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March 2001

WNED's Don Boswell - Living his Dream


by Joseph RADDER

When Don Boswell came to Buffalo to serve as President & CEO of the Western New York Public Broadcasting Association, it was the realization of a dream that he has held since childhood.  "This is what I always wanted to do.  I fell most fortunate to be able to do what I love in a city that is so warm and welcoming."

While most kids want to be firemen and policemen, Don Boswell wanted to be a public broadcaster.  His interest in public broadcasting was fueled by his parents.   When Don's friends were watching Pittsburgh Steelers on TV, Don was watching public television.  "I had no choice," he said.  "My father believed that public television was a window to the world so he fixed the channel selector of the family TV so it could not be moved off the local PBS station."

Born on May 20, 1951, Don's parents taught him early on that knowledge of literature, arts, culture and history would serve him well in the future.  They took many family field trips to museums, lectures and book readings.  In fact, it was at one of these events that Don fell in love with the work of his namesake, Scottish writer James Boswell.

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Don at five months old.

His exposure to PBS and the arts inspired Don to select public broadcasting as his career.  While still in high school, he wrote in his journal that his lifetime goal was to become President of a PBS station.  Don not only decided his career path at an early age, but he took steps to make it happen.  At 16, he took the bold step of approaching the President of Pittsburgh's PBS station, Don Tavner.  He found out where Tavner lived and took three different buses to arrive at the destination.   Surprisingly, Tavner was not annoyed by this uninvited guest.  Instead he listened patiently and with some amusement as young Boswell recited a litany of titles for all of the programs on Tavner's station.  To Don Boswell's delight, Tavner invited him to visit his office the following Monday.  The result was an internship at the station during which Don Tavner became Boswell's good friend and mentor throughout his education and early career.  "Don Tavner was one of the finest men I've ever known," says Boswell.  "His encouragement and advice were invaluable to me and helped frame the way that I approach my work and responsibilities."

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High school graduation picture.

Don attended Penn State University where he earned an Associate Degree in Communications in 1972, a Bachelors of Science in Community Development in 1975 and a Masters in Education in 1977.  He also received a Management Development certificate from the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious Wharton Business School in 1983.

His first job in broadcasting was at WVIA in Scranton-Wilkes Barre, where he was a producer, Director of Community Relations and a corporate underwriting specialist.   He then moved to Seattle where he became Vice President of Development at KCTS-TV.   In 1982, Don and his family moved to Dallas where, over a 14 year period, he held many positions of responsibility leading to the realization of his dream at the age of 45, when he was named Acting President of North Dallas Public Broadcasting, Inc.  Two years later he came to Buffalo as President & CEO of the Western New York Public Broadcasting Association, which operates WNED-TV, AM & FM.

When we asked Don about the most difficult job he ever had, he said, "One summer, while in college, I worked at the Certain-Teed fiberglass plant in Wilkes Barre, PA.   You had to be fully clothed, even in the hottest weather, to protect yourself from the sharp fiberglass particles.  Even then, some would get into your skin.  This really made me appreciate how hard people work to provide for their families and the sacrifices that my parents made to send me to college."

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The day Don married his best friend, Marilyn - August 16, 1980

And the most interesting job?  "Definitely the one I have now," Boswell said.  "This is a very exciting time for Western New York in general and its public broadcasting stations in particular.  For example, we are producing a broadcast of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra that will air nationwide and let the world know that Buffalo is more than football and snow."  WNED also produces "Reading Rainbow" and "The Mark Russell Comedy Specials" which have been maintained on PBS for many years.  WNED has received many prestigious awards for these productions.

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Don and Marylin attending a masquerade party.

Don's love of public broadcasting, his education, experience and his vision are helping to shape WNED into a major community partner.  Perhaps it goes back to his father's belief that PBS is a window to the world, but Don sees the station as a communications link between the Buffalo-Niagara region and the world.  "The station has been known for quality programming.  That is and will always be the mainstay of our existence.  But now, with the expanded reach of the station through new digital technology and a facility that can mount first quality productions, we can produce and air broadcasts that promote and advance our region, while bringing the best quality entertainment to local audiences," says Boswell.

The station also wants to take a leadership role in bringing local initiatives to the forefront by offering the community an opportunity to hear an unbiased presentation of the issues.  One of the three New York State Senate election debates, moderated by Tim Russert, was held in the WNED-TV studios.  The station also hosted public discussions about the Peace Bridge and provides a forum for airing other local initiatives.  The station has the opportunity to bring key issues right into people's homes so that they can make informed decisions about that which affects their lives and community.  "I feel that the station has a great responsibility as well as an opportunity to create and foster a 'sense of community' within the region.  Through education about the issues, we can break down barriers and help people work together for the common good of the community," says Boswell.

