SDSU's Tie That Binds

— San Diego State University had an image problem, and its president, Stephen Weber, would do almost anything to fix it. It wasn't a new problem, of course. The former teachers' college on the east end of town has long played second banana to the academically prestigious University of California campus in La Jolla. SDSU has also taken plenty of heat in the national media for its reputed lack of intellectual rigor. Playboy once proclaimed it one of the country's top-ten party schools, and over the years a series of high-profile alcohol- and drug-poisoning cases have highlighted -- deservedly or not -- the university's reputation for underage drinking and date rape.

So when Weber took over as president in 1996, one of his biggest priorities was better public relations. He quickly realized, university documents show, that the most effective weapon in his arsenal was KPBS, the SDSU-owned public broadcast operation encompassing both a TV and FM radio station. Supported by state-tax dollars, federal-government grants, and viewer contributions, the stations, with their powerful broadcast signals and coveted slots on local cable systems, are the only choice in the region for most of those seeking to tune to public radio and television programs.

That monopoly has always been a key to the unquestioned power of the KPBS stations, which raise millions of dollars each year by telling local viewers that their money is needed to purchase the popular national programming, such as Masterpiece Theatre and Nova, at the core of the KPBS schedule. That lure has allowed the KPBS budget to burgeon to more than $14 million this year, according to figures released by the stations last month. As revenue grew, so did station aspirations -- as well as increasing demands by SDSU president Weber that the operation be used to service the university's economic and political interests.

Weber began his tenure as president by leaning heavily on KPBS management -- which had enjoyed a period of semi-autonomy from university interference -- to propagandize more heavily on behalf of SDSU. For a time, Weber seemed partially satisfied that the stations were following his desires, including making regular on-air mentions of the station's SDSU ownership, but he continued to push for more.

In the summer of 1999, Weber wrote to KPBS general manager Doug Myrland. "I was delighted to hear about your efforts to increase the visibility of San Diego State via KPBS," Weber wrote Myrland in a memo dated July 30, 1999. "As you know, I have long thought that this is a positive, symbiotic partnership and one that can incorporate and advance our mutual success.

"I had mentioned to you that there were two things that struck me, as a layman, that would be particularly helpful:

"First, a changing 'tag line' to be inserted behind 'A broadcast service of San Diego State University....' You mentioned that it would be helpful for you to have a single person represent the university in providing those tag lines. I have talked to Tere Mendoza, and she tells me that Sara Muller Fraunces, Associate Vice President for Marketing and Communication, would be the obvious person with whom to coordinate. (In that regard, it might make some sense for you to have a preliminary discussion with Sara so that you both understand each other's needs in setting up those tag lines.)

"Second, some way to include San Diego State in the logo, which appears on the lower right-hand screen throughout your broadcast. I was very pleased to hear that that is your intent. Here again, as you begin your work on your graphic designs, I hope you will touch base with Sara. Please consider her San Diego State's contact with regard to both appropriate tag lines and design elements."

But the Weber push for greater SDSU influence conflicted with a KPBS strategy of attempting to portray itself to viewers and potential donors as an independent operation made up of "members," whom it solicited during its monthly pledge drives. Thousands of viewers actually thought they "belonged" to the station and even sported automobile license-plate frames boasting of their KPBS "membership."

Once they realized that KPBS was a creature of San Diego State -- under the control of its president, Steve Weber, rather than a nonprofit corporation with an independent board of trustees -- many donors, especially large corporations and those with loyalties to other academic institutions, such as UCSD, shied away from contributing. It was not in the station's best interests, according to these managers, for SDSU to exert such obvious authority over programming and station identity.

Old-time staffers, sources say, fought a good fight against Weber's incursions into what they regarded as their turf, but by the fall of 1999, university documents show, the president had grown impatient with the staff's foot-dragging and stepped up the pressure on Myrland. Weber expressed his frustration in a memo to station management.

"I know that we have made a good deal of progress with KPBS and its increasing recognition of San Diego State, and I know that Doug is working on redesigning the logo and other things that will help with that identification," said Weber's September 9, 1999, memo.

