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Station Identification: KPBS Faces 'Time of Tremendous Change'

Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009 | When KPBS finally hires its next general manager later this year, the new boss’s honeymoon period is likely to last about as long as a pledge break.

Consider the challenges facing the public broadcaster: Donations are down and the station has been cutting the radio shows it offers. Locally produced television programming is weak and the national PBS network is struggling. And station officials are still trying to realize the full potential of new broadcasting technology and the internet, which allows public radio fans to bypass local affiliates.

KPBS “can’t just keep operating the way it has been,” said Michael Marcotte, a consultant who formerly served as news director at KPBS-FM. “This is a time of tremendous change.”

But where should the station head? Toward a greater — and more expensive — local focus? Or rely on nationally syndicated programming? More TV channels? A fancier website? “We have this explosion of technology and consumer choice, and you have to figure out how to serve people in the way they want to be served,” said departing General Manager Doug Myrland, who announced his retirement in June.

Myrland’s profile grew last year when he encountered a flood of online criticism after canceling “Full Focus,” a daily TV public affairs program, and “A Way with Words,” a weekly radio show about language. He blamed the demise of “Full Focus” on poor ratings and said “A Way with Words” cost too much at $250,000 a year.

After receiving complaints from viewers and listeners, Myrland wrote in a blog entry that “Just because you give a contribution or pay taxes doesn’t give you the right to decide — or even influence — what goes on the air and what doesn’t.” He later apologized.

“A Way with Words” returned to the radio schedule after its hosts obtained their own financing. The station has not replaced “Full Focus,” and more changes have come about recently, with “These Days” radio host Tom Fudge announcing his departure from the program last month.

San Diego State University President Stephen Weber will choose Myrland’s replacement. The university runs KPBS, which relies on donations, underwriting, taxpayer funding and — in an unusual new twist — advertising.

KPBS officials had expected that the name of the new general manager would be announced Monday. But the university issued a statement Friday saying that it hadn’t hired anyone yet and doesn’t expect to make an announcement until February.

“The general U.S. economic uncertainty caused some of our finalists to withdraw their applications,” the university said in the statement. “In order to identify the best person for the job and in order to have a complete candidate pool, we felt it was necessary to postpone our decision.”

In an October interview, Weber said KPBS and its new general manager must adapt to a changing community. “There are some questions that I intend to ask: Why aren’t we doing this or doing that?” Weber said.

He declined to be more specific. “Am I going to tell you (what the questions are)? No.”

Weber did say he’s concerned about fundraising, no surprise considering that the economy’s meltdown is leaving Americans with less money to give to charity. KPBS, with an annual budget of $19 million and about 100 employees, hasn’t been immune to a drop in donations.

Last June, it laid off six workers and eliminated the monthly “On Air” program guide after donations slipped. In 2007, it dropped the “Full Focus” TV show.

KPBS’s 2008-2009 budget calls for the station to spend $19.3 million in the fiscal year, which began in July. That’s a 6 percent drop over the previous year’s budget. But fundraising has continued to fall since the budget was written, and KPBS is being forced to cut expenses.

Tom Livingston, a public broadcasting headhunter, suggests that stations like KPBS focus more on big donors who give thousands of dollars each year.

“We built public radio on being able to do pledge drives, go on the air and ask for lots of $50 donations instead a few major gifts,” he said. “The membership vehicle has taken us as far as it’s going to go. If we’re going to grow, we have to focus on major gifts.”

As an example of the benefits of big gifts, he pointed to the late Joan Kroc’s $200 million donation to the National Public Radio network. (She also gave $5 million to KPBS, which is a member of NPR.)

“That gift was transformative for NPR,” Livingston said. “They significantly added to the number of editorial positions they had. If we’re not selling ourselves out in doing it, (major gifts) can be a very powerful way to keep the enterprise vital.”

To bring in money, the general manager of a station like KPBS has to play a crucial role by wooing donors, Livingston said. “It’s no longer about sitting in your office and choosing what program goes here. The general manager’s job is to get out there, meet with individuals and participate in the civic life of the community.”

A fundraising-heavy approach might not go over well with everyone at KPBS, however. “To the journalists, this may not sound so good. You’d much rather have someone paying attention to the content instead of the money. You have to do both, unfortunately,” said Steve Behrens, editor of Current, a public broadcasting trade journal.

Large gifts bring the potential for conflicts between the mission of a station and the wishes of a donor. But the other fundraising approach — a heavy reliance on member donations and pledge drives — can turn off listeners and viewers.

“Everybody has an idea about the purity of a station and how it should function, but in the real world that may not be feasible. The first responsibility the general manager has is to keep that station as a going concern,” said Mark Erstling, a senior vice president with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and former chief operating officer of the Association of Public Television Stations.

In addition to donations from members, KPBS raises money through traditional methods like grants, taxpayer funding and underwriting, in which companies pay to be mentioned on the air.

Under federal law, public broadcasters are forbidden from accepting certain paid ads; any announcements that viewers or listeners hear cannot include a “call to action,” Myrland said. In other words, they can’t tell people what to do, such as buy a product.

