Mary V. Ahern Dies: Pioneering ‘Omnibus’ Producer, First Paley Center Curator Was 98

Mary V. Ahern Dies: Pioneering ‘Omnibus’ Producer, First Paley Center Curator Was 98

05/20/2021

Mary V. Ahern, a television editor, producer and writer during the medium’s Golden Age whose work on the live cultural magazine series Omnibus helped establish the Alistair Cooke-hosted show as a landmark program, died of cancer May 1 at a care center in Peabody, Mass. She was 98.

Her death was announced by niece Joan Curry to The New York Times.

In addition to her work to create early television content, Ahern later became an important preservationist of such programming: In 1976, she was named the first curator of what would come to be known as the Paley Center for Media. Known at the time as the Museum of Broadcasting, the center – and Ahern – was crucial in rescuing long-forgotten bits of TV and radio history.

Ahern would go on to perform similar work at the Library of Congress from 1986 to 1989.

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ahern later studied anthropology and literature at Radcliffe College, then joined the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service during World War II. A New York Times article from 1959 described Ahern as having supervised “the inspection of gas masks and was assigned to the procurement of flame throwers and other deadly weapons.”

After the war, while studying at the Harvard Business School, Ahern received an internship in the public affairs department at the then-new American Broadcasting Company. Early in her career, she began collaborating with radio producer Robert Saudek, who would pivot to the new medium of television, producing Omnibus for CBS’ Sunday afternoon line-up starting in 1952. (The celebrated series, which included both fiction and nonfiction segments, would move to ABC and NBC before ending in 1961.)

Ahern made the transition to TV with Saudek, and though credited as the series’ feature editor, her responsibilities were wide-ranging and included writing, researching, editing and producing. One of her most significant and impactful contributions to Omnibus and television as a whole was in recruiting conductor Leonard Bernstein to contribute to the series, introducing the maestro to America in the mid-1950s.

Ahern’s other TV credits included On Trial and United or Not in the late 1940s-early 1950s, the 1960s documentary series Profiles in Courage and Bernstein’s Norton Lectures for PBS in the 1970s.

In a 2017 interview with the Television Academy Foundation, Ahern spoke about broadcasting’s history and its present. “Broadcasting brought people together,” she said. “There’s not that kind of unity in the country now, and they’ve dropped down to a third of what their audience was. Thank heavens for Public Broadcasting. If Newton Minow saw the ‘vast wasteland’ today, he wouldn’t have words to describe it.”

Ahern is survived by nieces Joan Curry, Mary H. Ahern and Sharon A. Ahern.

In this segment of the 2017 interview, Ahern reflects on how she’d like to be remembered:

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