John Jay Iselin, 74

Originally published in Current, May 12, 2008

John Jay Iselin, who led New York’s WNET as it developed such major PBS series as Nature, Great Performances, Live from Lincoln Center, Bill Moyers’ Journal, The MacNeil/Lehrer Report and the news program's successor, the NewsHour, died of pneumonia May 6 [2008] at age 74.

He joined the station as g.m. in 1972, when James Day was president, and was promoted to president in 1973. He kept at it until 1986.

Iselin's team made audacious bets on successful documentary series such as The Brain, the expensive but award-winning historic drama The Adams Chronicles, and on the decision to back and import the British drama Brideshead Revisited.

The station bought the upper floors of an old hotel on West 57th Street, the Henry Hudson Hotel, to serve as its headquarters starting in 1982, though the partial remodeling left many employees with bathtubs convenient to their offices.

 In 1982, when the commercial networks backed away from thoughts to expand their evening newscasts to an hour, he backed PBS President Larry Grossman’s suggestion to do the same with the half-hour MacNeil/Lehrer,  then a coproduction with WETA. It relaunched as the NewsHour in 1983.

“Throughout his life, Jay cultivated the kind of cultural and humanistic vision upon which public television and all our society’s highest aspirations rest,” said WNET Chairman James Tisch and President Neal Shapiro in a statement.         

Robert Kotlowitz, his director of programming, observed to the New York Times that Iselin “had the ability to say yes,” though the station didn’t always have the money on hand.

Underwriting sales were strong, and Iselin said in a speech that public TV was “betting on corporations’ desire to participate in our glories.”

Like Hartford Gunn, the g.m. at WGBH years earlier, Iselin was known for dispensing a steady stream of short missives to colleagues — in Iselin's case. "Jaygrams" jotted with a felt-tip pen — for encouragement, congratulation and guidance, according to an affectionate farewell video produced for and about Iselin by his staff.

The Dial, a program guide for WNET and other major-market pubTV stations, never became the revenue generator he hoped; in seven years it lost millions for the station.

Iselin also said “yes” to taking on responsibility for Learning Link, an online educational service that preceded the invention of the Web, and for Current, still published by an affiliate of WNET.

Red ink led to repeated rounds of layoffs at the station in the 1980s, including one in 1986. Iselin announced his resignation four months later.

The former Newsweek reporter and Harper & Row executive went on to head Cooper Union, the free-tuition arts-architecture-engineering college in Manhattan, from 1988 to 2000.

Iselin is survived by his wife, Lea, five children, 13 grandchildren, two brothers and two sisters.

This article is expanded beyond the article published in the print edition.

Web page posted May 22, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC


Additional earlier articles and photos will be posted.


James Day, Iselin's predecessor at WNET, died shortly before he did in 2008.


New York Times obituary, May 7, 2008.

Timeline of WNET's history, 1962-2002.

WNET's documentary-style video farewell to Iselin, The Iselin Years, narrated by Robert MacNeil, is posted on its website.The video includes, toward the end, a bouncy goodbye song featuring young Iselin lieutenants who later became chief execs of other organizations — Gary Knell (Sesame Workshop), George Miles (WQED) and Stephen Salyer (PRI).

For Iselin's work with British broadcasters, Queen Elizabeth II made him an honorary Commander of the British Empire in June 2004. Iselin had been a Marshall Scholar at Cambridge University.

In 2000, after leaving Cooper Union, Iselin became president of the Marconi Society (previously the Marconi International Fellowship Foundation), an arm of Columbia University that honors leaders in telecommunications.



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