IS CHANNEL 13 COMING BACK TO LIFE?

We interrupt this pledge break to bring you a program. . .

IN APRIL 1982, Dr. Richard J. Meyer-he likes to be called “Richie”-became president and general manager of KERA/Channel 13 and 90FM, Dallas’ Public Broadcasting Service affiliates. And almost immediately, Meyer shook things up.

A month after his arrival, Meyer caused one of the bigger controversies in KERA’s 23-year history when he announced the cancellation of Newsday, Voices and Business Edition, the station’s locally produced public-affairs programs, and the layoff of 20 employees-almost 20 percent of the KERA staff. Nationally produced programs like Masterpiece Theater and Firing Line continued to bring viewers the familiar PBS blend of entertainment and enlightenment, but many felt that KERA had lost its reason for being along with its local programs. For the first time since 1970, when the old Newsroom show debuted, KERA was no longer telling Dallas about Dallas.

Meyer had his reasons for wielding the ax, though several media critics and some embittered ex-employees refused to listen. Shortly after Meyer had assumed the top post at KERA, Dee Taaffe, the station’s vice president for business and administration, suffered a heart attack. In Taaffe’s absence, Meyer found himself deeply involved in KERA’s finances as the 1983 budget was hammered out-and some of what he saw disturbed him.

The spring of 1982, of course, was Ronald Reagan’s heyday. The Reaganauts had pushed large budget cuts through Congress; David Stockman and others were looking for “fat” in every government program and were finding PBS bloated with excess lard. Everyone knew that federal cuts were coming, but nobody knew how large the cuts would be.

“Had we continued to spend at the rate we were last May, this would have led to a deficit,” says Meyer, who believes that maintaining the former status quo at KERA might have plunged the station as much as half a million dollars in debt: “Our fund raising had plateaued, and the federal cuts were on the way,” he says. “We couldn’t risk letting spending go on and just hope that our income would increase.”

So Meyer took the pessimist’s stance: hope for the best; expect the worst. With the approval of KERA’s board of directors, he canceled the programs, laid off the employees (six were eventually retained in other positions) and battened down for the storm.

The repercussions from a vocal few were loud and long; some critics went beyond professional disagreement and dubbed Meyer “Richard the Cold-Hearted.” Anonymous letters circulated, charging that Meyer planned to reduce KERA to a mere transmitter for national programming and pack the staff with “outsiders” from KCTS in Seattle, where he had spent 10 years as general manager before coming to Dallas. (To date, Meyer has hired three employees from the Seattle station).

Sixteen months later, much of the dust has settled from Meyer’s housecleaning, but he hasn’t forgotten the personal attacks. “I agonized over those cuts,” he says. “We worked for a month to avoid wholesale layoffs and cutting local programs. We didn’t want to eliminate all three if we could avoid it. But the numbers wouldn’t come out. It’s hard to convince people who may not have had much experience reading balance sheets.”

Meyer says that the cancellation of the programs, like the abandonment of KERA’s monthly magazine. Vision, was purely a business decision and no reflection on the quality of the programs or employess. “I had never had anything like this in my professional career,” he says. “I’ve been in tough situations defending programming, but that’s all part of the game. But this… When they questioned my integrity, that hurt my feelings.”

Today, few are questioning Meyer’s integrity-or his foresight. Events in the world of public broadcasting during the past year seem to have vindicated Meyer and his pay-as-you-go philosophy. National Public Radio (NPR), which beams to Dallas such excellent productions as All Tilings Considered and Morning Edition, is more than $6.5 million in debt and recently laid off 139 employees. They followed in the wake of departed president Frank Mankiewicz, who believed that the private sector would fill the void left by the federal government. Unfortunately, Mankiewicz spent the money before it had been raised. Meyer says that NPR’s troubles stem from that “spend and hope” approach, as do the financial woes of the PBS affiliate in New York, WNET, now laboring under a $2 million debt.

