Monday, February 27, 2017

R.I.P.: Public Broadcasting Pioneer Ward B. Chamberlain Jr.

Ward B. Chamberlain Jr.
Ward B. Chamberlin Jr., who helped set up the public broadcasting in its infancy, personally led major stations in New York and Washington, and played a critical role in kick-starting the career of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, died Feb. 23 at a retirement community in Bedford, Mass.

He was 95, according to The Washington Post. The cause was complications from dementia.

An Ivy League-educated corporate lawyer, Chamberlin was in his late 40s when he swerved by chance into a career as a media executive. He had spent years as the right-hand man in executive suites to Frank Pace Jr., a former U.S. budget director, Army secretary and Democratic Party stalwart.

In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson named Pace board chairman of the nascent Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He knew nothing of the medium of television, so he tapped Mr. Chamberlin, who was also his squash and backgammon partner, to investigate.

Mr. Chamberlin spoke with a friend in the industry and reported back, according to a Princeton alumni publication, “Frank, you’d better take this job or we’re not going to be friends. This is going to be a lot of fun.”

It was also a lot of work, but over the next several years, Chamberlin was given free rein to take an enormous and ill-defined mandate and shape it into a concrete reality. As Pace’s deputy, he had the authority and the organizational skills to arrange the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s budgetary, personnel and programming distribution structure.

Over the next several years, he served as executive vice president of public broadcasting’s WNET in New York and senior vice president of the Public Broadcasting Service. In 1975, he became president and chief executive of WETA, the struggling Washington-area public radio and television station.

Over the next 14 years, Chamberlin made WETA the third-largest producer of original shows for PBS, behind WNET and WGBH in Boston. Its operating budget rose to $28 million from about $6 million during his tenure. (WETA is now the No. 2 producer, after WGBH, and its budget is $96 million.)

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