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Statehouse Beat: Will WVPB survive?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last week's meeting of the Educational Broadcasting Authority raised some dire issues regarding the long-term survival of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Individual memberships and corporate underwriting are down sharply since the recession hit in 2008.

Most ominously, in preparing the 2013-14 budget request, the Tomblin administration has directed Public Broadcasting to assume a 5 percent cut in state funding. Currently $5.9 million, the state appropriation accounts for more than half of Public Broadcasting's total revenue, and a $295,000 cut would be hard to adsorb.

On the other side of the ledger, WVPB's largest single expense, employee salary and benefits, is staying flat at $5.2 million, but that's primarily an accounting trick because of unfilled staff vacancies. Even without pay raises, costs for pension contributions and employer's share of PEIA premiums tend to increase annually.

The second-largest budget item, for programming rights, is going up 28 percent from $1.64 million this year to $2.1 million next fiscal year.

Executive director Dennis Adkins said the alternative is to cut back on programming and fill airtime with more repeats. However, that runs the risk of further alienating the audience.

(Speaking of Adkins, why do I get the feeling that when all is said and done, he'll be the fall guy for Public Broadcasting's financial issues?)

Meanwhile, like many state agencies, Public Broadcasting has issues with deferred maintenance. Its television studio near Beckley is being used for document storage, because the HVAC system is out of commission, rendering the studio unusable for TV productions.

West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine president Michael Adelman has a grant to produce a second 13-episode season of "Abracadabra," the children's series promoting health, fitness and good nutrition, but production is on hold until if and when the HVAC system is replaced.

Some would argue that Public Broadcasting is an anachronism in an age when there are multiple cable networks that provide similar programming, as well as dozens of satellite radio stations and innumerable Internet radio channels.

However, not having legislative coverage through public television's outstanding "The Legislature Today" would be a major loss for viewers around the state.

Commercial TV stations in the Charleston-Huntington market generally do a poor job covering the Legislature and, presumably, coverage is even worse (or non-existent) on TV newscasts from stations in outlying cities.

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EBA member (and legislative lobbyist) Mark Polen believes WVPB's long-term survival depends on innovation and providing programming that isn't duplicated on numerous other media outlets.

One proposal he's floating is for a statewide news/talk show on public radio. He's proposes airing it at noon weekdays, as a progressive counterpoint to Rush Limbaugh.

At first glance, it seems like it would have a good chance of drawing listeners and program sponsors, because the only equivalent statewide program, "Talkline" on John Raese's MetroNews network, presumably draws a more moderate-to-conservative (some might say conservative-to-Neanderthal) audience.

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It's been said that, were it not for the ad revenues generated by having seven election cycles in the past three years, commercial stations statewide would be in the same financial straits.

They have another advantage over Public Broadcasting, it was revealed last week: Low pay and few benefits for their employees.

During the EBA meeting, it was noted that Concord and West Virginia University underwrite the costs of WVPB bureau chiefs for southern West Virginia and Morgantown, with each institution paying about $45,000 a year to cover each reporter's salary and benefits. (They also serve as instructors in each university's journalism programs.)

EBA member John Dahlia, who was a reporter, anchor and news director at WDTV in Clarksburg before becoming communications director for Global Science and Technology Inc., noted afterward that starting salaries for reporters at WDTV and rival station, WBOY, are a mere $19,000 a year, with minimal benefits. News directors at those stations make barely north of $30,000, he said.

(Wow ... and on-air personalities undoubtedly have sizable clothing expenses, unlike print reporters, who can get by being on this side of shabby.)

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One attempted broadcast innovation that won't be back on public television is coverage of WVU women's basketball games.

For the past several seasons, public TV has broadcast about a half-dozen games a year, but has never gotten enough sponsors to underwrite its share ($24,000) of the $120,000 production costs. (The in-house Mountaineer Sports Network footed the remainder of the bill.)

Adkins said he was leaning against renewing the contract for 2013, but WVU's move to the Big 12 conference (and the current bidding out of its third-tier broadcast rights) made the issue moot, since public broadcasting won't have access to the telecasts.

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Finally, one other notable WVPB item is the announcement that the upcoming season of the public TV series "The Law Works" will be underwritten with grants from the state Supreme Court ($30,000) and Attorney General Darrell McGraw ($20,000).

Perhaps not coincidentally, Supreme Court justices and assistant attorney generals are frequent guests on the locally produced program dealing with legal matters.

If I were a candidate running against McGraw or Justice Robin Davis this fall, I'd be tempted to try to invoke the FCC equal time doctrine ...

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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