Some people have portrayed Meyer as the enemy of local programming, but KERA staffers have known for years that such programs are a financial hemorrhage for PBS stations. “Local programming is expensive,” Dee Taaffe says. “Many don’t remember that Newsroom had a full Ford Foundation grant during its first two years and partial funding for two more years.” According to a programming official at the national Public Broadcasting Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., KERA pays about $45,000 for 52 weeks of The MacNeil-Lehrer Report. Production of a 30-minute local news program can cost a half-million dollars, Taaffe says.

“Everyone either cut back and now they’re solid, or they ran up huge deficits and are now skeleton operations,” Meyer says. “A lot of them figured, ’Oh, well, we can raise the money somewhere.’ “

KERA, by contrast, enjoyed its most financially stable year ever under Meyer. Contributions from Channel 13 subscribers increased by 16 percent, bringing more than $2,714,000 into the station’s coffers. On the radio side, 90FM operated in the black for the first time in its 10-year history. Radio contributions were up 49 percent, netting $282,000. Corporate support for KERA. in the form of program underwriting, rose 66 percent. Every grant and project stayed within its budget, and Festival ’83, the station’s annual 16-day pledge drive, was the most successful in KERA’s history. Pledges were up 40 percent over last year’s total.



RICHIE MEYER is an angular man of 50 whose beard and sunken cheeks suggest a vague bohemianism-something of Lenny Bruce or Roy Scheider’s Bob Fosse in All That Jazz-until you consider his trademark red suspenders, often worn with a bright yellow shirt. Meyer is no professional rebel, but his seven-page resume shows a longstanding interest in topics such as blacks in broadcasting, the effects of television on ghetto viewers, the media in Third World countries and the films of D.W. Griffith. It’s obvious that Meyer’s left brain knows what his right brain is doing. Peter Baldwin, chairman of KERA’s board of directors, says that Meyer brings a rare combination of creative insight and business acumen to KERA.

After six years at WNET in New York (as an executive producer and vice president), Meyer spent a decade running KCTS in Seattle. He lived on a houseboat anchored on Lake Union and was, he says, “extremely happy” with KCTS, which is affiliated with the University of Washington.

Meyer was attracted to KERA by what he calls “the potential of the Dallas/Fort Worth area to be the number one PBS organization.” Meyer looks to the corporate sector as “the only increasing source of income for public broadcasting,” and he thinks that the robust health of Dallas business bodes well for KERA.

Don Boswell, who worked with Meyer in Seattle for two years and who now serves as KERA’s vice president of development, says that KERA’s new fiscal stability makes the station more attractive to corporate contributors. “We’re not asking for a handout.” Boswell says. “We’re proposing an investment. We have a program and some demographics when we go to see them. We work out what the company’s needs are. then see what will benefit both the station and the company.”

According to Pat Perini, vice president of KERA’s programming. Southland Corp. has tentatively agreed to fund Sports Week in Review, to be hosted by Norm Hitzges. Modeled after the venerable Washington Week in Review, it will feature local sports journalists and personalities sifting over the events of the week just ended. Perini says that the Caruth Foundation has given KERA a grant to reinstate Here’s to Your Health with Dr. Norman Kaplan. Gay Parrish is back from the old days of that show to head the production.

Under Boswell and Meyer, KERA has performed one of the most valuable public services ever rendered to North Texas: the reduction of on-air fund raising-those endless hours of begging, cajoling and shaming viewers into donating money. Fund-raising time has been slashed by 58 percent and confined to prime-time hours and weekend afternoons. The average dollar earned per minute is up to $342.67 and the average gift has increased to $34.27. Last year, KERA spent 27 cents to raise each dollar from the public; this year, that ratio dropped to 16 cents per dollar.

Obviously, viewers have responded to KERA’s less-is-more approach, but the station still suffers from the ailment that has plagued PBS since its inception: Viewers view and listeners listen, but many-indeed, most-pay nothing for the service. Less than 6 percent of those who watch Channel 13 actually contribute to the station; in cities such as Boston and Philadelphia, 10 to 12 percent is the norm.

Boswell has yet to fathom this mystery, but he’s working on it. Surveys done by KERA and other PBS stations show that many viewers have a grossly distorted idea of just how much federal money goes to public broadcasting. “Many people think the government gives us 40 or 50 percent of our budget,” Boswell says. “They think they’re doing their part by paying taxes.”

