Beggars banquet

Cheryl Craigie, the president and chief executive of the KERA public television and radio stations, admits she just can't keep it straight.

"I always get it wrong," the 42-year-old executive says. "What is it we promise on air? More programming and less fundraising? Or more fundraising and less programming?"

Craigie, despite any memory lapses when she refers to the recent slogan used for a KERA 90.1 FM fund-raising campaign, has managed in her first 18 months on the job to accomplish what that slogan promised: Trim on-air begging while increasing the amount of money the stations collect.

Indeed, in her relatively short tenure at the local public broadcasting company, Craigie, who came from a commercial station in Dayton, Ohio, to KERA in January 1996, has managed to turn around several negative trends her predecessor had set in the previous decade. Not only has she reduced the amount of on-air fundraising, but she has also put the station back on the path of being a nationally recognized producer of public television programming.

Veterans of KERA such as Bob Ray Sanders, who spent two decades as an on-air personality and now writes a column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, express admiration for the changes Craigie has made since replacing former KERA President Richard Meyers.

''She came in when there was almost no programming and started things going. I have no complaints at all,'' says Sanders.

According to figures provided by KERA, public television station Channel 13 has conducted pledge drives for 37 days during the fiscal year that ended July 31. That means the station pleaded for money from viewers for about four fewer days than it had in the previous year, and five fewer days than it had in the fiscal year ending in July 31, 1996.

Similarly, at KERA radio, staff members have spent less time seeking greenbacks from listeners. KERA radio personalities took up 16 days of listeners' time begging for cash this past fiscal year, compared with 20 days in each of the two preceding years.

Although they spend less time on-air asking for dollars, the stations' donations have steadily climbed. The television station raised $6.3 million this fiscal year, roughly $600,000 more than the year before. The radio station raised $1.5 million for this fiscal year, about $300,000 more than in the previous year.

Craigie is happy to take credit for trying to reduce on-air pleading. But she warns that the radio station's on-air vow to cut back on begging blather was an experiment of sorts. "We adopted the policy on a one-time-only basis for radio," Craigie says. "I would not want you to think that is what we are going to do all the time.

"We understand that pledges are not our viewers' favorite things. It would be our hope and intent to keep them to a minimum."

Pledge drives are not the only things that Craigie has begun to reshape since arriving at KERA. She has also gotten a good start on an effort to return her station to its now-ancient roots as a major producer of public television programming.

Almost two decades ago--before Meyers, Craigie's immediate predecessor, took over--KERA was heralded nationally for its thoughtful, locally produced programs. Jim Lehrer, the producer of the NewsHour, got his start in TV in Dallas on KERA's acclaimed Newsroom broadcast. David Johnson, the Dallas stockbroker now featured nationally on the California-based public radio station program Marketplace, made his media mark as host of KERA's Business Edition. The Dallas station's Here's to Your Health broadcast appeared throughout the PBS system.

But under Meyers, who resigned two and a half years ago and now teaches at Ball State University in Indiana, the station lost its legacy. Meyers gutted the station's broadcast schedule, halting in his final year the only remaining regularly scheduled locally produced television programming at the time, Between the Lines.

Craigie contends that the station will return to its days of glory in terms of programming. But she does not plan to break the bank, producing expensive projects or those that are not completely underwritten, on her way there.

"I think we have picked up our production since I've been here," she says. "At the same time, I am interested in running a financially sound organization."

To her credit, Craigie has managed to start two regularly scheduled locally produced programs. In May 1997, KERA started broadcasting a news show called On the Record on Sunday mornings (as well as on Friday nights on its sister station, KDTN). The show's panelists, former White House aide Regina Montoya and political consultant Rob Allyn, have provided much needed commentary for recent issues that have rocked this city, such as the DISD fiascoes, the arena battle, and the Trinity River debate.

Craigie has also overseen the production of the series New Tastes From Texas, a cooking show featuring chef Stephan Pyles. During the 30-minute segments, which air Thursday nights and Saturday afternoons, the bearded Pyles brings in amateur cooks from across the country to learn how to cook all the corn-pudding tamales and red chile onion rings a viewer could eat. The show, picked up by 75 public television stations nationwide (including New York), has spawned a sequel, creatively named New Tastes From Texas Two.

The biggest event at KERA recently was a two-part documentary titled The U.S.-Mexican War 1846-1848, which aired nationally on public television stations. The project, produced by Sylvia Komatsu, the vice president for production at KERA, has been a long time in the making--seven years. It began before Craigie arrived at the station. But Craigie helped raise the funds needed as the demands for the documentary's final $2.3 million budget kept growing in the past two years.

In the development stage, KERA has other big documentaries planned, Craigie says. She's planning a documentary currently named First Impressions. It will cover recent scientific advances in understanding the development of infant brains. She's already lined up Jim Lehrer to host a national town hall in conjunction with the airing of the documentary and Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood) to work on the show.


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