There’s a loophole, and KPBS has found it. The law allows the station’s internet site to accept ordinary advertising, and it is doing so.

There may be limitations, however. “The website is branded as an extension of what we know as KPBS,” Myrland said. “I doubt it can be densely commercial and still be accepted.”

But, he added, “there’s nothing to stop us from creating other brands,” and the next generation of leadership at the station could consider that prospect.

In addition to advertising, KPBS’s website features news stories, several blogs and podcasts of radio shows. KPBS boosted its budget for “new media,” including the website, from $539,000 in 2007-2008 to $922,000 in 2008-2009.

“It’s going to be tempting for the new GM to want to come in and put a lot of money in new media. Nobody will disagree that it needs tremendous attention,” said John Decker, program director of KPBS-FM. “Everybody sees that, but we’re in this quandary. We see growth (in the radio audience), and it would be a shame if we were to lose resources to move money from radio to the website.”

The internet is actually turning out to be a double-edged sword for public radio stations. Some member stations — but not KPBS-FM — have complained that listeners will abandon them as they find public radio programming on the internet. Indeed, some of the most popular podcasts in the country are broadcasts of public radio shows like “This American Life” and “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”

Despite challenges from the internet, KPBS-FM listenership remains strong at an estimated 245,600 listeners a week last summer, making it one of the most popular stations in the county.

KPBS-FM may need to beef up local programming to survive, however, if listeners can go to the internet for their favorite shows. “This is a question that the general manager is going to have to answer,” Decker said. “Is the identity of the station primarily a local station, a national station or some type of combination of the two?”

On the local front, KPBS-FM is adding an extra hour to the weekday San Diego public-affairs show “These Days” (although Fudge, its host for nine years, is stepping down) and boasts of the largest radio newsroom staff in the county. In recent years, the station has moved toward a heavier focus on breaking news as its main rival, KOGO, has cut its staff; Decker said KPBS-FM has diverted resources to the newsroom that once paid for “The Lounge” (a nightly arts show cancelled in 2004) and “A Way with Words,” the weekly show that was briefly cancelled in 2007 and now funds itself.

KPBS-FM recently launched an ambitious project to cover violence in Mexico.

On the radio in the mornings, San Diego listeners may hear some unique news or interviews, but NPR programming dominates the show until 9 a.m. And with the exception of brief news breaks, the station devotes its airtime after 12 p.m. to NPR national shows and then classical music.

Meanwhile, budget constraints recently forced KPBS-FM to announce the cancellation of the local broadcasts of the national shows “Whad’Ya Know,” heard on weekends, and “The World,” heard weekdays. (A reprieve came Friday: the station announced that it had reached an agreement with the distributor of “The World” to allow it to remain on the air at least through the summer.)

An NPR show, “Day to Day,” meanwhile, will soon stop airing because the network has cancelled it due to budget cutbacks.

KPBS-TV has little local content now that “Full Focus” is off the air; its main local offerings are programs that profile local communities and historic places.

KPBS-TV’s viewership varies significantly from year to year, but it fell from November 2003 to November 2008, dipping from 955,313 weekly viewers to 825,778. Local programming, at least of the public-affairs variety, may not be a draw: “Full Focus” attracted less than 1 percent of the local viewing audience.

Nationwide, PBS has been facing the same erosion of viewership as the commercial broadcast networks. It lost more than a third of its audience from 1998-2008, according to the trade journal Current.

But even in a cable-dominated world full of networks like A&E and the Discovery Channel, public broadcasting sets itself apart, Myrland said. “Monster trucks and makeover programs are not the same as public television. Even with hundreds of choices we still have a niche that has been left to us.”

That niche may grow through the expansion of digital television, which allows TV stations to offer more programming through new subchannels.

KPBS-TV was one of the first public TV stations in the country to embrace digital technology, Myrland said. KPBS-TV currently airs one subchannel, which offers high-definition PBS shows and other programming.

But there’s a cost. “The world of digital is more expensive than analog,” said Erstling, the official at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “You’re also delivering more content, which costs more money.”

The new KPBS general manager will get to decide whether to increase the number of digital subchannels that are available, as other public TV stations have done. KQED-TV in San Francisco, for example, offers five digital subchannels, focusing on topics like children’s programming, Spanish-language shows and history.

For the moment, however, KPBS has no general manager or, for that matter, an interim boss. Myrland’s last day was Dec. 31, although he will stay on as a consultant; the station expects to appoint a new temporary general manager this week.

Marcotte, the former KPBS-FM news director, said the permanent new boss will face some rough sledding, at least at first, once he or she is hired.

“There’s a paralysis when a GM is on the retirement path,” he said. “There’s inside jockeying and a period after that when you just have to set a tone. It’s a leadership challenge to go into a situation like that and sell confidence and optimism. All of these things will be a real challenge for Doug’s replacement.”

Randy Dotinga is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact him directly at rdotinga@aol.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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