It's a sweltering Saturday night in August, time once again for the most important program on KPBS television: Pledge Break. Brad Warner, the station’s program director, steps up to the microphone, introduces a dozen Mensa members answering telephones behind him in the studio, and begins his pitch. “This is a noncommercial, public station that depends for over half of its income on you,’’ he says. “We know you like these entertainment programs. You tell us time and time again how much you like Evening at Pops, Live from Lincoln Center, Live from the Met, In Performance at the White House. So call us right now with your pledge. We’ll be here all evening.”
Although there is no mention of it on the air, viewer response to this particular pledge week is being carefully monitored by apprehensive KPBS executives hovering in the wings. Barely two months before, the station abruptly fired 14 staff members, including 6 television producers, insisting that it faced an unprecedented cash squeeze. Four of the dismissed staffers were members of ethnic minority groups, and the station’s so-called restructuring eliminated its twin offices of black and Hispanic affairs.
The fired ethnic producers and their supporters in the minority community accused KPBS of racism and demanded that the trustees of the California State University system, which owns the station, conduct an investigation. A brief flurry of daily newspaper stories provided an unusual and unwelcome dose of bad publicity.
Station manager Paul Steen was so concerned about the fallout that he personally appeared on camera to reassure viewers that KPBS had a future. And eventually, all but two of the fired producers were rehired. But now, on the first night of the first pledge week since the mass layoffs, the station wonders whether the controversy will affect donations.
Phones begin to ring in the background as the pledge number flashes on the screen. Close-ups of the smiling volunteers show them picking up their telephones and writing down pledges on note pads. So far the drive seems to be going well. Warner, a heavy-set man with a full grey beard, nods toward the camera. “As much as you like them,” he says, referring to the show-tunes specials coming up after the break, “we want you to know that these are the most expensive programs to produce and the most expensive programs for us to purchase, so we need to come to you and ask you for your support on an evening like this.”
Thus begins an arduous night, for both viewers and the KPBS staff, who variously plead, beg, cajole, and otherwise pressure the audience to make pledges during the ten-minute intervals that frequently interrupt the evening's programming. The practice of setting aside various periods each year for pledge weeks was adopted years ago by public television stations, after being pioneered by other listener-supported broadcasters around the country. By now the pledge drive has been refined and perfected to become the most effective way KPBS has of raising funds directly from the general public and isn’t a soft sell.
During the pledge-week push for money, much of the station’s regular programming is put on hold; instead of local political discussions, ethical debates, avant-garde theater, or controversial documentaries, the station airs Broadway musical extravaganzas, pop cultural retrospectives, and wildlife specials, all intended to lure a bigger, better-heeled audience than might otherwise watch. During the breaks between the specials, the station harangues those who tune in. Several generic and constantly repeated messages are used interchangeably by the various staffers and volunteers who appear on the air to pitch for money.
The first is that the station is supported and run by its “members’’; viewers can become members by offering their pledges. (“What a team here at KPBS! If you are calling and becoming a member right now, you are part of the team.”) The second message suggests that the station picks its programs based on the amount of money attracted during pledge breaks. (“If you’re enjoying the Lawrence Welk program, let us know how much you’re enjoying it, but also back that up with a financial commitment. When you call and pledge your dollars of support, and you say this is what I want my dollars to go to, we pay attention.”)
Viewers are also told that the station needs large amounts of money to buy the popular programs offered by the Public Broadcasting Service and other distributors. Such costs, it is suggested, make up most of the budget and require viewers to ante up more each year. “Let me tell you how we purchase The Lawrence Welk Show," offers the station’s assistant programming director. “We committed to it last fall, we had to pay half of it last year, and the bill for this year is due soon; so you can help us to pay that bill tonight by calling in.’’
Her boss, program director Warner, is even blunter: “You all know that entertainment is the most expensive stuff that we have to buy. It really is. It’s too bad, because the performers get paid, and the rights are limited, and so we don’t have as much as we like; and the more you support it, the more we are able to get.’’
