Nashville’s public television station, WDCN-Channel 8, and its public radio station, WPLN-FM90, both enjoy their loyal followings. Their biggest fans praise both stations as outposts of information and sophisticated entertainment in a vast wasteland of commercial-interrupted television and advertiser-driven radio. Meanwhile, each station has its share of critics, many of whom argue that WDCN, which is operated by the Metro Board of Education, and WPLN, which operates under the aegis of the Public Library, are both unadventurous and lackluster in their programming. Both stations, skeptics say, are hamstrung by their connections to Metro government and its bureaucracy.
In coming months, however, both WPLN and WDCN will very likely be freed from their ties to Metro government. Each station faces a proposed restructuring that would transfer it from the control of Metro to the oversight of a not-for-profit board.
Each decision may be an inevitable response to a Congress determined to decimate governmental support for public broadcasting. Nevertheless, the end of Metro’s involvement in the broadcast business is not being greeted with relief on all sides. For decades, WDCN and WPLN may have seemed like vast, ungainly burdens that Metro could barely handle. Now some Metro Council members are not so certain they want to let the burden go.
Small screen, big deal
Public broadcasting began as “educational TV”grainy “Sunrise Semester” stuff featuring dowdy professors teaching spelling to homebound GED candidates. Now public television is a massive industry. PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting now routinely provide programming that ranges from the works of independent filmmakers to major science series. Public television may have its share of homegrown fishing shows, but it remains, even after the advent of cable television, a major source of documentaries, classical music and serious theater for the general TV audience.
Public TV stations, once the novel, low-budget experiments of school boards, have now developed into big-budget broadcasting behemoths, a few of which, like Nashville’s WDCN, still operate under school-board management. Public TV now serves as a nationwide forum for ideas and an access point for the fine arts. Meanwhile, the administration of a television station requires more than the cursory attention of a school board. And a school board, quite properly, has concerns other than securing funds for Masterpiece Theatre. A school board has to take care of fixing leaky roofs.
For Channel 8 this clash of priorities has been coming for more than a year. In December 1994, the Metro Board of Education’s Long Range Planning Committee prepared a detailed report on the state of affairs at WDCN. The report repeatedly emphasizes the tough job the school board has to do; it is also loaded with grateful acknowledgements of the station’s legacy. Nevertheless, such niceties only serve as a sugar-coating for the report’s basic assertion that WDCN will only survive if its license is transferred from the Metro Board of Education to an independent, “community-based, not-for-profit organization.”
The report details the difficulties that probably lie ahead for WDCN. Most of those problems relate to money. There is a critical need for capital improvements at the station’s studios on Rains Avenue, and the report anticipates a need for additional fund-raising staffers. The report also notes that WDCN is hampered by layers of bureaucracy that separate it from various funding sources, including grant-making foundations. Finally, the report admits, the station’s job is not made any easier by the fact that it must struggle for the attentions of an already busy school board.
In the wake of the 1994 report, BMR Associates of California was retained to conduct a complete study of the station’s operation. The BMR report, presented at a recent school board meeting, reaches the same conclusions as those reached by the in-house study. However, BMR’s 75-page study adds more detail, including a modest projected budget for the station, assuming that, by 1998, it will be receiving zero support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The report also suggests a skeletal procedural plan for the station’s transfer from Metro Government to the control of a community-based board. The study offers recommendations for using the “new” station as a public relations and marketing tool. The changeover, the consultants suggest, might offer the opportunity for a major fund-raising event.
A question of loyalties
Operating under the double aegis of the Library Board and the WPLN Educational Foundation, FM90 faces a similar predicament. For years, a polite feud has simmered between champions of the station’s status quo, who seem happy with its operations as a service of the Public Library, and critics who argue that the station should be independent. In mid-October both sides agreed to call a truce. Members of the Library Board and the Educational Foundation’s board of directors voted unanimously to pursue the establishment of an independent, not-for-profit association to administer the station.
Library Board Chairwoman Margaret Ann Robinson and Educational Foundation Chairman Bill King were involved in the negotiations. But many observers insist that WPLN’s new general manager, Rob Gordon, and the Public Library’s new executive director, Donna Mancini, deserve much of the credit for breaking the impasse. Gordon says that he and Mancini attacked the problem “as consultants, but ones who had to stay here and live with the decisions.”
Gordon, who came to Nashville from a public radio station in Illinois, and Mancini, who had been a library director in DeKalb County outside Atlanta, were charged with shoring up both the library and the radio station. They proposed that both entities would benefit from an amicable divorce.
The agendas of the library and the station are not always at cross purposes, but there are instances when the two seem inevitably headed for conflict. WPLN has a budget of approximately $2 million, a full-time staff of 19, and an enthusiastic community following. As a 24-hour-a-day radio station, it requires a solid vision and firm financial planning. Yet its problems as a Metro agency are analogous to WDCN’s difficulties as a school-board service. Both the library and the school board are charged with providing services and maintaining facilities citywide. But each is also responsible for its own broadcast concern. WPLN and WDCN may be relatively small change in comparison to the entire Metro budget, but they are high-profile services and major public-relations concerns for Metro government.
Gordon maintains that WPLN needs “a board that is [only] concerned with our interest. The Library Board has a library system to run. The new station [would] have a community-based board, focused only on us.”
The radio station, he says, has become too big of an operation to be administered by a board that must take care of other facilities and programs. “Twenty to 25 years ago, the station was much smaller,” he says. “Now it has 100,000 listeners, and it costs a couple million a year to run.” He concedes that “The link [between Metro and the station] made great sense for years.” But those years, he says, are quickly passing by.
“For now,” Gordon says, “it works well to be a part of Metro Government. We wouldn’t have even had [a station] if the library hadn’t had the foresight in 1962 and ’63.” Now, he says, Metro can make the transition “for the right reason. And they would have one less thing to worry about.”
