Veteran news executive Margaret Low will be the next chief executive and general manager of WBUR, leading one of the nation’s preeminent public media outlets amid a series of shakeups.
Low, 61, joins WBUR from The Atlantic, where for the past five years she has served as senior vice president and head of the magazine’s live events division. WBUR opened its own event hall, CitySpace, earlier this year.
Low previously spent more than three decades at NPR, rising from overnight production assistant to senior vice president for news, the network’s top editorial position.
In an interview, she described her new post at WBUR as “the job of jobs.”
"I love the power and intimacy of audio, and WBUR is a jewel in the public radio crown," Low said. "This station, and all of you, have so much going for you: a deep reporting bench, strong local and regional coverage, an utterly devoted local audience, not to mention millions of listeners across the country to your national shows."
WBUR’s interim general manager, Sam Fleming, helped conduct the search for a new station chief and called Low a “perfect” fit.
“She has incredible depth of experience in understanding the editorial ecosystem that we work in here and at NPR,” Fleming said. “She’s also now been in the outside business world for five years, so she actually understands how that works and hasn’t been in the bubble that is public radio her entire career.”
Fleming added that Low is “delightful to work with.” Fleming will return to his job as WBUR’s managing director of news and programming when Low starts as CEO and general manager Jan. 13.
The CEO label is new to the top post at the station. WBUR Board of Directors Chair Paul Gannon said he has “always felt like it's the proper title and, interestingly, it was important to her, as well.”
“I think it's important in the marketplace, outside the [public radio] ecosystem, when she's meeting new people to just be very clear that she is the responsible person at the top of this organization,” Gannon said.
Low takes over a larger and more influential organization than the one her predecessor, Charlie Kravetz, inherited in 2010. Since then, WBUR has roughly doubled its revenue and physical space, added dozens of staffers to a current 225, established itself as a leader in podcasting, and grown the locally produced Here & Now program into NPR’s national midday show. Low’s tenure as head of news at NPR coincided with the Here & Now partnership.
Kravetz’s exit in March was one of several major changes at the station in recent years. It followed closely after reporters, producers, editors and hosts voted to form a union. Some at the station viewed the labor action as an indictment of Kravetz’s leadership, though Boston University, which owns WBUR’s broadcast license, said the vote was not the cause of Kravetz’s departure.
The union and the university are negotiating a contract. Low said she is unsure what her role in the talks will be. She noted that she was a union member at NPR before becoming a manager.
"I hope she has an appreciation, as many current and former NPR employees do, of what [unions] can accomplish, in terms of fairness, protecting jobs, rewarding experience, as well as protecting the youngest, often most junior, employees in a bargaining unit," said WBUR education reporter Max Larkin, a steward of the new union at the station.
"We are excited to have someone with all this wonderful experience and [are] just really optimistic about working with her," Larkin added.
By unionizing, some WBUR journalists hope to remedy workplace problems exposed by the firing of Tom Ashbrook, who hosted On Point for 16 years and was one of the biggest stars in public radio. WBUR and the university placed Ashbrook on leave in December 2017, when 11 current and former station employees accused him of bullying and sexual misconduct that spanned a decade. WBUR dismissed him two months later, as additional employees came forward with complaints.
Outside investigators said Ashbrook had “created an abusive work environment” but concluded that his behavior “was not sexual in nature.”
During part of Ashbrook’s tenure, Low was NPR’s vice president for programming, a role that included oversight of national shows. She said she learned of complaints about Ashbrook when they were reported in the press.
“I only knew Tom for his presence on the air,” Low said, noting that she left the programming job long before accusations against Ashbrook became public. “We didn’t have an intimate relationship and obviously what unfolded later, became apparent later, was news to me. I followed it, of course. Read the report, of course. But I wasn’t deep enough in the detail to be able to make any meaningful remarks about Tom.”
Asked if she should have known more, Low said she “oversaw many, many shows. It wasn’t my role.”
Low plans to meet the WBUR staff Tuesday. Among the things she plans to address is workplace culture, and her mission to “move together” as a station.
“No one person can change a culture. All these things are team sports,” Low said. “I’m a big collaborative worker. I think that a healthy culture — I liken it to a healthy body or a healthy and cherished relationship. You have to nurture it at every turn. You can’t run one marathon and be done. You have to tend to it every single day.”
Low grew up in Belmont and called her new job at WBUR a “homecoming.” She said Car Talk hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi were her father’s mechanics and said her parents “would be kvelling, to say the least, if they were still with us.”
WBUR’s Callum Borchers reported this story, and WBUR’s Benjamin Swasey and Dan Mauzy are the story editors. Under standard practices for reporting on WBUR, no other BU or WBUR staff were allowed to review the story before publication.
This article was originally published on November 25, 2019.