"Recently, however, there was an instance that I think could have been helpful to that recognition process, had KPBS so chosen. At the gala previewing the upcoming KPBS series on the border, there was literally no recognition of San Diego State or its relationship with KPBS. In fact, there were almost no San Diego State people in attendance (and there were many from UCSD).

"I know how hard it is to change ingrown habits and behaviors, but this is the sort of thing that I will need to keep bringing to your and Doug's attention until we gradually see a change."

Why is Weber so interested in controlling KPBS? He, along with KPBS manager Myrland, declined requests for interviews last week, but university insiders say that the stations and their virtual monopoly over local public-affairs programming provide an ideal vehicle for the university to influence regional political and business decisions. Documents obtained from the university under the state's public-records act show that Weber has repeatedly involved himself in station policy with an eye toward fostering university interests.

During election season, for example, KPBS is virtually the only broadcast venue for serious political debate and interviews. Candidates and their handlers know that the region's small base of hard-core voters -- the key to victory or defeat, especially in close elections -- are some of the station's most loyal listeners. Though KPBS-TV has drastically scaled back local news coverage over the years, air time on the radio operation is coveted more than ever by the county's legion of aspiring politicos.

Savvy political operatives know to be careful not to offend Weber and those at the stations, such as talk-show host Gloria Penner, who many believe plays favorites in her choice of topics and interview subjects and the way they are interpreted. And once elected, office-holders listen carefully to pleadings made by SDSU and its lobbyists, lest they become the object of Weber's ire. That access, in turn, can bring huge rewards to the university in the form of government grants and charitable bequests.

University officials believe that KPBS has achieved extraordinary success in the role of molding public opinion, so much so that the university has sought to expand its power by adding stations in cities as distant as the Imperial Valley and the Los Angeles basin.

The process is illustrated by a memo Weber wrote on April 5, 2000, to Frea Sladek, the interim general manager of the SDSU Foundation, which helps administer KPBS for the university.

"At several times in the past we have looked at the possibility of bringing KPBS out into the Imperial Valley. I know that has not happened yet. I am not sure why. Is it a bad idea? Or impracticable? Or too expensive?

"The impetus for this comes in large part from Ben Clay, who does a lot of lobbying work out in the Valley and who believes that San Diego's and San Diego State's influence in the Valley could be greatly increased if the Valley residents began to get more information from us instead of Los Angeles (which is their current source for public radio and television)."

Clay, one of the school's major fundraisers, is a contract lobbyist for the San Diego County Water Authority, which is the force behind the controversial effort to import water from the Imperial Valley, a move opposed by Los Angeles. Clay did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story. But sources say that San Diego proponents of the project sought to influence the debate among Imperial Valley farmers and residents -- many of whom opposed the San Diego proposal as a "water grab" -- by providing a San Diego "spin" on the story that KPBS would furnish.

The plan ultimately went awry, according to the internal university documents, because an Imperial Valley television frequency coveted by KPBS was reassigned by the Federal Communications Commission to Mexico, and no radio frequencies were then immediately available. "KPBS has tried to find a frequency, but without success," SDSU Foundation manager Frea Sladek wrote Weber on April 20, 2000. "Suitable low-power alternatives have not been identified. Purchasing an existing station could be a solution if sufficient capital was available. To date, these resources have not been identified."

Stymied at least for the moment, Weber wrote lobbyist Clay in May 2000, asking for further assistance. "As you can see, the problem is not for lack of trying. If you have any ideas as to how we might proceed more effectively, we would be happy to hear them.

"Thanks for continuing to call this matter to my attention. I hope you will continue to 'bug' me, and I will, in turn, 'bug' KPBS until we get the job done."

During the summer of 1999, Myrland had Weber's blessing when he moved to spread the KPBS empire to the north by making a bid for KPCC, an FM station licensed to Pasadena City College, which was looking for a way to bail the station out of a $170,000 budget deficit. "Over the next few weeks we'll put together a business plan," Myrland wrote to Weber aide Barbara Hartung in an August 1999 e-mail. "If it looks like we can enter into an agreement that will provide financial advantage to KPBS as well as create good community service, we'll prepare a formal proposal. It's easy to be optimistic at this point, but our preliminary analysis of their budget and fundraising is very encouraging.