Warner’s specialty is older viewers. “We’re having a wonderful time up here reminiscing tonight, some of us who are old enough to remember it,” he says, during a break between shows. “We’re going right now into another wonderful program. Stay tuned, this is really a treat: 1957 NBC program Nat ‘King’ Cole. Take this trip down memory lane with Frankie Lane and Nat ‘King’ Cole. We really went to a lot of trouble to get this for you.” Warner and the Mensans fade into a scratchy 20-minute kinescope of Cole, with a tinny soundtrack that sounds as if it had emerged from the singer’s grave. Clearly nostalgia, not art, is tonight’s draw.
But the memories seem to be having an effect. After the Cole show, the telephone ringing grows louder. Still, Warner professes to be disappointed. “I expected the phones to come off the hook even a little bit more, I guess because I was so touched by this guy who was one of the marvelous entertainers of the world.” A few days later, though, a radiant Warner tells pledge-night viewers that the campaign has been a “big success” of which “you members can be very proud.” Lawrence Welk and Nat “King” Cole are safely ensconced on the KPBS schedule.
Like many television programs, however, pledge night itself is, to some degree, a fabrication, far better at raising money than telling the truth about what’s going right, or wrong, at KPBS. In fact the station is not a simple vehicle for purchasing national programs and putting them on the local air, though it is portrayed that way for viewers during pledge week. Much of the money the station raises is earmarked for local administrative salaries and activities not directly related to the daily programming fare seen by the public. Secret battles have been raging at KPBS about the station’s future, especially over how it can reconcile its growing emphasis as a provider of contract video services with its mission as a traditional public television station.
For example, the station operates a satellite uplink and rents private television conferencing facilities for businesses. It also produces material for a radio program heard only in Japan and once sought to build an FM radio station about 80 miles north of San Diego, in the city of Temecula. For the past year, KPBS has also been quietly raising money to construct a state-of-the-art, $8.5 million broadcasting and telecommunications complex, part of which would be devoted to closed-circuit videoconferencing for private clients.
According to a KPBS fundraising brochure for the new building, ”[W]ith videoconferencing we are capable of reaching the greatest amount of people in the least amount of time to exchange ideas or train employees.”
Declares station manager Paul Steen, “Our mission is to serve all of San Diego and Imperial County.” Much of the future, he argues, lies in new forms of telecommunications services, which can be offered to the private sector to generate money for KPBS programming activities. “We are not only a public television station. We can’t afford to be.”
But this version of KPBS is never presented to pledge-night viewers. Indeed, even the big fundraising drive for the new studio has been concealed from the public, Steen says, until half of the money to build it is raised. “That’s standard procedure when you go out for money,” Steen explains. "You want to get the heavy hitters, the corporate givers, to give you a good base of support. You want to be sure you can raise the money, that the project is really there, before you go to the general population for money.”
KPBS is not a true nonprofit organization in the customary sense; it has no independent board of directors as, for instance, do other local cultural institutions like the opera and symphony. Although pledge-night viewers are recruited to become “members” of the station, people who send money don’t really belong to any sort of official organization.
Instead, KPBS television, along with its sister FM radio station and its various auxiliary departments, is owned and operated by San Diego State University. “The word ‘membership’ is a euphemism,” observes Steen, who is also SDSU’s director of telecommunications. “People who give money know they are supporting our efforts to provide this region with public television’s finest programming.”
Money donated by the public is routed through the nonprofit SDSU Foundation, which serves as a conduit for all public fundraising activities conducted in behalf of the university; it charges KPBS six percent annual service fee, about $300,000 last year. The entire operation that is commonly referred to as KPBS is effectively controlled by one man, General Manager Steen, reporting directly to SDSU president Tom Day, who has the final say on all major policy decisions.
Steen argues that he often consults the station’s community advisory board, a panel composed of 16 local citizens, which is intended to reflect the various social, ethnic, and political interests and leanings of the San Diego area. The board is mandated by federal law as a condition of the station’s license to broadcast and meets at least four times a year. Members are appointed by Steen. “They are an excellent sounding board, and we pay them a great deal of heed,” Steen said last spring, only a few months before the mass layoffs attracted unusual public attention to the way KPBS was being run.
