Very Soon Many PBS Stations Will No Longer Exist

I traditionally write Hoke’s Notes about the UAE, higher education and over the past years bogus universities. However, you may not know I worked in Public Broadcasting from 1983-94 starting as a VP of Development for WKPC-TV Louisville, KY and eventually served as the head of three PBS stations, in Stamford – Bridgeport, CT, Odessa, TX and Anchorage, AK. In fact one day I may write a story of my previous life and working throughout the USA.

I have a strong belief in PBS and NPR and I have witnessed what excellence in television and radio can provide to our cities and rural communities.

Over the past few days I have been reading with great interest about an upcoming Auction by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC is doing a reverse auction in which they will buy any of over 2,000 TV broadcast licenses and then re-sell them to wireless providers who are in need of spectrum.

In the February 25th article of the Wall Street Journal titled, Some Viewers Risk Losing PBS Broadcasts After FCC Auction the author Thomas Gryta writes:

The stations that sell their airwaves could go off the air, potentially redrawing the map for public television and its audience. The Public Broadcasting Service, which produces programming for its independent member stations, has little say in the matter, and won’t get any of the sales proceeds.

As a former station General Manager, I understand the temptation of putting a broadcast license up for bid.  It has always been difficult to raise the proper amount of funds needed for PBS-NPR. State government has drastically reduced, if not eliminated, support over the years and financial support from the Federal Government via the CPB grant has been attacked by the House and Senate members.

The days of Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska and Senator Dan Inouye of Hawaii as Public Broadcasting’s defenders are long gone. There are few high profile Public Broadcasting defenders (Republican and Democrat) among the members of Congress. Who knows what the make-up will be after November 2016.

I understand the pressure many license holders are going through. In 1992, in order to keep state support and not downgrade our presence in Anchorage Alaska and the smaller communities who received our signal, I was presented with the challenge and a difficult task of developing a way to consolidate two individual public broadcasting organizations; one for TV and one for radio. We did successfully merge the radio and TV station in Anchorage but while successful, it took the good will of the respective boards, staffs and membership to come to an agreement and in the end it kept a major local broadcasting presence to our community in tack with the state government and the Governor’s office satisfied, at least for awhile.

With the opportunity for holders of PBS licenses to turn them in and generate a potential multi million dollar payday must be tempting to state, school, and university license holders. It also must be even more of a temptation to smaller stations that overlap with larger stations to enter the auction.

Stations that have publicly declared they will offer the FCC the license include

  • WTCI Chattanooga, TN
  • Tampa, FL owned by the University of South Florida,
  • New Jersey Public Broadcasting,
  • WEDW my old station in Connecticut
  • WYCC, Chicago’s second station
  • WIPB Muncie Indiana owned by Ball State University
  • KVCR, San Bernardino California
  • WNMU Northern Michigan University, Marquette, Michigan
  • WCMU, Central Michigan University
  • Lima, Ohio PBS station
  • WHUT, Washington DC, the only black owned PTV station in the country

I am very concerned that a number of additional stations have said yes and many are university licensed, who are under pressure to generate new income. Also no doubt some of the more rural stations will go into the auction.

Less than 15% of the country has access to only over the air broadcast these areas are mostly lower income and rural. Many minority and rural viewers of public television whose children watch its high quality educational programming such as Sesame Street likely will no longer be served.

Though I wish in an ideal world that all the stations would reject the offer, I know that will not be the case and perhaps some who overlap and do not have a specific programming mission should go to the auction. It may be a bit late saying this but it is critical to listen to the stakeholders who contribute and more importantly the viewers have a significant voice in this not just a few board members.

The list of who has said yes will become public by the end of March soon. Look to see if your station is selling its license and if yes, how you can you get a PBS signal.