KERA CEO Gary Ferrell on local newscasts: "They have almost no news analysis."
KERA CEO Gary Ferrell on local newscasts: "They have almost no news analysis."

Broadcast News

In January, Public Broadcasting Service President Pat Mitchell bemoaned the decreased financial support PBS was battling in the wake of September 11. "Corporate philanthropy has all but disappeared," she said. "We don't know, long-term, how any of this is going to impact us, but we're feeling some of it right now."

Consider the impact severe, especially in Dallas-Fort Worth. On June 13, KERA, the public broadcasting organization for local radio (90.1 FM) and television (Channel 2 and Channel 13), cut 24 percent of its staff positions across the company. After months of encouraging staff to turn out the lights and ordering a ban on office supplies, the station realized it could not nickel-and-dime itself back to its traditional strong economic position. The layoffs saved the station $1.3 million.

It not only weakened a local-content staff already spread thin, but, as longtime KERA radio and TV reporter Bill Zeeble says, "It devastated morale. It was a shock. It's still shocking."

So at last week's annual PBS station meeting in San Francisco, when Mitchell said "it is imperative that we sharpen our focus, emphasize our originality and state our distinctive attributes more boldly," KERA execs and staff could be excused if they thought she was talking directly to them. Because as the recent layoffs show, the traditional struggles of a public broadcast entity--particularly making its product relevant in a media world saturated with PBS niche competitors like the Discovery Channel and Nickelodeon--are not the only hurdles facing KERA. Management and staff say they must find a way to grow its news operations if it is to compete against local and statewide media--a move all agree is necessary to make the station more vital to viewers. It does so even as some KERA staffers wonder aloud if the bean-counters should have better prepared the company for its money woes after September 11.

"What Pat Mitchell is saying," says KERA Chief Executive Officer Gary Ferrell, "is that we need to communicate the value of what we do more forcefully. That is the way we remain relevant...As for funding, well, our funding always rises and falls with the market. We just have to ride it out."

Ferrell and other managers say the way in which they must prepare for calmer economic seas begins with a simple plan: Stick with the company's mission. That includes trying to find funding for the Holy Grail of local content for KERA: a nightly news show. Despite the layoffs and the poor short-term economic forecast, KERA continues to see such a program as a necessary next step if it is to develop something more than an occasional habit among news consumers.

So Ferrell and other execs take exception to the notion, expressed by more than one staffer after the layoffs, that because the news-affairs show On the Record lost two of its four full-timers KERA is backing away from its local news mission. They questioned whether the station was more interested in partnering with independent producers to make documentaries and news specials--there are at least a dozen in the works at KERA--than further establishing itself as a news source.

"It just seems to me," says one staffer, "that the TV side of KERA has chosen to become a production company, and I don't know how you distinguish yourself as a PBS station unless you do local content."

"We haven't given up on local content at all," Ferrell says. "Local news and analysis is incredibly important to what we do. We will build our local content."

"Look, we all struggle with the question, 'How do we remain relevant,'" says Sharon Philippart, KERA vice president of communication and brand management. "It's a tough question. But Gary certainly wants us to do local content; he believes that is the key to what makes us relevant."

Reporter Zeeble is someone with the tenure and temperament to speak his mind. (He fooled me when he returned a phone call and began speaking in hushed tones, saying the company "didn't want him to talk, and that he could give the Dallas Observer good dirt on deep background." He then laughed at my naïveté, saying, of course, he could talk freely.) But Zeeble echoes management's insistence that the layoffs will not halt KERA's news-gathering focus.

"I don't know that anything has changed in our mission, despite the layoffs," he says. "Except for when we pitch for money--which we all hate to do--we really are driven by programming and content, not by worrying about selling the demographics or size of our audience to advertisers or underwriters. And I see no indication that our programming will change to be driven to a certain demographic, despite the money crunch."

Indeed, Ferrell says he still talks to his informal nightly newscast "steering committee"--which includes D magazine Publisher Wick Allison and former WFAA-TV Channel 8 news director Marty Haag--in hopes of being ready to launch such a program should the funding present itself next fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30.

Part of the problem with making a commitment to serious news and analysis, whether it be On the Record, radio contributions to Morning Edition or documentaries, is that corporate funding dollars often come out of the companies' advertising budgets, and it's often tough to loosen the corporate purse strings when the subject matter is sober. No matter that public broadcasting doesn't take advertising per se: Even philanthropic organizations like to hear that a program appeals to everyone's favorite target demographic, 18-to-34-year olds--a demographic that the commercial media chase with the hunger of a starving rat.

Sylvia Komatsu, senior vice president of content, notes that they worked for five years to fund a documentary on the U.S.-Mexican War. Ultimately, none of the money raised came from U.S. corporations. On July 10, the station airs the documentary Larry v. Lockney, a fascinating look at Larry Tannahill, the West Texan who defied the Lockney school system's demand that public school students be drug-tested. The funds for the show, produced with local documentarian Mark Birnbaum, came from the Independent Television Service.

"It's not easy," Komatsu says. "Funding is the hardest thing we have to do. It's the challenge all nonprofits are facing. But we just focus on our mission, making great programs, and carry on."

Zeeble says there has been some understandable concerns from staffers who wonder if management spent and saved wisely before the layoffs. For example: One producer notes that the station spent hundreds of thousands last year on coming up with a new "brand" for the station. Philippart says this was necessary because surveys showed the station's look was out of date and its audience wasn't receiving one clear message about what KERA could deliver to them. In fact, she said, many didn't even realize that 90.1 FM and the two TV stations were part of the same company.

Zeeble says despite these worries, the staff for the most part is--while hurt by the layoffs--ready to increase its news presence in the market. "If you cut off a toe, it hurts," he says. "But you can still walk. We're moving forward."


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