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Dis-Connection
Dick Gordon speaks out about his surprise firing from WBUR
BY MARK JURKOWITZ

It was 7 am on a Friday in July ó only seven hours before he was to head off to vacation in his native Canada ó when The Connection host Dick Gordon says he got a vaguely worrying e-mail from WBUR interim general manager Peter Fiedler asking that they meet.

Five hours later, after finishing the signature syndicated WBUR talk show he had hosted for nearly four years, Gordon met with Fiedler and was fired without even so much as a warning, he says.

"Peter Fiedler cleared his throat and then announced The Connection was being taken off the air," Gordon recalls. "I sat there for about 15 minutes while they thumbed through copies of resignation documents ... and then I left."

Currently relaxing with his family in a cottage on a small island in Ontarioís Georgian Bay, Gordon, 49, is still stunned by that rapid sequence of events. He describes his July 15 dismissal as "a bolt out of the blue" and a "cannon shot."

"Iím left wondering what possibly could have motivated them," he says of WBURís management.

FIRED ON A FRIDAY

Thereís at least circumstantial evidence that WBUR (and its owner, Boston University) wasnít looking to attract a lot of attention to the cancellation of The Connection, which is carried by 66 public radio stations and will go off the air following the August 5 broadcast. (Michael Goldfarb, the stationís London-based correspondent for the Inside Out documentary unit, was also quietly laid off that week.)

The press release went out on a Friday, and the news landed softly in the pages of summer Saturday papers. Mention of The Connectionís demise was buried in the press releaseís eighth paragraph; to the extent that there was any explanation for the move, it was in a paragraph that chalked up station changes to a desire for a significant decrease in on-air fundraising, an increase in the quality and depth of local news coverage, and an effort to manage finances aggressively.

In speaking to the media, WBUR spokesperson Nancy Sterling went further, stating that The Connectionís ratings had been "flat" for the past few years. Asked to comment for this story, Sterling says: "Weíve shared our reasons for canceling The Connection, both privately with Dick and publicly through a letter to the listeners and through the media. And we wish him well."

Station officials declined to provide evidence to support the claim that Connection ratings had been flat and problematic.

WBUR may wish to keep its own counsel while negotiating the terms of the break-up. But Gordonís attorney, Elizabeth Rodgers, suggests that her client may be unhappy with the circumstances of his departure, particularly in light of an April 2004 letter to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services signed by then-WBUR general manager Jane Christo.

"By this letter, I wish to offer Mr. Gordon a permanent position at WBUR, National Public Radio, and to support his application for permanent residence as an alien of extraordinary ability in the field of journalism," Christo wrote.

"Dick Gordon relied on a promise of permanent employment and brought his family to Boston and brought the world to the kitchen table of 640,000 listeners," says Rodgers. "And that promise to be permanent host has been broken."

BAPTISM BY FIRE

It was just six days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in Washington and New York when Dick Gordon took the chair as host of The Connection.

A native of Port Hope, Ontario, Gordon was a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) veteran with reporting experience in many of the worldís hot spots, including Iraq, Moscow, Bosnia, and Israel. He had never even heard of The Connection until a former CBC colleague, NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin, told him WBUR was looking for a new host.

At that point, the station was in full crisis mode. In March 2001, after a bitter and public dispute over ownership of the show, WBUR severed its ties with the popular and cerebral Chris Lydon, who had hosted The Connection since its inception in 1994. What followed was a closely watched "bake-off," a series of on-air auditions to succeed Lydon, that was won by Gordon.

Although he had distinguished journalistic credentials, few expected the more low-key Gordon to replicate Lydonís radio style or formula. As one public-radio program director put it at the time: "I think that Chris Lydon was a wild intellectual. I think Dick Gordon is a little more down-to-earth."

"I was never going to be Lydon. And I was only going to do myself damage by pretending to be Chris Lydon," says Gordon. "I donít think I quite knew how tightly wound together Chrisís name was with the program."

Still, if Gordon didnít generate a Lydon-esque buzz around the show, he was solid and knowledgeable. In her 2004 letter to the USCIS, Christo cited the Radio-Television News Directorsí awards and Associated Press honors Gordon had won for programs originating from Baghdad. "His on-air presence is exceptional and his journalistic analysis balanced, in-depth, uncompromised," she added in the letter.

In a Phoenix interview, Christo stands behind those sentiments.

"Iím very proud of the work that Dick Gordon and The Connection did, and Iím particularly proud how during the crisis of 9/11, they were able to use his experience as a foreign correspondent," she says. "I think Dick did a wonderful job, and Iíll miss him."

But last fall, the situation at WBUR changed dramatically. A fast-moving scandal that raised allegations of station mismanagement generated a BU investigation and caused long-time general manager Christo to resign. The school brought in one of its own ó Fiedler, who was an assistant vice-president at BU ó to serve as interim general manager and to stabilize the situation at the debt-ridden station. According to BU and WBUR officials, the station had racked up a $13 million operating deficit for fiscal years 2001 through 2004.

In March of this year, Grant Thornton, a consulting firm hired by BU, released a 73-page report calling for the station to streamline its management, establish greater transparency with donors, develop a clearer strategic mission, and forge closer ties to the university.

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Issue Date: August 5 - 12, 2005
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