and a great community — thinking ambitiously, having faith in our audience and the trust audience holds in us.

My predecessor, [former WGBH President] Henry Becton, always said so wisely, “We’re media that’s built for citizens, not consumers.” That’s why I am so bullish about … the growth of these public media newsrooms around the country. We’re the last locally owned, operated and governed media in this country. And now as the study we’ve done illustrates, we’re the largest distributed news network in the country. …With NPR we’ve got a 20-year track record of committing to being accountable, to experimenting and growing our newsrooms.

I was just in our studios introducing my successor, Susan Goldberg, and with members of our staff, including Jim Braude and Margery Eagan, who host Boston Public Radio. Jim was telling me that the governor, the attorney general and the mayor have all committed, having just been elected, to staying on the air with us. They realize that in public media they have the avenue to be in front of their constituents and to talk in paragraphs, not sound bites, about the challenging issues confronting our community.

Hearkening back to those decisions in 1987 at KQED — we’ve now spent 35 years [building newsrooms] in 125-plus communities. Based on the outlook, I think it’ll be 150 in five years. Across the country, we will have this community-centered, trusted resource. If we are working at field-building, if we’re building a community of practice around what we’re aspiring to accomplish, that’s our superpower. If we can find that which we can commit to together, learn from each other and build collectively, we will go further.

Seeing the forest through the trees

Current: There are a lot of challenges on this, though. A study presented at the Public Radio Program Directors conference in August focused on the strengths of public radio’s investment in journalism. But Feather Houston of the Wyncote Foundation delivered a straight talk describing skepticism within the funding community. She said funders question whether public stations have the “metabolism to be frontline news providers.” You have stations with such varied capacities and access to resources across the system. How do you see the news service expanding into that more predominant role on a more consistent basis?

Abbott: This work raises important and focused questions for us about how we plan for the greater service impact and growth that we would like to achieve.

When I presented findings from the GBH/SRG newsroom data study to colleagues in the public radio community last spring, I said, “Here’s the headline: ‘You all are trees, but we are a forest.’”

We did the study because I was in a Station Resource Group meeting, and hearing remarkable stories from each of these communities — Dallas, L.A., Minneapolis, Oregon, Philly — about the work the stations are doing in their communities. Powerful individual stories of analysis, assessment, commitment and growth. And everyone was wringing their hands saying, “Why is the venture philanthropy not coming our way, and they’re betting on these three- and four-person digital startups?” I stood up and I said, “We haven’t pulled the data and the narrative together about all that you are accomplishing and that we are accomplishing together. That philanthropic community … they’re not hearing our narrative. They don’t see the momentum we have.”

There are dozens of stations that have statehouse bureaus now. When I was at KQED, we were just trying to get an all-news radio station on the air.

No one is saying that public media’s local journalism infrastructure is the answer to all ills. But we are a vital part of that ecology and that solution — if we think about what investments are going to have the greatest distinctiveness and impact for our communities, [and if] we are learning from each other and making those investments together.

Look at the Texas Newsroom and the New England News Collaborative. We will grow that capacity. Feather’s observations are a constructive provocation to say, “How are you thinking about that future such that you can map a plan you will be proud of?”  You will be accomplishing things like statehouse bureaus, courthouse reporters and deep vertical desks and collective reporting across the state of Texas or across New England.

Think about what happens when you have 150 newsrooms across the country and plans that NewsHour and NPR make about having a supply of stories. When something goes down in Uvalde, Texas, or Milwaukee or Pittsburgh, how do we build this distributed news network, almost flipping the model? We can’t finance this all from Washington. We build an argument around the connectedness, the trust, the accountability that allows newsrooms to continue to earn the investment of their communities. That’s the miracle of public media. All of a sudden, if you’ve got 150 newsrooms, if you’re at NPR or you’re at the NewsHour, you are playing with a different supply chain. 

Current: You’re jazzed about this one.

Abbott: I am totally jazzed. You know, with Susan [Goldberg] taking over for me and with her journalism background, I got very pumped up. Now the challenge is, how do we organize ourselves and step forward together? And like I said — go farther together if we can align.

Some of our greatest accomplishments over the last 30 years have been the alignment around addressing an opportunity or a challenge and building together as a system. The news and local journalism opportunity is a huge win for the country. It’s a win prospectively for NPR and for the NewsHour, but it’s really a win for every one of our communities.

You’re right to ask about smaller communities and mid-sized markets. That’s why we should be thinking not just individually, but — to my forest point — thinking collectively. And that’s why I love that we’re going to build out this dataset. … Bill Davis at SRG and Erin Moran and Carlos Barrionuevo at Public Media Company are involved in conversations about its future. We said to them, “… There was a lot to learn by looking at the larger picture.” They’re examining a way to resource and build that out. If we had that available, it can drive discussions about the way we plan for the future of what I’m comfortable calling the NPR News network.

