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Friday, August 26,2011

MSU stumbles on WKAR shakeup

This story was corrected to reflect the correct name of the chairman of the WKAR Community Advisory Board.

by BERL SCHWARTZ

Where does MSU get off not answering fair questions about WKAR’s financial situation?
As City Pulse reported first on its website last week, the public television and radio station operation has laid off employees in an effort to stop its financial bleeding. We know that Rob South, a respected radio newsman, was axed. Sources have said as many as 10 employees were let go, including a senior producer whose name we don’t know. And that the organization was as much as $800,000 in the red at the end of its last fiscal year on June 30.
When we sought details, a spokeswoman for the College of Communication Arts and Sciences provided the broad strokes: “several layoffs” in response to “severe financial challenges.” For the specifics she referred us to Gary Reid, a senior academic specialist in the college. Reid was placed in charge of Broadcasting Services, which includes WKAR, on July 15, two weeks after MSU also announced that Broadcasting Services had been placed in the communication college. Reid replaced DeAnne Hamilton, who came to MSU in 2004 from her job as station manager of WQED, a highly respected public television station in San Francisco.
Reid didn’t return calls from me or our reporter on Wednesday, when we broke the story, or on Friday, when I asked him to be on City Pulse’s weekly radio show on WDBM-FM, the MSU student-run station better known as The Impact. Reid is the award-winning station’s longtime general manager. Nor did he return the LSJ’s call, the paper reported on Friday.
Not returning calls or e-mails is typical Reid, as anyone who deals with him from below can tell you. He’s not easy to reach. Which makes him the wrong person to be in charge of a public broadcasting operation.
Viewers, listeners and businesses are constantly implored to support WKAR. And they give (including generous discounts from City Pulse for advertising).  Most of its almost $7 million annual budget comes from the local public after the $1 million from the federal government. I can make a strong case that all media are in a sense public, but surely it’s obvious to all that WKAR is — and a nonprofit, to boot, meaning the public has even more right to the information.  Even the LSJ reported how many employees were let go in its round of layoffs this year, and it’s owned by a private, for-profit corporation.
The decision by Reid, and perhaps others, to stonewall the media on specifics is a mistake. (And not just the media. The LSJ reported that WKAR’s Community Advisory Board, chaired by Michael Rhodes, was not informed of the layoffs and budget cuts.)
One of the state’s leading public relations practitioners agrees with me. Here’s what Kelly Rossman McKinney said in an e-mail after I asked her to read the stories on our website and in the LSJ:
“From a public relations professional's perspective — and as a longtime program underwriter at WKAR — I would  love to see the station administration as more direct and straightforward with information regarding their financial situation. Just how far in the hole are they and how much will these layoffs save? Surely they knew that laying off reporters would generate a buzz of speculation and coverage that cries out for a response. It is also interesting to me that donors do not appear to have been notified about this situation so that we could be armed with facts and information — definitely a missed opportunity, especially when there are dozens of PR classes at MSU (not to mention highly qualified PR professionals) located in the very same building.”
MSU needs to turn this situation around quickly. The last thing anybody in the community wants is for our public broadcasting operation to decline further. MSU needs to involve the public, not cut it out.
The best thing MSU could do is call a press conference to explain its goals for WKAR and its strategy for reaching them. And it needs to do it soon — before the public reads or hears one more time that our public broadcasting operation is acting like an uptight private corporation.

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