Goodbye A Way with Words and Full Focus

KPBS's finances had "been tight" of late

— When KPBS TV shuttered its Full Focus public affairs show earlier this month, the move was greeted by a hail of criticism from loyal viewers of the seven-year-old steady stream of talking heads hosted by the venerable Gloria Penner, a fixture at the station. At the same time, KPBS also cut A Way with Words, a radio call-in show about vocabulary, and fired 12 staffers. Though Full Focus rarely made any news, it was virtually the only place where friendly journalists, local pols, and other insiders could kibitz about politics and log television exposure at the same time. Many of the pundits who for years basked in the show's spotlight protested its demise, blasting KPBS general manager Doug Myrland for yanking the program.

The heat apparently became too much for the usually laid-back Myrland, who lashed out against his critics on the station's blog. "I don't know where people get the odd idea that we should survey members on every management decision we make. KPBS has been in existence for 46 years, and NEVER has it been a collective, or even a participatory democracy. I make decisions in the same way every General Manager before me did," wrote Myrland. "And I am tired of being accused of being 'arrogant' when I do my job and refuse to apologize for it. And it would be nuts to announce a show's cancellation in advance and create some agonized, prolonged discussion."

Myrland's post went on to assert that "We aren't elected officials -- every budget line item and every personnel decision and every bit of information we collect is not everybody else's business. 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."

While all that may be true, it's also the case that Myrland is a handsomely paid employee of the state of California, working directly under San Diego State University president Stephen Weber. SDSU owns and runs KPBS, raising additional cash for its operation through the university's nonprofit San Diego State University Research Foundation. The station solicits money from viewers by offering them "memberships," but that's just a ruse; the so-called members have little if any say in how the operation is run.

Documents obtained last week from SDSU under the California Public Records Act show that Myrland gets an annual salary of $192,744. The station's second-highest-paid employee, associate general manager Tom Karlo, gets $155,148. Two staffers under them, associate general manager for development Stephanie Ann Bergsma and general manager for marketing, education, and new media Deanna Mackey, each get $153,816. All are paid by the taxpayer-funded state university.

Those numbers represent sizable increases from two years ago, based on a February 2005 account by Preston Turegano in the Union-Tribune. Back then Turegano reported that Myrland made $162,024; Karlo got $112,968; and Bergsma and Mackey each got $112,000.

Myrland told the Union-Tribune this month that Full Focus and A Way with Words and the people behind them had to go because "trends indicate their future potential for audience and revenue growth is minimal." He denied the station was in "financial trouble," as the U-T put it.

Reached by phone this week, Myrland said KPBS's executive salaries were set based on a national survey that the station had conducted of similar management positions. He added that there had been "ups and downs" in management pay from year to year and that, over time, the increases had "pretty well" matched the cost of living.

He acknowledged that KPBS's finances had "been tight" of late. "Net revenues over expenses for the year ended June 30, 2007 were $30,550, or $361,180 below the prior year," according to a memo from KPBS accounting manager Carlos Penera to the station's management council dated August 6. "KPBS total revenues of $17,345,775 were $200,254 below last year (-1%)."

The report added that income from Community Service Grants awarded by the federally subsidized Corporation for Public Broadcasting had also taken a hit. "Although Membership Revenues of $5,901,868 were flat compared to last year, CSG Revenues of $2,741,134 were -$739,806 or 21% below last year's amount due to the anticipated decrease in CSG funding."

Myrland explained that the grant money is awarded using a complicated formula based on how much private money the station raised and that several windfalls of prior years, including a multi-million dollar behest by late McDonald's heiress Joan Kroc, had caused the amount of the grants to go up. Now they have come back down, he said.

In a harbinger of the Full Focus cutbacks in August, Penera's report went on to say that "Total expenses for June 2007 of $2,210,714 were...21% below the prior year," in part due to "the cost containment program instituted by KPBS in late FY 07."

"That was basically us telling directors 'don't spend more money'," Myrland explained. As for using the station's blogs to convey his opinions to viewers, he said, "I will likely make less use of them in the future."

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