But after the firings, one advisory board member stepped forward to complain that the group was mere window-dressing. “This community advisory board has absolutely no say, no power whatsoever about the direction of the station at all,” according to Michel Anderson, the board’s only black member. “We’ve spent a lot of time being used to bounce ideas off of us about fundraising drives, and that’s about It.”
Anderson, a one-time assistant to former Mayor Roger Hedgecock, now runs his own consulting business. He bitterly recalls the way Steen told the board about the June reshuffling. “He announced it to us at the end of the meeting, just as a footnote. He said, ‘Oh, by the way, I , should tell you something that’s going to happen, because you might read about it in the newspaper.’ I’m not used to that kind of treatment. I don’t like it.”
A member of the advisory board since 1986 and a strong supporter of KPBS in the past, Anderson argues that the station has deliberately stacked the board with wealthy white patrons. “The board is made up of several people who give a lot of money to the station, a lot of people who give checks with a lot of zeros.” After the events of this summer, Anderson says he feels isolated and alone. “I’m like the eyes and the ears for the blacks and the browns and the seniors and youth and women. If I don’t speak up for them, no one else will, and I think that’s been proven by what’s happened over the last couple of months.”
The most influential advisory board member, by all accounts, is chairwoman Viviane Warren, a well-known La Jolla philanthropist, who is married to Gerald Warren, the editor of the San Diego Union. Unlike Anderson, she professes to be unconcerned by the way Steen handled the firing issue. “It’s true that we were told the day before it was announced to the press,” she says. “The mission of the community advisory board is not to be involved in the internal operation of the station. We don’t get into personnel issues at all. It was a courtesy of management to inform us of what was happening.”
Warren also disputes Anderson’s charge that there is not enough diversity on the board. “We have ethnic representation,” she says, pointing to both Anderson and businesswoman Martha Contreras. Warren also notes that San Diego City Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer, who represents La Jolla and Rancho Bernardo, is also a member of the advisory board. “So we have political representation as well.”
Wolfsheimer, however, says she doesn’t even get copies of the board’s minutes. “I’ve never been able to go to the meetings since I took office, and so I don’t keep abreast,” says the councilwoman. “I let them use my name, I send them a contribution, and that’s about it.” Of the layoffs, she says, “I was interested in that, but I need an update. I only know what I read in the papers.”
Warren herself acknowledges that she is not fully informed about some of the station’s unpublicized activities, such as the attempt to build the Temecula radio station. KPBS manager Steen says that that effort, which is now stalled because of delays in getting a license, is part of a long-range strategy to expand into new telecommunications niches. But Warren says, “I know nothing about that.” Of the station’s other non-broadcast projects, such as videoconferencing, she adds, “I don’t have any particular comment one way or the other about it. It’s the coming informational systems that this country’s going into.”
Should the members of KPBS be told about these activities before they tender their money on pledge nights? “Well, I don’t know if it’s of any interest to anybody,” says Warren. “We appeal to what people are interested in. I don’t know if they are interested in uplinks and downlinks.” She adds: “I think people are interested in programming. I don't think they are interested in whatever the operations are. It never occurred to me that it was an issue.”
The public face of KPBS is indeed formed by its programming, especially the prestige-filled national fare that most viewers watch, such as Wall Street Week, The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, Sesame Street, and Great Performances. These shows come from a variety of producers and are distributed nationwide by the federally subsidized Public Broadcasting System.
On pledge nights, KPBS viewers are repeatedly told that the station must spend a great deal of money to purchase these nationally produced programs. Although the pledge-night barkers do not provide much detail, they strongly imply that national programming represents much of KPBS’s operating costs, and they often tell viewers that the bill for their favorite program is coming due “next week” or “very soon.”
But the station’s official budget tells a different story. The cost of purchasing the station’s entire schedule of national programming is only about $1.2 million — less than 12 percent of KPBS’s annual operating budget of about $9.4 million. Of that $9.4 million, more than half, or almost $5 million, is earmarked for “salaries and benefits” of local station employees, and the rest for other expenses, including fundraising, the station’s program guide, travel, and general overhead. According to KPBS, about 75 percent of the total budget is spent on the television station, and 25 percent for the FM radio operation, another fact rarely, if at all, mentioned during pledge drives.