At this point, the plan to restructure WPLN is a generalized agreement that transfers the station’s license to a not-for-profit organization. A team of representatives from the Library Board and the Educational Foundation must now develop a business plan for the station and outline the details of the transfer.
Ultimately, however, it will be Metro Council’s decision as to whether WPLN is released to fend for itself. Tim Garrett, chairman of Metro Council’s Budget and Finance Committee, is noncommittal about the transition, except to maintain that, whatever decision is made, it must be fair for taxpayers and public organizations.
Garrett anticipates that the sale of either WPLN or WDCN will have little impact on the Metro budget, since the city does not make a financial profit from its broadcast ventures. “Government is said to be a nonprofit organization,” Garrett says.
“All the Council does is to appropriate a lump suma line itemfor the school board and the Library Board.” The boards make appropriations to their respective stations, but WPLN and WDCN depend directly on the community for the lion’s share of their funding. As for Council influence on operation of the broadcast facilities, Garrett says that Council members may occasionally offer “suggestions here and there,” but he insists that Council has traditionally maintained a hands-off approach.
Vernon Denney, a member of the Metro school board for 13 years, maintains that “there have been concerns about WDCN as long as I’ve been [there].” The latest call for an independent TV station, he says, may not be “somebody crying wolf, or smoke and mirrors.” But he also says that it “is not a new message. It deserves our careful consideration, but it also deserves [our] being sure that the report looks at all options.”
Denney acknowledges that, nationwide, only a handful of public television stations are still operated by school boards. But he is wary of jumping onto the privatization bandwagon. “Sometimes decisions and even trends are established that history proves weren’t wise,” Denney says. “I hope that’s not the only thing that drives usthat everybody else has divested themselves of public TV; therefore we ought to too.”
Denney notes that schools are already underfunded, and he is disinclined to give up a valuable asset such as a TV station just because a large number of public TV boosters think it’s a good idea.
Only “when this community demonstrates that education is a priority,” he says, will it be time to talk about giving away property. Until the city addresses “the $200 million investments in back capital for all of our children, and then an ongoing commitment, I have to look at anything I might give up.” He decries the lack of ongoing assistance “in getting our facilities up to acceptable standards.” Denney cites basic expenses such as the cost of retro-fitting plumbing and electrical work, and the “six to eight roofs” that the Metro Board of Education must replace each year.
Denney maintains that the community is being offered a “very, very bleak” picture of WDCN’s future under Metro. With its outmoded physical plant and its aging equipment, proponents of restructuring say, the station may not be worth much of anything unless something is done immediately to ensure a brighter future. The BMR report notes that the time for the station’s FCC license renewal is swiftly approaching. A delay past mid-1996, the report says, could effectively kill the station’s chances to go private for years to comeperhaps until long after federal funding has evaporated. The school board has heard panic reports from WDCN’s supporters before, but, given the recent philosophical shifts in Congress, the warnings now seem more convincing than ever.
Denney, meanwhile, remains cautious. To release the station, he says, “assumes that the Board of Education will hand over a piece of property worth X dollars to help assure that [a new television station] will be able to raise dollars.” He notes that the new station’s budget would involve more than “just current operating funding. If a private nonprofit were to start up from scratch, they’d have to get a building and get the equipment.”
Some sources close to the WDCN discussions are convinced that the transfer will not take place. They insist that the school board will simply pass up the opportunity once again. One inside source says that some school board members “think that they’ve heard it before. Even though funding is cut, they think the station will muddle through like before.”
Some school board members are well aware that Channel 8 provides valuable services for Metro schools. Classroom-directed programming is broadcast throughout most of the school day. The most sound defense of Metro’s involvement in broadcasting is the fact that public TV is a teaching tool. WDCN’s daytime schedule is an almost unbroken block of instructional programming aimed directly at K-12 pupils in Davidson County and the surrounding area. Financially strapped schools often use the station’s daytime programming as an educational supplement. Some schools may even substitute a televised teaching session for an unfunded, but still necessary, teaching position. Thus, the school board maintains a vital interest in the future of WDCN.
Still, WDCN General Manager Bob Shepherd insists that it would cost the school board 45 percent less to purchase instructional television programming from an independent, reorganized WDCN because the new station could set up its own financial arrangements with PBS and CPB. “Some people want to bash the school board,” Shepherd, a longtime Metro employee, says, “but I think that would be terribly wrong. The school system is having a real tough job managing the problems they deal with, and they don’t have the time or money they would like to give us. The solution is [for the station] to become entrepreneurial. ”
For 16 years, WDCN has been so poorly funded that it has been granted a “Limited Use Discount” by PBS. In exchange for the price break, however, WDCN is permitted access to only 50 percent of the PBS prime-time lineup. Ironically, some insiders say, the station needs PBS’s best offerings to attract new memberships and new membership dollars. Increased membership dollars, they say, can help fund the daylight-hour instructional programming that the school board does not want to lose. The funds could also be used for capital improvements, new personnel, improved fund-raising or other expansions.
Talking the talk
No one interviewed for this article would predict Council’s decision in regard to either WDCN-TV or WPLN-FM 90. Many, however, noted the irony of public broadcasting’s current state of affairs: Public television and public radio may end up being saved by the very politicians who, many thought, were once their greatest enemies.
As the new Republican Congress makes its sweeping attempts to restructure a government based on the principles of the Great Society and the New Deal, some liberals have had to fight or switch on the issue of public broadcasting. During WPLN’s recent fund drive, on-air fund-raisers could be heard praising the free market and welcoming the prospect of a brave new world for the once protected station. A world of open competition, to hear them talk, didn’t sound like such a bad place after all.
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