Fine-tuning

KERA's president has brought credibility back to local public broadcasting, but she's quitting her job anyway

People keep coming in here to say good-bye," says Cheryl Craigie, the president and CEO of KERA public television and radio stations who announced her resignation earlier this month. "But for me, it's business as usual."

Although Craigie has told her staff that she is quitting, the 43-year-old public television executive intends to remain in charge until board members of North Texas Public Broadcasting, Inc., the station's parent company, select her successor, a process that may take months.

Craigie says she is leaving her job so she can pursue full time her long-held ambition to write, but the KERA president's resignation has left both staff members and KERA listeners and viewers puzzled.

Cheryl Craigie is leaving her lucrative position as president and CEO of KERA to pursue a career as a writer.
Mark Graham
Cheryl Craigie is leaving her lucrative position as president and CEO of KERA to pursue a career as a writer.

That's because it was only two and a half years ago that Craigie left an ABC affiliate in Dayton, Ohio, to assume the post at the public broadcasting station in Dallas at the handsome salary of $220,000 a year. Craigie replaced Richard Meyer, who had led the station for more than a decade but had come under fire at the end of his tenure for a dearth of local programming.

In her short stint, Craigie had started to turn that trend around. During her reign, she restarted a weekly TV news analysis show known as On the Record, launched a weekly radio cultural show, Deep in the Arts, produced two full seasons of a new TV cooking show called New Tastes from Texas, featuring local culinary icon Stephan Pyles. The station also completed the Emmy award-winning documentary The U.S.-Mexican War, and, most recently, began a multiyear initiative referred to as "First Impressions," which will eventually lead to programming as well as community outreach programs statewide focusing on infant brain development.

"For [Meyer] local programming wasn't important. He could run Sesame Street and BBC programming all day long for all he cared. Since Craigie has come, they have done a lot more local programming," says Bart Weiss, an independent filmmaker who serves as the director of the Dallas Video Festival and produces a weekly KERA show called Frame of Mind, featuring local filmmakers.

If Craigie had any shortcomings, it was in the area of fund-raising, the lifeblood of public broadcasting. With her interests bent more toward the creative, pledge drives and corporate schmoozing had to be some of the less appealing aspects of her job. And in a time of dwindling federal support for the arts and substantial capital improvement needs at her station, Craigie's energies should certainly have been refocused in the money-getting direction. She had even been outpaced by her predecessor in her fund-raising efforts.

During Meyer's years KERA's revenues -- money collected from individual and corporate donors -- climbed by more than $2 million annually. In Craigie's two and a half years, revenues have climbed at most by $1 million.

Meanwhile, Craigie has spent as much as or more than Meyer did on production. Her projected expenses for the fiscal year 2000 are $17 million (projected revenue is also $17 million). In his last year at the station, Meyer spent only $13 million.

Richard Rogers, the chairman of the board for North Texas Public Broadcasting, Inc., KERA's parent company, insists that finances played no part in Craigie's departure. "It has nothing to do with her decision." Her reasons for leaving, stresses both Rogers and Craigie, are linked to personal ambition rather than any event at the station.

"I started writing when I was 3 years old," Craigie says. Yet rather than pursue a writing career, she entered broadcast management. Before joining KERA, she served in management posts at Hearst Broadcasting in Dayton, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City. She also worked at a Fox-owned and -operated station in Chicago.

Now Craigie wants to devote herself full time to writing non-fiction. She plans to produce a series of magazine articles and eventually a book on infant brain development, synthesizing what is known by experts in the field with material the layman can understand.

"I want to be a doer," she says, and is seeking "uninterrupted large blocks of time." Craigie says, "I found that I can't multi-task."

Her commitment to KERA required only that she give them "adequate notice" about any departure plans. Rogers says Craigie started discussing her desire to leave -- a prospect that he said brought tears to his eyes -- about two and a half months ago. The board chairman asked her to consider the decision carefully. "I told her to take her time," says Rogers, "because this is not something you can go back on." Craigie explains that she works at two speeds, "150 percent and full stop." She does not believe that she can fit her writing ambitions into the same schedule with her KERA job.

The board has established a search committee to replace Craigie, whom, Rogers says, "some of the board members want to clone." The board has hired the consulting firm of Spencer Stuart, the same Stamford, Connecticut-based firm that found Craigie in 1997, to help select prospective candidates for the opening. Rogers says they are looking for someone with strong fund-raising skills to help lead a planned three-year effort to raise $15 million to pay for the stations' switch to digital technology.

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