After a decade at WGBH, Phil Redo retires as general manager for radio and local news this month. During his last weeks on the job, two of the biggest stories of our lifetimes hit: COVID-19 and protests against racial inequity and police brutality. We asked him to reflect on his time at the helm, presiding over the growth of WGBH News 89.7, 99.5 WCRB Classical Radio Boston, and WCAI, WGBH’s Cape, Coast and Islands NPR Station.
What are the challenges of simultaneously covering two huge news stories?
Redo: A month ago, I would have said that COVID-19 is the biggest story of my life. And then all the demonstrations and protests that have radiated out of Minneapolis occurred. It is all unprecedented. Everyone in the newsroom has been so flexible as we address the layered storylines and adjust schedules. As our news staff covers the many local angles, precautions are being taken to protect reporters’ safety whenever on-location reporting is required, and most particularly when physical danger is a real possibility. Every effort is being made to talk through all the risks and realities before assigning stories.
What would you consider your legacy to be?
Redo: We added a substantial, trustworthy news organization to the ecosystem of Boston. We built it from literally nothing to a serious and sustainable journalistic enterprise. At a time when local journalism is shrinking, Boston can be proud that not only have we not shrunk, we’ve added dozens of new jobs for journalists.
How would you characterize your approach to leadership?
Redo: I allow my employees’ talents to emerge. I am drawn to people who are enthusiastic about their work. You need to be competent, but you can only build something if you have enthusiasm.
You once said the bedrock of good radio is authenticity and enthusiasm. How do you cultivate that?
Redo: I remember saying to each person I hired into the newsroom, “You are not being hired to fill a job. You are being hired to create a position.” And that’s a big difference. Everyone who joined the newsroom over the last ten years was brought in to teach us something that we didn’t know how to do.
WGBH News might once have been the journalism underdog in Boston, but it isn’t any more. What changed?
Redo: First, Jim Braude and Margery Egan put us on the map. But it really was the Boston Marathon bombing reporting that made us realize that we had the muscles, that we are pros at serious journalism. The other inflection point was the snowy winter of 2015, when the T shut down, and there was blizzard after blizzard. Our ratings started going up. That was a big sign that people were now turning to us when big things happened. But what we were then is not even close to what we are now.
Journalists are working in a politically charged atmosphere and in these times, most everyone has very strong opinions. How are newsrooms keeping their reporting unbiased?
Redo: It’s a real problem. Bias is a funny thing, because everyone who lives has a bias. You cannot not have bias. In fact, if you have no bias it probably means you’re not really involving yourself in the world. So bias isn’t the problem. The problem is, how do you create an environment in which your bias doesn’t appear in the work. Story by story, most stations do a good job. The thing to watch for is choice of stories. That’s why you need editors and reporters of different backgrounds.
Where is public media headed?
Redo: NPR and PBS cover so much across culture and entertainment, education, news and information. The world is going to have a tough time hearing all these voices unless they are very clear. We need to stay nimble and keep experimenting. [This American Life host] Ira Glass has said, “Whatever you do, no matter how innovative you think it is, it won’t break public radio. What’s the worst that can happen?” That’s the spirit I’ve worked to cultivate at WGBH News.
How will your successor take WGBH News to the next level?
Redo: The next innovation will be on the digital side. There’s lot of potential at the delta of video and digital. How do we marry WGBH’s production prowess to the digital audiences we’re rapidly growing? There’s also a lot of opportunity to grow our investigative unit. Over the long term, we can compete with The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team.
What’s the next chapter for you?
Redo: My wife and I bought a barn last year in Maine. My long-term goal is to refurbish it into a performance space. I’m an amateur musician, painter and writer, so I’m hoping to do more of those things. Also, for some 40 years as a journalist, I’ve had to remain neutral in terms of public policies. So, I’m actually looking forward to being able to share my thoughts and get involved.