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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


Steck says that when he asked Fajardo and the board why they failed to consult openly with the community regarding the TV station’s sale, he was told that the 20-person board and the 25-person community advisory board are the community and are appointed to represent its interests.

“That stance, which some might view as correct, some might view as arrogant, might be OK if you’re going to quibble over a program schedule,” he says. “But to sell the station?”

If he had been asked for his input, Steck says he would have suggested that the multiple entities in the region interested in public broadcasting – PBS-member station WBCC in Cocoa, PBS-member station WDSC in Daytona, UCF TV, perhaps stations in markets as far flung as Tampa – could have come together to form Central Florida Public Broadcasting, something he said was in discussion years ago. “In fact, had WMFE-TV not been able to operate at a new normal – which I contend that it could, until the day I die – they could have given the license to any one of those entities,” Steck says, and that station could have assumed the role of flagship PBS station for the area.

“It turned out they had other agendas and did it, in my view, somewhat privately,” Steck says. “And that’s discouraging. It’s not the José and the board that I knew, and they know that. It’s no surprise to them.”

In a press release issued April 1, WMFE said that since 2007, its television station had seen a steady decrease in support from the community; its on-air pledge drives, it said, were down 34 percent, and the station was more than $300,000 short of its 2010 fundraising goal. Since the WMFE radio station has been consistently strong, WMFE’s board decided to unload the TV station to focus solely on radio.

According to financial reports filed by WMFE with the IRS, public funding of WMFE’s brands has steadily decreased over the years, from more than $9 million in fiscal year 2006 to just over $7 million in fiscal year 2008 (the most recent year for which tax documents are available for the station from the IRS). According to annual reports for 2009 and 2010, the organization brought in $6,742,131 in revenue in 2009 ($5,151,873 of which was raised locally) and $6,307,487 in 2010 ($4,845,782 of which was local). According to those annual reports, the station’s expenses outstripped its revenues in 2009 by $132,176, but in 2010 it raised more than it spent and ended the year with $177,325. But the documents do not break out expenses for television and radio, so it’s not clear how much strain the television side of the operation was putting on the budget.

According to Fajardo, it was enough that the board no longer thought it was worth keeping WMFE-TV.

“We carefully evaluated a number of different options, including merging with another station or becoming independent,” Fajardo is quoted as saying in the press release. “But none would have sustained the TV platform in the long run. There are simply too many things negatively impacting public TV today, from shrinking financial support to steep PBS programming fees that we’ve been told are actually going up over the next two years. Given all of that, at least in our market, we think the model is no longer viable.” (PBS president Paula Kerger has recently said that Fajardo’s claim that PBS dues would rise over the next two years is not correct. PBS did not raise dues in 2010 and has announced that it will not do so in 2011 either. A station’s programming dues are based on a complicated formula that takes into account a station’s budget, its market’s population and grants it receives from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.)

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