Where does all that money come from? Last year, KPBS raised an impressive $4.7 million from the general public, about $4 million of it during pledge breaks and the rest, $648,000, from underwriting by charitable foundations, major corporations, and wealthy individual donors, who are entitled to a bit of publicity at the beginning and end of each of the programs they sponsor.
In addition, San Diego State comes up with about $1.7 million in salaries and overhead. Another $1 million comes to the station in various federal grants. Smaller contributions to the bottom line are made by the station’s fledgling videoconferencing, various grants,, and outside production services.
Theoretically at least, the cost of purchasing and broadcasting KPBS’s national radio and television programming in San Diego could easily be covered by the $4.7 million raised directly from the public and the station’s underwriters, with a generous cash cushion left over. But such an analysis is too simplistic, says Horst Bruenjes, who is the station’s finance director. “There are many other expenses involved in operating a television station.” For example, he notes that money must be spent on “member services,” another term for fundraising.
Indeed, KPBS says fundraising costs consume about 20 percent of the $7.8 million tunneled through the SDSU Foundation. Publishing the station’s monthly program guide and other “public information” activities requires another 16 percent. (Many direct broadcasting costs, such as transmitter and studio maintenance, are picked up by the university, says Bruenjes, but are reported by the station as so-called “soft” costs.)
Finally, Bruenjes estimates that KPBS sets aside about $1 million each year to produce local programs, most of that money in the form of producer salaries, which are included in the station’s $5 million payroll. Even after this summer’s shakeup, in which two production positions were cut, the cost of maintaining a local programming staff remains expensive. Notes KPBS production director Gloria Penner, “Our budget is being nibbled at, and our expenses have gone up. When you take increasing expenses and revenues that are going up, [but] not as fast as expenses... lots of changes have had to be made in the way we do business, including staff cuts.”
Yet even with the loss of two producers, says Penner, the station continues to regard local programming as an important priority. “I would say that our local production will remain strong, [although] I think that we will have to very carefully assess which projects we take on and which we don’t. When you reduce the number of producers, you can’t do as many projects; however, we may very well come up with the same number of hours on the air. Our production values may have to be simpler.”
Anasa Briggs-Graves, KPBS’s former director of black affairs and an award-winning producer at the station until she was fired as part of what some have called the “June Massacre,” offers another opinion. Briggs-Graves contends that KPBS has virtually abandoned its previous commitment to local programs, especially those on issues important to ethnic minorities. “The major emphasis seems to be on national programming and being a telecommunications center, which is a nonbroadcast activity, providing satellite downlinks and uplinks to business schools, and what have you.”
Contending that a virtual wall of silence separates many whites from blacks in San Diego, she says that KPBS, as a public television station, has a special obligation to encourage communication between the races. “As in most urban areas throughout the country, we find that there is a changing demographic, and people don’t have the skills to be able to deal with one another,” says Briggs-Graves.
“We should be focusing in on those ethnic stories, on those regional stories.”
She blames some of the problem on the management style of Gloria Penner. During her time at the station, says Briggs-Graves, she and Penner had an often stormy relationship. Five years ago, Briggs-Graves filed an official grievance against the station after a series of incidents that, she says, amounted to racial harassment. “There were program screenings and evaluation processes that were quite brutal, and unstructured, and in some people’s minds were politically motivated. If you are trying to get rid of an office of black ethnic affairs and an office of Hispanic affairs, you have to start undermining their credibility and professionalism.”
The complaint, however, was ultimately rejected by the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission, she says. “Nobody could substantiate discrimination based on the FEPC’s guidelines; but in its letter to San Diego State and KPBS, it put forth the notion that indeed they had serious management problems.” One result of the complaint, says Briggs-Graves, was Penner’s being ordered by the station to take special management training. “They found out that she had been placed in a management position and never had the experience of being a manager or any training to be a manager.”