In reality, the federal contribution to KERA was never higher than 15 percent, even during the boom times of the early Seventies. Today, as a result of Reagan’s belt-tightening, federal funds make up less than 10 percent of the budget. During the past year, Boswell’s staff took these facts to the airwaves, hoping to enlighten viewers about the financial realities of the station. Using charts and graphs on the air, they showed viewers just how small is the federal slice of the KERA pie.

Boswell hopes KERA won’t be forced to accept “enhanced advertising,” a PBS euphemism for commercials. The concept has recently been tested by seven PBS stations, including New York’s influential WNET. Advertisers are eager to reach the PBS market because it is top-heavy with “professional people, financial people, opinion-makers and thought leaders,” according to Advertising Age. The enhanced ads brag about corporations without pushing specific products, and they don’t interrupt programs. Still. Boswell views the tactic as a last resort.

“Some of the stations that have accepted advertising have reached the limit of what they can get from the community.” Boswell says. “We haven’t. But if we did reach that limit, we would consider it.”

Bad publicity resulting from Meyer’s program cancellations (and, before his arrival, from the cancellation of 90FM’s “ethnic” radio programs) hurt KERA among corporate contributors for several months. Now, Boswell says, the bad image has faded away. “The corporations have seen the changes, seen the new look and they’re ready to work with us.”



THE NEW LOOK of KERA has dressed up its balance sheets, but not its facilities. Almost a quarter of a century ago, Channel 8 moved to new quarters and sold the Wolf Street studios to Channel 13. saying goodbye to obsolete equipment. Today, KERA still uses much of that old equipment and makes do with an inadequate facility.

KERA got a nice discount on its color cameras-and should have, since the cameras were first-generation demonstrators that, the manufacturer admitted, still had some bugs in them. That was 13 years ago. Today, some of the same cameras-with the same bugs-are still in use at KERA. Even so, they’re an improvement over the old Channel 8 black-and-white castoffs.

And KERA is the only VHF channel in the Dallas/Fort Worth area without a standby transmitter to keep the station on the air in case the main transmitter is damaged or malfunctions. The doomsday scenario at KERA goes like this: What if something happened to the transmitter during the annual auction, when the station counts on netting as much as $100,000 per night from viewers?

Meyer calls 90FM’s equipment and studio “worse than any in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.” Executive music producer Nancy Lamb says that some college radio stations have better facilities than does 90FM. The equipment might be described as early makeshift: An old lounge seat is suspended from the ceiling in an attempt to muffle the sound from the air-conditioning vents. Naugahyde has been nailed to the door for soundproofing. Meyer is seeking a $1 million challenge grant from a foundation to fund a total renovation of the radio facility.

KERA’s annual auction (called “The Best Little Warehouse in Texas” until religious groups protested) is easily the station’s single most lucrative fund-raising event. But the auction, too, is conducted under primitive conditions. The donated merchandise is stored in a dilapidated old building previously used as a garage. When the auction is televised, these items are moved by a caravan of shopping carts to the studio, which is almost a block away- rain or shine. “Imagine the inefficiency,” Meyer says.

Without waiting for a windfall of corporate dollars, Meyer moved to strengthen 90FM by hiring a new station manager. Susan Harmon, a 12-year veteran of public radio and former general manager at WAMU in Washington, D.C., brought impressive credentials to 90FM when she arrived in November 1982, among them a Cambridge internship with the British Broadcasting Co. Harmon, who married Richard Meyer in April 1983, stresses her openness to community involvement in 90FM. “I really believe that public broadcasting can be a crossroads for different groups getting to know each other better,” Harmon says. “We want to hear more different voices from the Dallas/Fort Worth area.”



“PRODUCTION IS the life of a television station,” says Bob Ray Sanders. “After the local programs were cut, we were asking ourselves, ’ What are we creating here? What are we doing?’ “

Sanders, whom one ex-KERA staffer calls “a brilliant survivor,” has been with KERA since 1972 as Newsroom reporter, radio station manager, vice president and KERA-TV manager and now is host of News Addition, which premieres in October. Sanders was hurt when the public-affairs programs were scrapped, but he understood Meyer’s reasoning. “Economically, he has made the station better than ever,” Sanders says. “He really knows how to raise money.” Sanders believes that KERA’s relations with the community were damaged when the programs were dropped, but he thinks that News Addition will erase any lingering doubts about the station’s commitment to public affairs and local news.

