KERA President Gary Ferrell
KERA President Gary Ferrell

The Missing People's Agenda

The Missing People's Agenda
Proving it really is a nonprofit, KERA slashes staff and programming

All things considered, these are not great days for North Texas Broadcasting Company Inc., the parent organization of KERA-FM (90.1) and KERA-Channel 13. For the third time in the last two years, substantial layoffs hit both the radio and television sides, with 13 people getting the ax last Thursday and five vacant positions being eliminated altogether. In addition, two weekly programs were canceled: KERA-TV's roundtable news show On the Record, hosted by Sam Baker, and KERA-FM's People's Agenda, hosted by Marla Crockett, whose show was just honored by the State Bar of Texas for journalistic excellence. Crockett will replace ousted reporter Maria Hickey as local host of All Things Considered. KERA officials say the cuts should save about $1.1 million annually in salary and employee benefits.

The firings and cancellations, referred to in a press release as a "strategic realignment," come a mere two months after Forbes reported that KERA President Gary Ferrell was among the highest-paid bosses in public broadcasting, pulling in $257,504 annually--a sizable chunk of the $10 million raised during the regular pledge drives. Though Ferrell vehemently disputes the Forbes item, insisting its $10 million figure did not take into account the additional $7 million NTBC receives through government grants and other revenue sources, there's no denying the layoffs reveal substantial fiscal problems at KERA, which has been losing millions for years--even forcing the sale of KDTN-Channel 2 in January to a Christian broadcaster for $19.5 million. That money was put into an investment fund that will pay for new locally produced programming in the future, says a station spokeswoman.

According to the corporation's tax records, NTBC took in about $16 million during the fiscal year that ended in June 2003 and spent about $18 million, and that deficit appears to have doubled the next year. "Revenue has been pretty flat over the last several years," Ferrell says. One reason was the drop in donations after September 11, 2001, prompting the first round of layoffs in June 2002. "And we've suffered from expense increases," including rising health-care costs, a conversion to digital broadcasting and pay raises.

Ferrell says the station's executives and its 58-member board began trying to deal with the problems last spring. "We knew we were going to have to make some adjustments to our expense structure pretty early," Ferrell says. "What we were trying to do is to evaluate the services and activities that we're involved in and which ones are valuable and which ones maybe need to go away."

To that end, in June, Ferrell laid off senior vice president and chief financial officer Samuel Cheng and vice president and chief technical officer Rick Owen and eliminated their positions. Yet, he says, the company also doled out 3 percent merit increases in June, at the end of the fiscal year. When asked why raises were given during yet another year of substantial losses, Ferrell says, "At the time we gave the increases, we weren't contemplating we were going to be laying off people." He insists the layoffs came about only after he and other executives realized that expenses were, again, going to far surpass revenue.

But how did it come as such a surprise? After all, KERA's been operating with a substantial deficit since 2002, according to tax records. And if KERA did in fact make as much money as it had anticipated at the beginning of the fiscal year, and if it did know how much it was going to spend on, among others, in-house and National Public Radio-provided programming, then why were raises given just months before firings occurred?

"Well, I don't know that I am going to be able to answer that in a way that's easy to understand," Ferrell says. "Public broadcasting is, like any other business, a difficult business. We had anticipated some revenue coming in...but our expenses at the end of the year came in quite a bit higher than we anticipated."

It's an explanation that doesn't sit well with some former employees, especially considering that of the 106 employees left at KERA, 12 have "president" or "vice president" somewhere in their titles and pick up collective salaries (including employee benefit contributions) of more than $1.3 million--or more than a tenth of the revenue collected during pledge drives.

"I think the general feeling from others I've talked to who got laid off this time around is disgust," says one KERA-TV employee laid off last week. "Management screwed things up: They spent money on the wrong things, kept high-dollar salaries I didn't even know about till recently, and they got rid of people who weren't making very much...The only people left have 'manager' in the titles. This idea that cutting off the bottom of the food chain isn't reorganization. You're just getting rid of the people who do the work."