Penner denies harassing Briggs-Graves ("Anasa and I have a professional relationship. I did not have a personal problem with her at all. I think she’s a talented woman”) and says that her management training had nothing to do with the Briggs-Graves complaint. "Everybody takes management training. I didn’t have to. That’s part of what you’re expected to do when you are in management, especially middle management.” Penner also rejects the contention that the June Massacre was a housecleaning prelude to Penner’s taking over as program director from Brad Warner.
According to Briggs-Graves, "There supposedly is going to be an announcement in the next few months or so that Brad Warner is retiring and she will be promoted to program director.” Replies Penner, “If I were to become program director, I would not need a shake-up to do it. We still have our program director. It’s something that we simply are not ready to talk about. Anybody can be in the running.” Warner has since announced his retirement, but no replacement has been named.
Like all station employees, Penner maintains that the June layoffs were the result of an across-the-board budget cutback, affecting not only personnel but travel and other expenses as well; it had no ulterior design or racial motivation, she says. When it is noted that Briggs-Graves is one of the two producers fired in June who haven’t been rehired, Penner says, "The process isn’t finished yet... we are still going through the hiring process."
Penner also rejects the charge that KPBS is tilting away from local programming toward becoming a videoservices provider for large corporations in ordei to boost revenue. "My first priority has always been program production," she says. "I understand that the mission for the station is that we will be a total telecommunications center one day, to develop new technologies and be part of the scientific development that goes into telecommunications. It does use a portion of our facilities, but you have to look to the future. When we get a new building, then we will have lots of facilities for everything. It’s a wonderful vision." _
The new studio project, for various reasons, has been slow to materialize. According to KPBS sources, a yearlong fundraising effort has run into resistance among the station’s traditional major donors, and the person in charge of raising money for the project was recently replaced. Observes Darlene Davies, the widow of noted local philanthropist Lowell Davies and herself a KPBS donor and member of the station’s advisory board, "If you asked me a few months ago, I wouldn’t have had an answer. Now I am extremely confident of success."
Briggs-Graves, on the other hand, argues that expensive new projects, like the proposed high-tech studio, only make the station more dependent on gifts from the wealthy donors exemplified by those who sit on the KPBS advisory board. "Our particular advisory board is, for the most part, majority La Jolla and wealthy. So we have a skew at the very top in terms of the entity that’s supposed to provide station management with vision about the city. It is skewed to the right... it’s very far right."
Whether or not wealthy contributors, including Union-Tribune publisher Helen Copley and Robert O. Peterson, husband of Mayor Maureen O'Connor, have an unbalancing influence on what appears on KPBS is the subject of some debate. Advisory board chairwoman Viviane Warren, herself a La Jolla resident of substantial means, acknowledges that the station must solicit funds from sources in traditionally wealthy parts of the city. "It’s true that you go where the money is, [and] it happens that the money is in Rancho Santa Fe and La Jolla, and Fallbrook, and corporations downtown. It’s not just true for us but anybody who’s in business."
But KPBS donors, she says, have "absolutely zero" effect on what goes on the air. "As a matter of fact, quite the opposite. We do such an outstanding job at being socially conscious." Warren points to examples like The Lemon Grove Incident, an award-winning drama based on a true Hispanic discrimination case of the 1930s, as well as the station’s recent documentaries about the illegal alien problem around Encinitas.
Briggs-Graves, though, contends that Warren herself is an example of a wealthy KPBS patron who directly influences what kind of programming the station produces. Warren, whose husband Gerald was once a member of Richard Nixon’s press office, was instrumental in putting together a KPBS-produced national special featuring the former press secretaries of such presidents as Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. The program was so successful, according to Warren, that it was "called by TV Guide the best public-affairs program in the nation."
Briggs-Graves is not as impressed. "Viviane Warren had the contacts with the Ford Foundation and other folks," she says. "It wasn’t difficult for her to get the money and do the project" She acknowledges that the press secretary program turned out to be a strong show. But Briggs-Graves says that equally worthy documentaries on local political issues and establishment political figures like Mayor Maureen O’Connor, also a big donor to the station, are seldom seen on KPBS because they are regarded by the station as too controversial. "They can’t handle a lot of controversy right now," according to Briggs-Grayps. "They don’t want to upset anybody, because they need that money to build a new station.”