“This is not a token effort,” Sanders says of the new program, which will have a budget of almost 3400,000. “We could have come back with $100,000, taped a few guests in the studio and said that we were doing local programming again. But Richie wants to do it right. This is his baby, and it’s not programmed for failure.”

Sanders gave up his position as vice president and station manager of Channel 13 to host the new program, sparking rumors that the new job was, in effect, a demotion for him. Nothing could be further from the truth, he says.

“I couldn’t keep a corporate title and do news,” Sanders says. He expects some News Addition segments to be controversial and says that wearing two hats could cause problems with KERA board members and underwriters whose businesses might be the targets of News Addition probes. “We’ll have some stories that could affect funders and board members,” Sanders says. “This is probably the most establishment board we’ve ever had.”

Sanders says that News Addition has the potential to be KERA’s strongest local program since the days of the old Newsroom in the early Seventies. He’s happy to be part of the effort. “News is in my blood,” he says, “and 1984 is the year to be in news. Things will be happening that need our perspective.”

One of KERA’s most persistent critics is Jerry Diggin, co-chairman of the North Texas Public Affairs Broadcasting Advocates (NTPABA), a non-profit organization founded to restore local programming to Channel 13. When the local programs were cut during the spring of 1982, Diggin’s group offered to raise money to keep the programs on the air, but Meyer and KERA’s board of directors refused to promise that the funds would be earmarked for local programming only. Diggin still feels that KERA is not dealing sufficiently with issues important to the Dallas area, although he applauds Channel 13’s monthly documentaries on such subjects as the Texas prison system and the election specials.

Diggin and NTPABA are taking a “wait-and-see” stance on News Addition. “I’m glad to see something local back on the air,” he says. “I think Meyer is trying to do the right thing.” But Diggin still believes that the public has as much right to fund programs as corporations, which, he says, tend toward conservative programming. “KERA means, to me, ’Knowledge Expands Reasoning Abilities,’ ” Diggin says. “We’ve seen too many documentaries on the birth canals of various animals and too many old movies.”

While Sanders will serve as host/editor of News Addition, Kay Vinson, veteran producer from Channel 8 and Channel 13’s Newsday, has returned to KERA to produce the show. She is in charge of hiring two reporters, two camera/editors and a production assistant for News Addition, which will air Friday nights at 7 o’clock. Vinson, who reports to executive producer Stan Matthews, will have final responsibility for the program.

Sylvia Komatsu, who appeared as a reporter on Newsday, has been transferred to Stan Mat-thews’ documentary unit, where she will work with camera/editor Ginny Martin. Their first effort for the fall season will be on medical care for the needy.

As for stockbroker/newsman David Johnson, his Business Edition revival has been canceled by Warner Amex, which picked up the show from KERA last year. Johnson will do a half-hour program on Las Colinas for national broadcast on PBS’ Enterprise program.

The big news in scheduling is Pat Perini’s decision to move The MacNeil- Lehrer Report, which expands to an hour in September, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. The composition and thrust of the program will also change. Perini says in explaining the move, but will continue to cater to the interests of professionals and opinion-makers. “Our consultants decided that more of an audience for this kind of program would be available at 10 p.m.,” she says. “At the current time, many people aren’t even home from work yet.”

Channel 8’s recent decision to expand its 10 p.m. news to an hour and move ABC’s Nightline from 10:30 to 11 p.m. had nothing to do with the MacNeil- Lehrer shift, Perini says, but KERA hopes to profit from the change. “They’ve really nurtured that 10:30 audience,” she says. “We’re hoping to pick up a portion of those Nightline viewers.”

“The steps that Richie took have worked,” says Bob Ray Sanders. “While others are tightening their belts, we’re unbuttoning the top button. The heart of the station is beginning to pump again.”

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