The financial news program Marketplace on National Public Radio uses the jazz standard “Stormy Weather” as the soundtrack to news of a down stock market. For the past year, executives at KPBS, San Diego's public TV and radio station, must have been hearing those wah-wah trombones everywhere they went as they coped with life in a down economy and a changing media market.
KPBS relies almost entirely on corporate and public donations to survive. KPBS spokesperson Nancy Worlie confirmed that Mercedes, a national advertising account that provides the station with $100,000 annually, has dropped out of funding public radio as it reassesses its priorities (a Mercedes spokesperson did not return calls in time for publication).
The effect of 100 grand on the station's $19 million budget is small, but it may be a harbinger of other companies to follow. Like, say, Sempra Energy, parent company of San Diego Gas & Electric. KPBS staffers told CityBeat they're concerned that the energy giant's advertising contract is coming up for negotiation just as the economy is tanking.Worlie said Sempra's contract will end in two months, and the two companies are in negotiations. She wouldn't say how much Sempra typically pays the station.
A spokesperson for Sempra told CityBeat, “KPBS is an important part of our advertising strategy,” but the company is “re-evaluating that contract in light of our new advertising strategy.”
Meanwhile, the most recent fundraising campaign, which ended on Saturday, yielded $65,000, short of its $95,000 goal. Compounding the worries was the failure of the pre-campaign pitch, which offered to shorten the unpopular pledge drive by one hour for each $10,000 raised, only took one hour off the drive. The shortfall raises some cause for alarm, though Worlie said TV and radio campaigns have mostly been successful this year, raising $3.3 million.
To handle an anticipated loss of revenue, six KPBS staffers have been laid off, with their service ending on June 30. They all were people who held, Worlie said, “behind-the-scenes positions, the ones that would have the least impact on our public service.”
Well, yes and no, said anchor/reporter Andrew Phelps. “I will say that although KPBS programming appears to be safe from the budget problems, programming people are under a lot more strain to pick up the slack from other departments,” he said. “That hurts our mission, even if indirectly.”
In addition, the station is taking advantage of an expansion in the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Fund for Reporting Excellence to pay for two staffers who had previously been expenses to the general fund. Angela Carone, the arts and culture producer for the daily These Days radio program and “Culture Lust” blogger (and a CityBeat photographer), and Amy Isackson, who reports on border issues, will both become fellows of the program. Though both will continue their present duties of producing and reporting, respectively, KPBS will not backfill either of their positions with new people. The original fellowships lasted for 18 months, which means Phelps, the founding fellow, will be leaving at the end of June (though he will continue to do some freelance work), and another fellow, TV staffer Nicole Lozare, will finish at the end of October.
The station will also end publication of its 38-year-old program guide, On Air. Even at its height, advertising in the magazine only allowed it to break even, General Manager Doug Myrland said. As people have found more and more ways to get that same information, there's just no longer a need for it.
“I'm sure we'll lose some members because of it,” he said.
The station has been dialing back its services and staffing for a year now. Last year, the half-hour television news show Full Focus got the axe, along with a couple of producers, and the linguaphile radio show A Way with Words was cut (though it was later revived with other funding). Then in November, as CityBeat reported, news director Michael Marcotte left to run his own consulting firm in Santa Barbara, and the station decided not to replace him.
Marcotte, along with Myrland and other executives at the station, led the way to establishing the station's web presence. The site was widely praised for the comprehensive maps and coverage of last fall's wildfires. The site had been revamped in September 2006. In June 2007, they started “Culture Lust.” Then in July, they added the staff blog “Off-Mic.” In January 2008 came “Citizen Voices,” a blog written by six members of the public, and in February came Gloria Penner's “Political Fix.”
Myrland said the long-term plan for KPBS will be to sell advertising on the website, thanks in part to the fact that the site won't be limited by the restrictions placed on public broadcasters.
“We look at our online services as public-service media,” he said. “It's far from self supporting, but we don't face the same restrictions as we do with our broadcast licenses. We have the potential to sell a lot more advertising on the website.”
Myrland himself won't be around to see much of the growth of the website. As first reported on CityBeat's blog, “Last Blog on Earth,” on Monday, he announced that he will retire at the end of the year. He will stay connected with the station as a consultant starting in 2009, and if no new GM is found, he will become the interim general manager.
Despite the cutbacks, “public radio is very strong,” Myrland told CityBeat before he announced his retirement. “We're really the only station in the market place doing the level of reporting that we do. We have an obligation and an opportunity.”