Competition from cable, satellite, and DVD players. Pledge drives. Underwriter mentions that look increasingly like commercials. All these forces and more have made it tough for public broadcasters to stay on the air. And now congressional critics say it’s time to pull the funding from these government-subsidized (and all too liberal) outfits—let them survive on their own. Mary Anne Alhadeff has been fighting to do just that for the last 26 years, at a half-dozen PBS stations. And even though the 53-year-old president and CEO of KERA has only been on the job 10 months, she has big plans for her TV and radio stations. (Think iPod.)
ROWLETT: It’s a tough time for public radio and TV. Where is it all headed?
ALHADEFF: Stations have had tough times, and we’ve had to continue to prove ourselves to our local communities. But I think we are seeing better days ahead. After looking at all the choices, people are now coming back to public television. And in radio, we are seeing an increase in listeners.
You’ve already overseen layoffs and cutbacks here, but you called it a reorganization. What did you mean?
We are operating as a multimedia institution now, not merely as a radio station and a television station. We’re taking advantage of the new technologies and looking at the Internet. So we are thinking about developing content not just for radio and not just for TV, but also for iPods and cell phones and all the new technologies being invented now, so we can find our audiences where they are.
So if I wanted to get a copy of an old Nova program, I could go to your web site and download it?
Exactly. And we do some really wonderful commentaries on 90.1 in the mornings, and if you miss them, you could get them downloaded into your iPod and listen to them later at your convenience.
But I can find programs on other stations—A&E or Discovery—that could once be seen only on PBS. That can’t bode well for you.
And this is why we’re going to do more local programming. The thing that we can do that will make us essential in our communities is to supply programs that can only be found on KERA. And in recent years, because of our financial cutbacks, that is one of the things that’s suffered here at KERA. We are only producing, right now, a few hours of local television a year. And it is essential, for our future, that we produce more hours of local content. I have seen that in other markets, and local PBS stations have become indispensable in their communities. That is my goal here: that we become indispensable to the people of North Texas.
But we have heard this before.
[Laughs] And I’ve heard that said before.
So when are we going to see these things?
I want to say this in a way that sounds nice. But the difference is me. Most of my career I spent as a producer of local programming. Things that are original, things like the Van Cliburn piano competition that we do for our market but then is picked up by 100 PBS stations across the country. KERA is like a window. We bring in news and information and arts that come from the rest of the country, and we also send it out, so people across the country can see what are the best arts and events that are happening here in North Texas. We’ve seen bad times before, but in every market in which I’ve worked, we have seen an increase in local productions even when the dollars were less than what we had before.
Producing local content is a big chore with reduced dollars.
But we have that kind of resourcefulness here at KERA. We have a fabulous staff and a beautiful facility. We have reduced dollars, but public broadcasting always has reduced dollars. So I feel that we are embarking on a time of huge creativity, and we are already expanding our local content. On the radio, we are doing more reporter debriefs, and we are doing more commentaries from people who live in this area and who have valuable opinions that we want to put on the air. We do more than just factual reporting because we talk about the context of it. So we are going to do it step by step.
But reporter debriefs on radio are not the same as, say, the old Newsroom program here that gave Jim Lehrer his start in TV. Will we see a rebirth of Newsroom or more of that kind of programming on television here, things that can’t be marketed elsewhere?
Yes. I don’t have anything I can announce yet. But I can say that we will have more local programming coming on television as well. But because funds are limited now, we have to make sure that what we do goes a long way. So the first thing we are doing is starting a comprehensive Texas History Project that will have elements on television, radio, the web, and for the classroom, which is very important to me. It’s the kind of programming that you can watch today but will be valid for years to come. We must be very careful stewards of the money that comes to us from the public and produce programs that have a long shelf life.
So public affairs, not necessarily news?
We haven’t set our strategic priorities in terms of news for the future. I’m not sure what we will be doing there.
How much of your budget comes from the public?
About half, including underwriting and all community support.
Is that where you are seeing the most erosion in funding?