Agenda for DEIA

Current: I want to ask you about the internally focused work that you’ve been doing on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility with Yemisi Oloruntola-Coates. She talked with us earlier about her process and described it as multiphased, yet contiguous and ongoing work. What do you see as the most significant outcome of that work to date?

Abbott: It’s been multifaceted. We began with a cultural assessment with our staff. We really needed to understand and hear from our colleagues vividly and openly about where they wanted to see our DEIA agenda move, what they saw and found in their work that they found inspiring and what they what they wish we could do more of. That illustrated we wanted to create professional development opportunities for staff; clarify communications about our future, particularly in a fast-changing environment; and create, clarify and work together to create structural commitments around representation and inclusion.

From that, she and I created a structural inclusion steering committee, which is a group of senior managers who serve as the guiding counsel for Yemisi. As we work at developing the action plan and sound out ideas, that’s one of her principal advising groups. We also have an Idea Council on inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility. That’s a group of folks spread more widely across the organization who we use as a sounding board for ideas and the prioritization of ideas. Both the Idea Council and the Structural Inclusion Steering Committee end up being our pace-setting advising groups.

With them we launched a very significant supplier diversity survey about six weeks ago.  It’s among the most ambitious in public media at this time. We worked across the organization with our finance team, our IT team. When we get those survey results back, we’re going to build out a baseline picture of both our minority- and women-owned business suppliers. We will know how are we doing as we build out new supplier relationships and identify more diverse suppliers and build them into our procurement. The second part of that survey says, “Tell us about your commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Current: You’re asking them for accountability, too.

Abbott: Exactly. Some of the big professional services firms like our accounting firm and others, it may well be that we won’t be able to source and develop minority- or women-owned businesses. But we thought it was important to create a baseline signal to our entire supplier community that we were committed to DEIA and we assumed that the companies that we do business with are equally so. It illustrates for anyone who wants to work with GBH that this is what we are working on, aspiring to and committed to. Any partner with GBH shares equally an aspiration and a commitment to developing diversity, inclusion and equity.

Current: When do you expect those findings to come in? Is it going to happen after you leave?

Abbott: Probably by the end of February, we’ll have the dataset in good shape. Then we’re going to take the team through, “What do we see here? Where are areas of opportunity?” And then — and this is true of all of our DEIA work — we send this work to all of our staff.

We’re all in this together. Whether you’re finding a caterer, a photo house or a transportation company, everybody has a role in one way or another. We’re working with some New England–based and Boston-based supplier consultants who are helping us connect with new businesses, minority- and women-owned businesses, LGBTQ+ owned businesses. We’re going to take those results, go back to everybody and say, “How are we going to work on this together and build out an ever more robust and diverse supply chain?”

Current: During the pandemic, public TV stations pivoted quickly to support at-home learning. Multiple stations collaborated to curate the resources of PBS LearningMedia and committed broadcast time to educational shows. It seemed like a real test of the digital platform that you all have been building for more than a decade.

Abbott: I am profoundly proud of PBS LearningMedia and grateful to Paula Kerger. Our role in education is one of the things she cares most about. To spend a dozen years building originally from GBH’s Teacher’s Domain and then with PBS to build out LearningMedia to be in all 50 states, to have 100,000-plus digital learning resources all correlated to state curriculum frameworks — it really is consonant with our promise to communities across the country that we will tailor our work to meet their needs. To build that kind of scale — I’m so grateful to Paula for making that commitment. Of course, it leverages a part of GBH that has been a big part of us for a long time.

When you think about public media as profoundly local, alongside journalism, education is one of the areas where public media can make a commitment. In all our productions, we consider whether there’s an educational manifestation of assets, tools and resources that can be built.

When the pandemic came along, … nobody had to run around in the public media community and say, “Gee, should we do something in education?” There was this constant drumbeat, this obbligato that was running through our work. The stations all recognized this is in the marrow of our bones, this is something essential. … We actually had this baseline learning media resource. Stations could say, “What can we put on the air and what other things can we build?”

Candidly … the most committed, trusting constituency public media has had has been our teachers. We should never forget that. They are this country’s treasure, and we’ve been there for them. By the fact that we have that platform in every state, everybody had at least something to start with.

It was also a wake-up call. I hope it means that we’re forever changed when we realize how important the character of learning is going to be going forward — and the fact that digital media resources are going to be an essential part of the reinvented classroom and outside the classroom when kids are home and doing their homework.

When you think about the congressional support we have from districts red and blue, I think everybody can agree that supporting our kids, our students and our parents is one of the most important things we can do. And it’s yet another aspect of what PBS was built to do.

Current: Are there some specific takeaways from that experience about how LearningMedia can adapt for this new world that we’re learning our way to live and work and teach in?

Abbott: Continuing to work on what we are hearing back from teachers about how our work fits their day, fits their needs. What are they finding that students respond well to?