KERA spokeswoman Sharon Philipart (who makes about $90,000 a year) says despite the cancellation of On the Record, Sam Baker will remain as the local voice of Morning Edition. Crockett was on vacation last week and didn't get to say farewell to the estimated 19,000 people who listened to People's Agenda and were greeted instead on Friday with a second hour of The Diane Rehm Show. There will be a few other scheduling changes, too: The BBC News Hour replaces The World at 2 p.m. weekdays; The Tavis Smiley Show replaces The World's 9 p.m. broadcast; and an hour rebroadcast of Glenn Mitchell's locally produced show replaces Smiley at 8 p.m. on weekdays. --Robert Wilonsky

The Turkey Test

"I'm running out of fliers in Spanish," Win Speicher said as she walked down Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff last Friday. "And I need some more condoms." Just then she saw a Hispanic woman walking in the opposite direction and stopped her as she said in Spanish, "We're offering HIV testing on November 12...and turkeys to people who return to get their test results."

Speicher is a case manager at AIDS Arms, the AIDS provider in Oak Cliff. She and several other workers from AIDS Arms repeated that message nearly 200 times in an hour and a half as they walked up and down Jefferson. Tacia Coker was one of those workers; earlier this fall, she concocted an idea that has now become known as Testing for Turkeys. The program attempts to ensure that HIV test takers who show up on the 12th will return on the 19th to get their results by giving them a voucher they can redeem for a turkey at a local grocery store. "The numbers here in Dallas are so low from people picking up their results that funding is being cut," Coker says. "We've got to get people to return to get their results."

Because getting HIV test takers to pick up their results has always been a problem, AIDS entities nationwide have long offered incentives. But giving away turkeys is something "I have never heard of," says Dr. Thomas Coates, a professor of infectious diseases at UCLA and the former director of the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies in San Francisco. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 25 percent of people who are living with HIV or AIDS don't know that they have the virus or the disease, and has consequently required AIDS organizations that receive federal money to sharply increase their HIV-testing return rates.

But no one has been able to tell AIDS organizations how to overcome the deeply intractable problems of human fear and laziness. "Once we test them and go over their risk factors, some of them don't want to know their result," says Jimmy Wigenton, the lead HIV counselor at Dallas' Mosaic Family Services. So they leave. And that's for the OraQuick test, which requires only a blood prick and a 30-minute wait. --Claiborne Smith

New Sheriff in Town

Two months before Election Day, Lupe Valdez, Democratic candidate for Dallas sheriff, was invited by outgoing Sheriff Jim Bowles to meet his staff. Asked by someone why she wanted the job, Valdez replied that she wanted to "shine up" the badge of an office tarnished by turmoil and charges of corruption. Says one longtime deputy: "She said, 'I'm not like anybody in here. I'm the element of change. I'm a lesbian.'"

After Valdez's upset win last week over Republican Danny Chandler--the veteran deputy supported by virtually all deputies--employees of the sheriff's department are bracing themselves for the unknown. "They knew the management style they'd get from Chandler," the deputy says. "They don't know what they'll get from a lesbian."

Deputies are trying to guess how her endorsement by the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund will affect policy in a law-enforcement agency that manages jails housing 7,000 inmates. The Victory Fund requires that candidates receiving its financial support be openly homosexual, publicly endorse gay civil rights and anti-discrimination legislation and "advocate aggressive public policies and positions" concerning gay and lesbian health.

"The first thing you would assume is that we will begin to hire openly gay deputy sheriffs," the deputy says. While there may already be gay deputies in the department, the anti-gay culture in law enforcement keeps them in the closet. "It's pretty hard for gays to get past our psychological tests," the deputy says. "You used to have to take a polygraph asking if you'd had homosexual relationships." (That question is no longer asked.)

Another big question: Will a lesbian sheriff want to change the inmate classification system? To limit sexual assaults, always a problem in jails, incoming prisoners are housed in cells based on their history and declared sexual orientation. Homosexual inmates aren't put in cells with straight inmates. State prisoners who are shipped here to testify aren't put in tanks with young first-time offenders arrested for shoplifting. Will Valdez declare the classification system discriminatory against gays and lesbians?

Then there's the question of how Valdez will work with the Dallas County Commissioners Court, which oversees the sheriff's budget; three of the four commissioners are conservative Republicans. With Bowles now taking credit for getting "Lupe the Lesbian" elected at the expense of his bitter rival Chandler, the county Republican Party is so mad at Bowles they can't see straight. Or gay. --Glenna Whitley


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