Time to reinvent public broadcasting

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Eye from Albany
April 2006

Time to reinvent public broadcasting
by Paul M. Bray

WMHT/Channel 17, the public broadcasting station in the Albany metro area, recently moved to its new “state-of-the-arts” facility in suburban North Greenbush. Times Union media critic Mark McGuire wrote, “it’s time for the public broadcaster to step up and fulfill its promise as a leading community resource”. WMHT President and General Manager Deborah Onslow responded by saying “there are no more excuses”.

I thought back over three decades and how little local public broadcasting stations has changed over that time. It is not the communications infrastructure regions need to succeed and regrettably my experience tells me it isn’t going to change for the better.

A lot of other things have changed including cable and satellite TV, the internet and the relationship between the local and global economy. Public broadcasting through underwriting has all but crossed the line into becoming commercial vehicles. The staples of public television like BBC productions, cooking, home repair and other how to shows and politics and public policy programming like C-SPAN are now available by cable or satellite or the internet. What is still missing is good quality, ongoing, thoughtful local programming addressing a diversity of social, environmental and economic issues, the arts and life style of communities and their regions. News on local commercial TV covers the local shootings, fires and other misfortunes, but no one addresses the complex, ongoing and evolving narrative of community and region.

WMHT started with the service orientation of “educational” TV but by the 1970s it slipped into the role of being a feed for nationally produced programs ranging from Sesame Street to Masterpiece Theater and McNeal/Lehrer. Local production was and remains skimpy and hit or miss other than production of seemingly endless fund raising related activities like auctions.

Let me share my experiences as what might be called a public TV gadfly before suggesting why it needs to be reinvented to become an example of real regional communications infrastructure.

In the mid-70s I was asked by an official at WMHT to serve on a community committee to recommend to the station what local programming it could do that would be beneficial for the community. The committee took its mission seriously and came up with the recommendation the station produce a nightly or at minimum weekly continuous public affairs program with in-depth reporting and discussion of community issues.

This recommendation was flatly rejected. The station official told us what they had in mind was perhaps some kind of “magazine” format program. There is no way they would provide ongoing news, discourse and analysis functions. We were told, sorry, you didn’t tell us what we wanted to hear, go home.

Well, that left me annoyed. I wondered how WMHT which at the time was not doing any local programming could justify its license to program in the “public interest”. I read in the newspaper that the station was in the process of reapplying to the FCC for its broadcasting license and I decided to visit the station and ask to look over its application which had to address how it served the public interest.

As I waited to have the application brought to me, I was asked to step into the office of former WMHT General Manager and Founder Don Schein’s office. Don asked me why I wanted to see the application. I told him I wanted to see how the station explained not doing any local programming. I told him I thought the community would benefit from continuous and effective local programming on community matters. He responded by saying, “yes, but what do you really want?” We went around on this a few times until it was very clear that Schein could not fathom anyone with a high minded desire to simply have local coverage and production. He must have thought I was looking for some personal aggrandizement.

I finally got to see the application and, although the public interest aspect was weak at best, I decided to pass on filing my objections to the FCC. I thought I would see what other possibilities existed to highlight the value of local coverage in the community.

At the time I was active with the local and state Sierra Club groups and an advocate for protection of the Albany Pine Bush, a sandy scrub like area with great environmental value coming to light just as the developers with their bulldozer was poised to pave it over. A thoughtful half hour TV production could explain the values at stake and how the Pine Bush could be protected.

I suggested producing a documentary to commercial Channel 6 TV newsman Jim Williams. He said his station would not do this but he would be happy to work on a production during his off time and would get a cameraman and other technical support to volunteer their services. When I mentioned WMHT to Jim, he laughed and said the public station had the best equipment and facilities in the area but made very little use of its assets. The environmental reporter, Peg Breen, for the now defunct newspaper the Knickerbocker News volunteered to be the reporter/host for the documentary. The result was a thoughtful and totally volunteer effort production that we got a couple of local stations to run.

At least I knew what was possible, but I didn’t know where to go from there. Then I saw that the election for the Board of WMHT was coming up and that it was open to station members. I checked it out, as did a couple of interested public school teachers. The gentleman who was the chair of the nominating committee made a report to the assembled who seemed to be mostly station staff. The nominees had one thing in common; they were all economically from the upper echelons of the community, a publisher and successful businessmen and professionals. After the report, I asked whether middle and lower income people were consider for the Board. “Of course”, said the nominating chair, “in fact, if a homeless person on the sidewalk had a TV and was a loyal viewer of Channel 17, he would certainly be considered for the Board”. Well, enough said about this process.

One of the teachers then asked if all the nominees were contacted and if they all said they were willing to serve. It turned out that one of the nominees had been unavailable to contact so it couldn’t be said for sure that he would be willing to serve. At that point, nominations from the floor were in order and I nominated one of the teachers who were present and clearly willing to serve. The WMHT staffers must have felt a bit rebellious and by vote of the assembled the teacher was elected. Don Schein looked apoplectic for a moment and then ran over to put his arm around his new board member. I believe not long after the station’s by-laws were changed to provide for election by vote of Board members. Open democracy showed itself to be a little too chancy for a “public” entity.

When Time Warner Cable came to town, I called its local manager and asked for Channel 13, the public TV station in New York City, to be carried by cable. If that happened, WMHT would have to do local programming to distinguish itself. The manager said he had that idea himself but when it surfaced the local powers that be in the community were able to squelch it.

For a relatively brief period in the 90s, the light of local programming shown after the Schein era when former General Manager Don Rogosin took the helm. Don wanted WMHT to be a player and force in its community and not just a conduit for national productions and scattered local offerings. He deserves an A for effort but he didn’t have the time and support to carry out his vision. He lost, for example, his effort to move the station to downtown Albany so it could be more accessible and relevant to diverse communities. Instead the station opted for a suburban, auto dependent solution.

Now, WMHT is back where it was in the 1970s, this time with new $20 million dollar digital broadcasting and production facilities and little by way of local programming to show for it. Oh yes, they have just announced that are producing a weekly magazine like show on the local business community, by and for the local business community (with three local underwriters). This is not necessarily what the community needs given that local cable and commercial station Channel 6 each produce their own local business shows.

When WMHT’s latest General Manager, Deborah Onslow, arrived in town I asked her if she was considering local news or public affairs programming. The answer I got was no.

As an engaged member of my community I have to ask what is really in it for us. What should local public broadcasting be doing? Each public TV station should be the center of a rich and ongoing community conversation on a wide range of subjects including demographic changes like an aging population, environmental quality, the homeless and affordable housing, successful education, local food and agriculture, energy security and the arts.

We live in a world where successful regions depend on information and the ability to use information to build connections and linkages between education, environmental, business, social and health institutions and the segments of the community they serve. Citizens and institutions in successful regions of the global economy need to understand into all dimensions of their own region as well as to understand the national and global forces at work.

In some communities public access TV has filled some of this gap, but rarely is it regional nor does it have the production values that public TV can offer. Despite its high points like Jim Lehrer, Washington Week in Review and a special here and there, public TV in the Albany region and I suspect elsewhere is a dinosaur at best. It awaits a Brian Lamb with a vision and skill to reinvent public TV to be the regional forum, a source for in-depth coverage of what the commercial media ignores and a marketplace for ideas and their exchange.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, a planning and environmental law firm in Albany, New York. His e-mail is pmbray@aol.com.