"Since I'm always interested in finding ways for KPBS to be legitimately involved with SDSU and the mission of education, the possibilities of this relationship have now begun to look pretty good!"

Weber endorsed the KPCC takeover plan in an e-mail dated August 15, 1999: "I agree. Assuming that it makes financial sense for KPBS, it certainly would be a plus for SDSU in the LA market. Tell Doug and Frea to keep us informed -- and thank them for their initiative in moving ahead thus far."

Despite making a large investment of money and staff time in the proposal, KPBS was bested in Pasadena by Minnesota Public Radio, a national power in the nonprofit radio business due to the success of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion broadcast. The wealthy Minnesota foundation, run by William Kling, stepped forward with an offer to lease KPCC from the college for 20 years and invest millions of dollars upgrading its news, public affairs, and other programming. It was an offer that SDSU couldn't match.

When it became apparent that KPBS had lost the battle, Myrland dispatched an e-mail to Weber with the bad news. "Next time I see Bill Kling I'll be tempted to tell him that he could have outbid us for a lot less than $12.8 million!

Yeowch! -- Doug." Replied Weber: "I am glad we were thought of as a possible suitor, and I am glad you pursued the courtship. Thanks. Steve."

But those heady days of would-be expansion now seem a distant memory for KPBS and Steve Weber. Two weeks ago, Myrland put out a news release announcing a "budget restructure due to a revenue-shortfall of $800,000, or 5 percent of the annual budget, for fiscal year 2001, which ended June 30 of this year. As part of the reorganization, 14 employees were laid off and operating expenses were cut to ensure the station meets budget expectations for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2002."

At the same time, Michael Flaster, the station's associate general manager for programming since 1995, announced he was retiring. In an interview last week, Flaster said he departed "because it was the right time to part ways, and my vision had already been realized to a great extent." He added that he "didn't feel entirely comfortable with the direction, managerially or financially, that the station had been going in."

In the KPBS release, Myrland blamed the crisis on "the pressure of a changing economy. As budgets shrink for local businesses, they have less to spend on underwriting. We've also felt the pinch in membership as well, as San Diegans are more conservative with their discretionary income."

Some station insiders blamed what they said was the continuing influence of Weber and his insistence that KPBS be so closely identified with SDSU. According to this version, both corporate and individual donors have been turned off by the tie. They have expressed repeated concerns that such continuing control by the state university jeopardized the station's independence. They also felt it subjected its news programming to the suspicion, justified or not, that Weber was pulling strings behind the scenes for the university's benefit.

Critics also draw an unfavorable comparison between KPBS and Minneapolis Public Radio, which is run by an independent, nonprofit foundation. MPR goes to great lengths to disclose its financial reports and conflict-of-interest polices on its website. KPBS, on the other hand, discloses virtually nothing.

For example, the Minnesota stations feature a pledge, entitled Ten Tenets from MPR News, declaring that "as an independent news organization, we stoutly resist interference of any kind, whether from government or corporations or foundations. Within MPR, we have established the principle of a firewall to insulate journalistic decision-making from other company considerations."

The stations have adopted "Guiding Principles for the Journalist," which say, "Seek out and disseminate competing perspectives without being unduly influenced by those who would use their power or position counter to the public interest."

MPR also says it has adopted a stringent conflict-of-interest policy for its employees and board members, which is posted on its website. "A person who has a Conflict of Interest shall not participate in the Board's discussion of the matter except to disclose material facts and to respond to questions. Such person shall not attempt to exert his or her personal influence with respect to the matter, either at or outside the meeting." Critics of KPBS say Weber could never meet such restrictions.

In addition, the Minnesota foundation provides independent audits of its financial statements for each of the previous five years. KPBS, on the other hand, directs website visitors to a page called "KPBS Annual Report." Instead of a written document or audit report, however, the station offers a brief promotional video that a KPBS spokeswoman acknowledged had not been updated since 1999.

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