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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: William Baker

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-02-01

William Baker's infatuation with television was sparked as a child while riding a little red wagon that his mother Rita piloted in Cleveland. Images of the flickering TV screens in windows of shops they passed were forever imprinted on his mind.

His determination to pursue radio was triggered when he spotted a vacuum cleaner in his parents' lower middle-class home. He seized its handle on impulse, and his imagination transformed it into a radio microphone.

And his career as a coach began in a basement in the Buckeye State when he was still in his teens. That's when he formed his first broadcasting company with friends.

As president of America's biggest and most watched public broadcasting station, Channel Thirteen/WNET, Mr. Baker's infatuation with television is entirely understandable. As a man who produced award-winning radio programs, his make-believe turn with a make-believe radio microphone is also understandable.

But coaching?

"Coaching is my management style," Mr. Baker said yesterday. "It's always been that, ever since my early jobs in radio and television when I was a still a student in Ohio. I've learned over a lifetime that you can get much more performance and productivity out of people when you are nice to them, when you support them and not shout at them.

"I've had some very difficult bosses during my career," Mr. Baker said. "I know how bad it is to work with a boss who creates fear, not a spirit of cooperation and cordiality. I've never wanted that kind of environment. I prefer to set goals, and ask my colleagues to reach targets. I recognize their contributions, and I share credit. I manage with kindness." (He's currently writing a book, "Managing with Kindness.")

Mr. Baker manages a staff of 500, raises and oversees an annual budget of $180 million along with his 48-member board. He is one of Thirteen's most visible faces on account of his frequent on-air appearances to invite support from viewers. Those invitations have resulted in 350,000 members - the largest membership roster of a publicly funded organization in the country.
"I'm the coach of this enterprise," he said.

It's an enterprise that is lauded for its innovative programming, and is also sometimes criticized for the content by those who judge it by ideological criteria. It's an enterprise that leads Mr. Baker to constantly fret about implementing his - and his board's - vision.

"That vision isn't one of pursuing the truth so much as it is of truthfulness in all our programs," he said. "What I focus on is honesty and integrity. We produce programs that do not have an agenda."

Thirteen produces 600 hours of national programming for itself and the 349 other stations that form the Public Broadcasting Service. Nearly 50% of Thirteen's programs - which are aired for 166 hours each week - are targeted toward children, and the rest concern public affairs, nature and science, and performances of ballet, Broadway, jazz, opera and symphony music.

"We are the only serious performance producers in the country," Mr. Baker said. "Doing music puts us close to the Creator of the cosmos."

His entry into the cosmos of public television wasn't planned, nor was it anticipated.

Mr. Baker spent 12 years at Case Western University acquiring his bachelor's and master's degrees, and a Ph.D. in organizational psychology and communications. He paid for his entire education through broadcast earnings or scholarships.

He still remembers the time that he was pounding on his typewriter to churn out a 1,000-page thesis. One of his infant daughters, Christiane, was pounding away at her typewriter too - but hers was a toy one, and she was imitating her father.

Christiane and her sister Angela were born relatively early in Mr. Baker's marriage to a psychiatric nurse practitioner, Jeannemarie Gelin.

And while the Bakers were raising their family, Mr. Baker held a variety of programming and general-management positions in radio and television in Cleveland, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and New York. He advanced rapidly in those jobs, not the least because he'd had a unique background.

"By the time I finished my doctoral thesis, I was already a veteran of broadcasting," Mr. Baker said.

He had been working in radio or television since his teens. At one station, he was the jockey for classical music, even though his knowledge of that genre was, well, not sturdy.

How did he pack studying and working into what is still a 24-hour day?

"I'm very organized," Mr. Baker said. "I have focus and determination. I don't waste any motion. I learned all this from my mother. When my father [also William] lost his factory job, she applied for a job at an office, and within one week had mastered the comptometer, the complex adding machine they used in those days. She was a driven woman. I inherited her qualities."

His mother died last year, but she lived long enough to see one son, Larry, become an acclaimed videographer, and Mr. Baker become president of Thirteen in 1987.

The man who hired him for Thirteen was Frank Stanton, the eminence grise of CBS, and one of Mr. Baker's heroes (Mr. Stanton makes an appearance in Mr. Baker's doctoral dissertation.)

"I received a call one afternoon from one of my heroes, Frank Stanton," Mr. Baker said.

At this point, Mr. Baker was serving as chairman of Group W Satellite Communications, a post he gained after being president of Westinghouse Television, Inc. During his 10 years at Westinghouse, five cable networks were launched, including Discovery Channel and the Disney Channel. He introduced Oprah Winfrey as a talk-show host in Baltimore.

"The rest, as they say, is history," Mr. Baker said.

The man who called him, Mr. Stanton, had been part of another sort of history. Along with William Paley, he helped create and sustain CBS, often known by its moniker, "The Tiffany Network."

"I want to talk to you about the most important job in television," Mr. Stanton said to Mr. Baker, who agreed to meet him the next morning at the Harvard Club.

"I honestly thought that I was going to be offered the job of CBS president," Mr. Baker recalled yesterday.

Instead, Mr. Stanton, in his capacity as chairman of a search committee for Thirteen, offered him the job of Thirteen's president.

Mr. Baker was shocked. He'd been at the top of his game in commercial broadcasting. He knew that if he accepted Mr. Stanton's offer, he would need to take an 80% cut in salary, at the very least.

"It's the best job in television - you should take it, Bill," Mr. Stanton said.

Mr. Baker said he'd think about it overnight. That evening, after he'd told his wife about the Thirteen offer, she said: "Bill, you'd be crazy not to take it."

So the next morning Mr. Baker called Mr. Stanton to convey his acceptance.

"I soon discovered that this wasn't simply a job - it was a religion, a whole value system," Mr. Baker said. "How was success to be measured? In the private sector, your bottom line showed your success. But in public broadcasting? I learned that in a business this powerful, to aim only for the bottom line is to aim too low."

He also learned how seriously Thirteen's constituents took its programming.

On his very first day on the job, Mr. Baker was riding an elevator when a woman passenger asked if he was the new president.

"Yes," Mr. Baker said. "Indeed I am."

"Well, I'm a viewer, a longtime viewer, and I'm also a volunteer for Thirteen," the woman said.

Then she stared at him and said: "Don't screw it up."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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