We have seen erosion in television membership. We have seen growth in radio membership. Radio has been helped by some significant news events over these last four or five years. One of the things that we are doing to help our financial situation is that we are looking at major gifts, memberships of $1,500 and above on an annual basis. And nationwide, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has been providing training to PBS stations to see how we can emulate our colleagues in the museum world and at universities so we can ask for larger gifts. We have been living on $35 memberships since I first got into public broadcasting, so we are developing our expertise in growing our major giving, and I think that holds some promise for us.
Are you a hatchet person who comes in, trims these stations, then moves on?
I think I am a very mission-oriented person who believes very strongly in philanthropy. Every place that I have gone we have increased local production. That is my passion. And I’ve seen that become the basis for every successful business model for public broadcasting.
What do you say to your Congressional critics who say we should pull the plug on federal funding?
I don’t think it’s going to happen. I paid a visit to our Congressional delegation in Washington, and they let us know that when the issue of funding came up, our people let them know that they want public broadcasting to continue.
One criticism is that public broadcasting looks increasingly like commercial TV. Your underwriting announcements look and sound like commercials.
While it may seem that we are seeing more announcements than we used to, the FCC sets the guidelines for what we can do, and all the stations are falling well within those guidelines. If you talk to our underwriters, you would learn that there are lots of things that they can say on commercial TV that we don’t allow in public broadcasting. They can’t say they are the best dealership in town, for example, and they can’t talk about being better than their competition. There can’t be any call to action like “come on down,” so we are well within the guidelines as to what we can put on the air.
Do ratings mean anything to you?
We are always interested in knowing how many people are watching and listening to our programs. But ratings would never be the single reason we would start or discontinue a program. But to be good stewards of public dollars, if we make a program that no one seems to be interested in, then that’s a good sign that we need to concentrate our efforts elsewhere.
Are pledge drives still necessary?
Yes. But we are considering ways to restructure the pledge drives so they fall in our regular breaks. We’d like them to be less disruptive.
Where were you when Glenn Mitchell died in November?
I was at home on a Sunday morning, and I was completely shocked. Many of us came to the station because I think we all wanted to be together so we could process this terrible news with each other. Then we had to decide how to proceed. I was relatively new here, but I learned later that a number of his friends knew he had a history of heart problems. It was all very sad. And then to see the public outpouring of sympathy and support was an incredible and moving experience.
What is his legacy?
You know, Glenn never allowed his personal point of view to infiltrate his public positions. No one who listened to Glenn knew what his own political positions were. And that is the legacy of this station. From Jim Lehrer to Glenn Mitchell. That legacy of inclusiveness and fairness is something that I feel very strongly needs to continue at KERA.
Are you ready to name his replacement?
I would say that within weeks we will have an announcement. I am very excited about the candidate pool. We have some people that I am very enthusiastic about, and they are excited about us. But I don’t want to say anything more right now.
Why did it take so long to initiate a search for Glenn Mitchell’s replacement?
I don’t think it took a long time. Glenn died, and it was a huge shock. Then we had the holidays. It took awhile for the staff to recover. But I think we proceeded in a good time frame.
You were in Fargo, North Dakota, and said you were happy to be close to your home in Minnesota. Two years later, you went to Maine, and you loved it there. Now you are in Dallas.
KERA is one of those stations that has played a very prominent role in the history of public broadcasting. And when a recruiting firm came to me and talked to me about it, I felt that I had built the skills that could help KERA. It was a potential for public service in public broadcasting, and I decided to take the offer.
But for how long?
I want to stay here. There is something about Dallas that is immediately captivating to the newcomer. I live downtown, and I love downtown. We hadn’t been here very long when my husband said to me one day that we knew we would like Dallas, but did we know we would love Dallas? Dallas is just one of the most welcoming places you could ever move to. And there are incredible things happening here.
So you don’t anticipate leaving?
It’s here and then the nursing home.
Photos: Rowlett: Tom Hussey; Alhadeff: Dan Sellers
D Magazine contributing editor Tracy Rowlett is a news anchor and managing editor at CBS Channel 11.