It's lonely walking around the WMFE studios on East Colonial Drive the spacious but antiseptic lobby is filled with emptiness, save the receptionist. (Ask for a copy of Orlando Weekly and she'll provide one from behind the counter.) Head through the double doors and you step into a maze of quiet hallways dubbed "the tombs" by some workers where only some doors hide activity behind them, contributing to the aura of unfulfilled potential.
Like many other public broadcasting stations in the country, that's how it is in general at WMFE these days quiet on some fronts, frenzied on others and never enough money to go around. With more than three-quarters of its operating revenue dependent on local support plus a small fortune required for the FCC-mandated digital conversion WMFE is seemingly forever in the midst of a fund-raising drive, begging its audience to join now and receive a commemorative coffee cup. (One that sometimes doesn't ever arrive in the mail.)
It doesn't help that there's a bounty of other programming available to consumers via cable and satellite providers, for which subscribers pay handsomely. With all the competition, it is hard for WMFE to get people to tune in to its somewhat staid programming, much less dig into their pockets to pay membership dues. How many times can one watch Dr. Wayne Dyer: The Power of Intention or Antiques Roadshow, or how many hours can one listen to classical music?
When Congress passed the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Act in 1967 under LBJ, it was to guarantee to all citizens access to high-quality, informative, noncommercial programming. In other words, WMFE is owned by the people it exists to serve, and that's us. How should WMFE serve us? The CPB mission statement, updated in 1999, holds the answer.
"While these programs and services are provided to enhance the knowledge, and citizenship, and inspire the imagination of all Americans, the Corporation has particular responsibility to encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities."
Public broadcasting is all about programming for all people, not about shiny state- of-the-art technology sponsored by corporate dollars.
When the financial going gets tough, it's a tempting time for WMFE, and other public broadcasting stations, to lean on donations from local businesses and foundations to meet its financial goals. But at what cost to its mission and credibility? There's never been a more critical time for us to mind our business and make sure commercial interests don't takeover a precious commodity: the public airwaves.
We should be proud that WMFE operating Channel 24 and 90.7 FM under the umbrella of Community Communications Inc. is a still-viable business. WMFE survived cutbacks post-Sept. 11, including staff cuts and a wage freeze, but managed to raise the capital costs to go digital a staggering $8.1 million. One million alone was donated by the Elizabeth Morse Genius Foundation to the Expanding the Reach: A Campaign for Digital Television capital campaign. Darden Restaurants donated $500,000.
To put those figures into perspective, total revenue for WMFE in 2003 was $6.6 million (roughly $4.5 million for TV and $2.1 million for radio), with $4.85 million coming from local fund-raising and the rest from state ($716,706) and federal funding ($676,203). Expenses at WMFE for 2003 were approximately $6.15 million, which makes for relatively balanced bookkeeping.
Total conversion to digital is required by the year 2006, or when 85 percent of the homes using televisions can receive a digital TV signal on their sets, whichever comes first. Until then, all broadcasting stations both public and commercial must carry the financial burden of transmitting both in the original analog format, as well as in digital. After that, no one watching an old analog TV will be able to tune in.
Though it was down to the wire, WMFE did meet the first challenge in the FCC mandate and was streaming in both analog and digital by fall 2003. The new digital station, called WMFE-DT/Channel 23, signed on the air Oct. 14, 2003, streaming from Channel 1240 on Bright House Networks Central Florida. (You must be a Bright House subscriber to watch it.) One of the advantages of digital transmission, besides vastly improved quality in sound and picture, is that it allows stations to "multicast" on parallel stations, as well as transmit hot-in-demand high definition television (HDTV) programming. The first of WMFE's multicast stations, the Florida Knowledge Network, is also already on the air (Bright House Channel 1241). Still to come are the WMFE Kids Channel, the WMFE Encore Channel (rebroadcast of PBS programming) and the Central Florida Alliance Network (dedicated to local coverage).
WHO'S RUNNING THE SHOW?
There is another tantamount conversion underway at WMFE: After 32 years at the helm, president/CEO/board trustee Stephen McKenney Steck, 60, is making plans for his retirement. It's been a long-distance career for a man who's also a competitive marathon runner. Steck has chosen to ease himself out of the picture at a cautious pace, planning his retirement in stages. His handpicked successor, José A. Fajardo, 40, the executive vice president/COO of WMFE since 2001, will assume Steck's title of president at a date to be announced by the end of the year. Of all of his accomplishments during his career at WMFE, Steck credits the grooming of Fajardo, who joined the station in 1996 as director of radio programming, as the one he is the most proud.
Steck has seen Community Communications Inc. through decades of change from conversion from black-and-white to color TV, into the dawn of the digital revolution and the advancement of the satellite transmission and high definition television (HDTV). Steck also oversaw the construction in 1978 of the multimillion-dollar WMFE studios at 11510 E. Colonial Drive, one block west of Alafaya Trail. Officially called the WMFE Public Broadcast Center, the complex was modified in 1992 to refurbish and expand what is now the first floor. Currently, the east side of the building is under renovation to create a digitally equipped master control room and recording complex to be shared by radio and TV.
