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NEWS

PBS R.I.P.?

As WMFE prepares to sell out to a religious broadcaster, the community wonders what’s next for public television in Orlando

Photo: Illustration by Noah Scalin, License: N/A

Illustration by Noah Scalin

Photo: , License: N/A


In 1972, Stephen McKenney Steck became WMFE’s first president and CEO – a position he held until 2007, when he passed the mantle on to José Fajardo.

“I gave my heart and soul to that place for 41 years,” says Steck, who now runs the nonprofit Carol McKenney Foundation for Public Media. “José Fajardo – the current president and CEO, who is my successor, and who with the permission of the board of trustees I put in that job, so you can blame it all on me – he and I have agreed to disagree. He knows full well I do not support the position the board took [on the sale of WMFE-TV]. I find it discouraging, disappointing and betraying of being inclusive of the community. If it was a decision like, ‘Should we reschedule the broadcast of “Sesame Street” from 8 a.m. to 7 a.m.,’ that’s one thing. But a decision as profound as selling the station should have demanded wide community input, long before the fact.”

Steck says the license to broadcast on Channel 24 was set up to provide public television for the Orlando community, not to sell at a profit to bolster the bottom line of the NPR station that shares its call letters. “It was not granted for the purpose of selling it to any other entity,” he says. “The fact that they are selling it to a noncommercial but religious station, I believe, is incorrect. That license wasn’t granted for that purpose.”

Steck says that if WMFE’s leadership found that the TV station was such a financial drain on the organization that it could no longer sustain it, the organization had multiple options open to it: It could have sought input from donors or begun a dialogue with the community, or it could have applied to simply transfer the license to another educational broadcaster in the community – say, Valencia College, Seminole State College or the University of Central Florida – that is willing and able to continue the broadcasting mission WMFE embarked upon more than 40 years ago.

“Then I don’t think there would be a problem,” he says. “The problem arises when the asset the community gave them for 46 years is now going toward profit provided by its sale to a noncommercial religious broadcaster.”

Fajardo says the board did examine all of its options before deciding to sell. “Selling the license was the last option,” he says. “Though, having made that decision, we are redoubling our efforts to make 90.7 WMFE-FM an even greater asset to the lives of Central Floridians.”

WMFE will invest the money from the sale of the TV station into its radio efforts. But Steck questions the need to create an endowment for 90.7 FM, which Fajardo has said is more successful, from a fundraising perspective, than Channel 24. “If you have said radio is so successful,” he asks, “why do you need to sell [the TV station] to create an endowment for it?”

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