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The Boswell's daughter Coral, at age 15.

The facility also allows WNED to make many contributions to the community beyond broadcasting.  "Many people forget that the 'E' in WNED originally stood for education," says Boswell.  In a partnership with Buffalo Public Schools, the entire fourth floor of WNED's building is becoming a high-tech teaching facility to provide education for teachers on the optimal use of computers and new technologies in the classroom.  WNED also operates an educational outreach program where people of all ages can attain their GED (Graduate Education Diploma).  When one woman who was over 83 years old entered the program, she wanted to know how long it would take.  "I don't want to finish my degree in heaven," she quipped.  WNED has developed a "Ready to Learn" program for pre-school age children to help them gain the skills they will need to learn in school.  WNED, in partnership with the Center for Hospice and Palliative Care, is also undertaking a yearlong education and outreach initiative about health care decision-making at the end of life.

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Dinner with Julia Child, 1998.

WNED's radio facilities are also impressive.  The FM station has one of the nation's largest collections of classical recordings, and a very knowledgeable and talented staff.  WNED-AM is a news and information station.  Here too, Don Boswell is very proud of his people.  On the day of our visit, They were busy monitoring several sources, awaiting the Supreme Court's decision on the presidential election.

One of the first decisions he made after coming to Buffalo was to recognize Toronto as part of WNED's identity, such as incorporating both Buffalo and Toronto as part of WNED's trademark.  "It surprises many people that 58% of our membership is Canadian."  In the latest audience ratings, WNED-TV ranked fourth in the nation among PBS stations during prime time hours, eighth over a 24-hour period.  Boswell credits a lot of this success to Director of Programming Ron Santora who has been responsible for obtaining such popular programs as "Ballykissangel" and "As Time Goes By."  In fact, Boswell credits his staff for many of the accomplishments of the station.  "I am blessed with a team who is not only talented, but passionate about what they do.  They go above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that quality is always the standard at WNED."

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Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Mark Russell program with - left to right - Marilyn Boswell, Don Boswell, Ali Russell and Mark Russell

While many stations are struggling with buildings that do not support new technologies, WNED is fortunate to have one of the most sophisticated facilities that can support new digital technology and expanded production capabilities.  In May 2003 when public broadcasting stations across the nation are mandated to convert to new digital broadcast technology, WNED will be ready to accommodate that transition.  "The combination of our state-of-the-art facility plus digital capability will provide unprecedented opportunities for broadcast, production, education and outreach efforts," adds Boswell.

We asked Boswell about what he likes best about Western New York.  He was quick to answer.  "It is definitely the people.  I have lived and worked in several cities, large and small, and I find that people here are special.  They are generous and kind and care about others.  There is a feeling of community here that you do not find in other areas.  It is refreshing."

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Bill Moyers visits WNED.

Don Boswell sees great potential for the region and wants WNED to be a key participant in shaping that future.  "We can use the station, our production capabilities and our international reach to bring our assets to the attention of the public.  We can help develop community pride in all that we have here, and help people to see all that we can be."  One effort that will bring attention to the region every year will be the WNED Buffalo Niagara Guitar Festival that will debut June 14-17, 2001.   "The concert at HSBC Arena this year, featuring Eric Clapton, will be the highlight of the event in 2001.  But there is so much more," says Boswell.   "The station will also host activities that allow local organizations and people to hear and work with these talented artists and foster a greater appreciation of music and the arts.  We want to bring these resources and opportunities to our region."

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Special public television benefit production of "Lord of the Dance" with Michael Flatley in Dallas, Texas.

Boswell takes his responsibility for the advancement of the region to a personal level.   He serves on the Board of HSBC, the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership, the Martin House Restoration Corporation, the Buffalo Science Museum, Medaille College, Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre, the Workforce Investment Board and on the City of Buffalo Telecommunications Advisory Committee.  Don has quickly taken his place as a leader in Buffalo's business and cultural community.

Western New York is fortunate to have Don Boswell's leadership and vision.   However, he does not take credit easily.  "I have many people to thank for the opportunities I have been given throughout my life," says Boswell.   "Now, I can give back to others.  Through public broadcasting, I can help others experience the world around them in a different way and help them see the opportunities that come from education and an appreciation for arts, history and culture."

With Don Boswell's passion and leadership, the future has never looked brighter for WNED.  And through his vision, we all will benefit.


Joseph Radder is a freelance writer.


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