Still, there's something about the way Steck is holding the reins of the successorship that is raising eyebrows and rancor. Steck says that once Fajardo is promoted to president, there will be another transition planned within the next couple of years when Fajardo will assume Steck's second title of CEO. Steck will become a member of the board of trustees, where he could remain for an indefinite period of time, given the board's approval.
This cozy arrangement is fueling the perception, within and without the company, that there is little the board of trustees made up of mostly monied conservative interests (listed at www.wmfe.org) do not approve when it comes to Steck's initiatives. Even a perception of such control is damaging to the credibility of the station and to potential member growth.
Some at WMFE have had difficulty acclimating to Steck's management style, especially if they experienced the collaborative workings of PBS-affiliated television stations or NPR-affiliated radio stations in other markets.
"I think Steck has been very skilled, and that the bylaws of the organization kept him where he is," says one producer who asked not to be identified. "Steve is a highly skilled manager, in terms of making sure he has a board he can control."
It's telling that of the half-dozen people familiar with the workings of WMFE interviewed for this story, none were willing to be quoted for fear of retribution. Collectively, they characterize Steck's leadership with terms such as "imperialistic," "martinet" and "napoleonic." There is the sense that those who survive at WMFE are those who do not question the status quo. It's not that Steck's intelligence, tenacity, charm, influence or ego (he refers to himself as the "dean" of Central Florida broadcasting executives in his bio on the WMFE website) are particularly at question. It's just that he's been there too long and is not conducive to fresh ideas and approaches.
When the old boss sticks around, there is an implied lack of faith in the new boss, says Emily Furlong, program manager at Rollins College Philanthropy & Nonprofit Leadership Center."There is something we recognize as Founder's Syndrome," says Furlong. Executive transition at a nonprofit, under any circumstances, she says, is difficult for all parties involved. "There is a sense of loss on the part of the leader, the board and the community." Sometimes, she says, "the person who was the key person, the person who gave birth and brought [the organization] along, has difficulty letting go."
As with any nonprofit, the board of trustees is the absolute governing body of WMFE, ethically bound to carry out the best interests of its stakeholders the taxpaying public. The board community volunteers is charged with hiring and firing staff, including the top-paid employee, Steck. (As reported on IRS Form 990 for 2001, Steck made $146,829 and Fajardo, $94,590. The salaries are in line with comparable stations. For example, at WJCT Inc. in Jacksonville, the president made $130,000 in 2001.)
The board is what sets public broadcasting apart from for-profit broadcasters. It is a check-and-balance system required to keep any one individual from exerting too much control. In any nonprofit, Furlong warns, "It is important that board leaders hold its members accountable to their responsibilities."
Furlong says the success of a nonprofit that relies on the philanthropy of others boils down to one basic fact. "It's all about building relationships and that will never change. Whether it is the person trying to be the $35 donor or the person who is trying to be the huge corporate sponsor, that relationship has to be built and nurtured."
In public broadcasting, those relationships can't involve influence on content by commercial interests a tenet currently at question.
"Public stations really do cater to advertising dollars," says Marc Fisher, columnist for the Washington Post and author of a forthcoming book about the evolution of radio and American pop culture. "It's just called 'sponsorship,' instead."
The FCC enforces strict guidelines on how commercial sponsors can be acknowledged for their contributions for instance, they can be thanked but not promoted. Those guidelines have been relaxed in today's market, says Fisher. Every three years, the Public Broadcasting System reviews its guidelines for advertising, and in 2002, there was a significant blurring of the lines, allowing for corporate mascots to appear alongside sponsors' logos on kids programming, among several other controversial changes that were thought by some to be the death knell of true public broadcasting.
Fisher predicts that there will be an increasing trend among public stations to become more corporate in structure like WMFE and the boundaries of the sponsorship/advertising issue will continue to be blurred. Fisher thinks the salvation of public broadcasting is for stations "to go back to the roots ... and back to the way the industry was set up in the first place." That's when public stations were lean and mean, education-based grassroots machines, fueled by passionate and committed staffers, not corporate interests. That's a shared vision among die-hard believers in the true mission of public broadcasting.
THE BIG PICTURE
It's not unheard of among public licensees to operate both a television and a radio station, "but it is somewhat unusual," says Steck. They are only about 75 similar setups in the PBS family. That makes it difficult to compare WMFE with other stations, especially the other two in this market. Both WCEU-TV Channel 15 at Daytona Beach Community College and WBCC-TV Channel 68 at Brevard Community College are TV-only and hold their licenses under the colleges they are affiliated with, a very different organizational dynamic that than of WMFE, a public licensee.