Production director Gloria Penner denies that donor politics ever affects programming so directly. But she acknowledges that KPBS is dependent on its major contributors more than ever before. Because the station is increasingly short of local production money and costs are rising, Penner says, it must seek out special one-time, earmarked donations. "The station might be able to afford maybe one documentary a year and that’s it," according to Penner. "We can’t do a documentary unless it’s funded." Local political issues, she observes, don’t sell well. "I have tried to get funding for anything that smacks of politics for so long," she says in frustration. "But people don’t like to fund political stuff."
Critics such as Michel Anderson, the only black member of the station’s community advisory board, don't think that the station is trying hard enough. "I wish that there were other people on the board that have the sensitivity that I do. I think, for example, the board should be more balanced, it should be more ethnically balanced. They say the shake-up will actually improve minority programming. I don’t accept that. There has to be more of an effort made.”
Anderson believes that the current station ownership structure, with KPBS being licensed to the university but funded through the separate SDSU Foundation, might also be partly to blame for its administrative turmoil. "It’s a very strange management ladder,” says Anderson, noting that minority community representatives protesting the June Massacre had to meet with station manager Paul Steen, then with foundation officials, then attend a meeting of the state university board of trustees, and finally with SDSU President Tom Day, who, technically, administers KPBS. The experience, Anderson says, led him to feel that the buck was being passed at each step of the way.
A similar controversy over who should run local public television was resolved in Seattle three years ago when control of the station there was transferred from the University of Washington to a nonprofit community corporation. "Over the years, the university put less and less money into the station and really didn’t provide much oversight,” says Walter Parsons, senior vice president of Seattle’s KCTS. "Since the station got most of its support from the community, people decided that it should be operated by a community licensee.”
Public television, says Parsons, "is a complicated, fastchanging business these days, requiring quick responses. We found that the university bureaucracy was not suited to deal with rapid changes. We are in an industry that is fast moving, and ultimately we are serving the community, and we felt that was better done by a community licensee.”
KCTS is now run by an independent 14-member board composed primarily of local business leaders and community representatives, chosen to represent a variety of local interests. "They provide us with advice and leadership on policy issues, strategic issues, things like that. So far it’s worked very well,” Parsons says, firmly noting that people who contribute to the station are known as subscribers, not members. "Subscribers do not pick the board,” he emphasizes. However, subscribers are asked to nominate from their own ranks potential board members, who are ultimately selected by the incumbent board itself. KPBS "members,” of course, have no such role.
Would such an arrangement work in San Diego? Parsons will not comment directly on the situation here, although he notes that "once the budget of a public television station exceeds $10 million, the national trend is for authority to be transferred from the university to a community licensee.”
One difference between the situations in Seattle and San Diego is that SDSU still furnishes more than $1.6 million of KPBS’s $9.4 million budget, with Paul Steen, a state employee, firmly in control. Most observers think it unlikely that the university money could be replaced easily, especially in light of the uphill struggle to raise funds for the station’s elaborate new telecommunications complex, which KPBS is determined to pursue.
And many of KPBS’s most active and influential supporters argue that San Diego viewers don’t really care about how the station is run, as long as they get their weekly dose of Lawrence Welk, Nat "King” Cole, or Great Performances. "I happen to think they do a damn good job,” proclaims Viviane Warren, pointing out that the station currently boasts 70,000 members. She even speculates that news of the June Massacre, although never mentioned on the air, was responsible for August’s record pledge week.
"People appreciate the fact that we’ve had a retrenchment,” she proclaims. "They see that they are getting a better bang for their buck. We are being responsible to the donors’ dollar by showing them that we are tightening up, that we are being as efficient as possible.” Then she adds, "But we will have a future. Even though we haven’t talked about it... when we get our new building, we will really give them something to be proud of.”