We have a substantial amount of work, candidly, with collaborators like Google Classroom. Not unlike your question about FAST and AVOD, there are lots of ways that these technologies are going to make it possible for people to connect with experiences and content — that same set of questions have to transpose on education. There will be opportunities for us to work with partners at scale to take this remarkable, trusted content from PBS and be ever more valuable to those teachers, whether they’re using Google Classroom or other platforms. We’ve got to stay two steps ahead of anticipating what teachers are going to be using and deploying and what they say what really works for the kids.

‘Who is this overzealous whippersnapper?’

Current: Several colleagues and peers have told me that you have a knack for mentorship, connecting people and spotting talent. During your career, who did that for you, and what difference did it make for what you were able to accomplish?

Abbott: When I came into the system, and then particularly when I got to PBS, I sat around the board table or worked with many remarkable people whose wisdom and whose care for the system I found infectious. … But I would have to say the most significant mentor I’ve had in my career was Henry Becton.

When I was at PBS, I worked a lot with WNET and GBH. We had a lot of ideas in the development space that we wanted to move, and they had very talented teams in both places. In the 1990s, when we were building Team Approach, the first fundraising database developed collaboratively for adoption by multiple stations, or thinking about major giving or sponsorship, I was invariably walking through the doors in Boston and New York. Henry probably left most of those rooms saying, “Who is this overzealous whippersnapper?” But we got to know each other.

Abbott with Henry Becton, his mentor and predecessor as CEO, in GBH’s master control room.

Then he asked me if I’d come run development at GBH, and I said, “Well, I’ve done development.  At WKCR back in college, I had this idea about what a general manager can be.” And he goes, “I don’t have that job.” About four months later, enough changes had happened at GBH. He says, “The job you asked me about — I think I can put development together with the television stations.” He took a flier on me.

Henry is the greatest mentor in my career because he’s wise, supportive, generous. He’s a great coach. But he wanted things to happen for GBH, and he hoped that more things could happen if he could help me be successful learning from him and doing them. I’m grateful to Henry for doing that for me.

Current: We’ve touched on a lot of different hallmarks of your leadership at GBH. What do you see as your most important achievement?

Abbott: Well, I’m a builder. What Henry afforded me and what we built together at GBH is from the general observation that, faced with forks in the road, we figured out a way at GBH and, often, with PBS or NPR. I was there when National Public Media started. That was a company that Ken Stern [NPR COO from 1999–2006] and NPR were advancing for the purposes of scaling the sponsorship sales. Henry and I basically said, “Let’s do it with you.”

At forks in the road where we can find a new way of doing things, often collectively, to help public media be more and to ambitiously, aspirationally embrace a future, adapt and innovate — that’s what I call building.

Much of what GBH accomplishes, it doesn’t accomplish as GBH. This is a credit to Henry — we think holistically about the system. When I talk to you with enthusiasm about all those newsrooms and what that news network can be — I care about it because of what we can do for Boston, but I also really care about it.  

When I showed that newsroom study to my board, they were so proud of what we’ve done at GBH and what Boston had become. Together, ’BUR and GBH now have the largest newsroom headcount for news in the country — more than 200 journalists. We’re in the seventh- or eighth-largest market. What my board learned for years from Henry — and hopefully for 15 years from me — is that the real opportunity is to lead and think strategically about what we can do alongside others and what public media becomes.

I love that GBH is a place where we can do our best work. But we also realize we’re an important part of working alongside remarkable people all around the country on what the future of public media can be.

Current:  You’re leaving GBH, but not planning to retire. What’s next?

Abbott: On December 15 I get in a car with my brother and drive to Los Angeles. My wife and I are excited about rebooting and trying to figure out what life is for both of us going forward. We’ve lived in four cities and came to a decision to try a new one. Going to L.A. is like travel. I figured it’s so interesting and big that I could probably be traveling there for 15 years.

I don’t know what I’m going to do next.  Like I said, I’m a builder. I’m going to take a sabbatical for three months or so, just read, recuperate and get my thoughts together about what I can do, hopefully talk to a lot of interesting people. I hope that there’s something in my future that will get me as excited and inspired as my work in public media. I’m hoping to reboot sometime in 2023.

I’ve loved the work I’ve done alongside people who I’ve loved and who have inspired me. If I find something that I can throw in and help somebody do something that makes a difference, I’m excited to do it.

One thought on “At a fork in his career path, GBH’s Jon Abbott reflects on how pubmedia can evolve and innovate

  1. Jon, congratulations on an amazing career and a huge thanks for the opportunity you gave me back in 2009.
    Also, as a person no longer “doing” what I used to do, my advice is simple: don’t be in too much of a hurry to “do something” ever again. There is so much of life to explore and experience……. and the best part about doing so is there is never a start date, never an end date and it never requires a white board. Enjoy.

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