Still, there is lingering acrimony, dating back to 1997 when the CPB, in an effort to force TV stations in the same market to collaborate and conserve resources, designated the three as serving "overlap" markets, because their signals reach some of the same viewers in the Orlando, Daytona Beach and Melbourne markets. (Subscribers to Bright House receive all three stations.) The CPB sets aside a certain amount of money for each market, and overlap stations in that market must share from the same pool. Because of that sharing, WMFE takes an annual hit in CPB funding of almost $279,000.
Steck still objects to the overlap designation, maintaining that the three stations have huge distances between them, and that there really isn't "anything of substance" that the three could collaborate on. Most other public broadcast stations designated as overlap markets by the CPB are stations that exist in the same city.
The overlap issue is "ancient history," says Sandra Session-Robertson, WCEU's general manager/associate vice president, even though she concurs with Steck about WCEU and WMFE serving different communities. Her station's approach to collaboration has been in trying to schedule programming such that it complements WMFE and WBCC, so none of them are running the same show at the same time.
Ultimately, "it's added value" for the consumer, says Fajardo.
Unlike WCEU and WBCC, though, WMFE also runs radio station 90.7 FM. On paper, television and radio at WMFE are accounted for separately, but all the money goes in and out of the same pot. The radio station broadcasts to a different audience than its television counterpart. Steck broadly defines radio listeners as being younger, evenly split between men and women, more educated and from the metro Orlando area. While the television audience comprises an older audience averaging around age 55, more women than men, mostly residing in Orlando's outlying areas.
As is the case at public radio stations across the country, 90.7 has built a bigger audience since Sept. 11, mostly due to the highly credible NPR affiliation. There is also a loyal listener base for 90.7's classical music programming.
"The numbers for 90.7 FM have been on an upward trend for the past three years or so," says Fajardo. "Most of it has to do with the quality news from NPR as stuff happens around the world, listeners find news they can trust from a source, NPR and WMFE, they can trust. That being said, classical music continues to perform very well too."
Fajardo's comments are based on the results of the Winter Metro Arbitron audience report, which showed "great growth" for 90.7. Fajardo says that listeners increased by 38 percent, from 88,300 to 122,000. This survey period only includes the metro area; WMFE's most recent "total market survey" (fall 2003) reported about 191,900 listeners to 90.7. WMFE currently has 11,000 radio members.
On the television side, Channel 24's most recent (February 2004) audience data shows an increase of 4.5 percent over February 2003, with more than 508,000 Central Florida households tuning into Channel 24. WMFE currently has 18,000 TV members.
Because NPR is bringing ears to public radio, there has been an increasing trend in other markets to extend NPR coverage beyond morning and evening drive-times, cutting back on classical music. The benefit for a dual-license station such as WMFE is that it offers an opportunity to capitalize upon its growing membership to radio, while funneling funds toward sluggish TV.
PAYING THE PIPER
Lots of dollars are needed by WMFE to ensure quality programming. Do not expect membership drives to go the way of analog stations any time soon. Currently, about 10 percent of the programming is produced locally, slightly higher than the national average; the rest comes from NPR and PBS, bought for a price.
At the heart of local production are two major programs, The Arts Connection weekly radio show, and the semi-annual In Depth series that involves both radio and TV. Taking on such controversial issues as "Privacy and the Patriot Act" (coming June 28), the television portion of In Depth is a panel discussion among community experts. (Having participated in a previous In Depth program on fund-raising for the arts, I can say that, while lively banter is encouraged, the setup is stifling to genuine debate.)
The results of the "Roper Public Opinion Poll on PBS" released in February bear out the theory that people do believe in the ideals of PBS. Objectives of the study were, in part, to "gauge the value Americans place on PBS programming" and "explore the public's attitudes about the funding sources for PBS." The poll found that "one half of the public says they trust PBS as an institution 'a great deal.' The second most trusted are courts of law, with just over one-quarter (28%) saying these are trusted 'a great deal.'"
There are PBS favorites that live up to the ideal from the award-winning journalism of Frontline, to the snarky BBC comedies, to the unequaled educational evergreens Sesame Street and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. But there is so much more that could be added into the WMFE mix, if funds were available. (See options at www.pbs.org.)
"We're at the mix that we can afford," says Steck, "the mix that the user lets us afford." The mix is children's shows throughout the day, and news and specials in the evening. He challenges those who complain that WMFE doesn't take risks in programming. He says if and when more funds are freed up for programming, "he'll look forward to the opportunities to alter that mix."
Steck seems as frustrated as WMFE members who want more programming choices, but WMFE did come up with $8 million to go digital. Can't it also afford some fresher programming? Are the dollars really going where the stakeholders want them to go?
Because the public broadcasting industry is built upon the honor system, you can watch or listen to public television and radio stations and never pay a dime. There's no big brother monitoring what you're tuned into (yet). The conviction from the start was that, give the members of the community credible and relevant programming, and they'll volunteer dollars to support the cause.
Orlando's television and radio consumers need a reminder of public broadcasting principles and how quickly they are disappear among the dizzying industry changes.