Beyond Limits: KLRU-TV celebrates forty years, builds for the future

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KLRU-THROUGH-DOORS

About 10,800 words

Photography by Barton Wilder Custom Images

“I find television very educational. Every time someone switches it on I go into another room and read a good book.”

— Groucho Marx (1895-1977)

KLRU-THROUGH-DOORS

Groucho Marx was a comedian, but most people would concede he had a point. The sorry state of television has been lampooned to the point of cliché. It’s been called the “boob tube” and worse. Even today it’s not uncommon to see an occasional bumper sticker inciting “Kill Your Television.” Yet television remains America’s guilty pleasure, providing a cornucopia of entertainment and information unsurpassed in the history of the world. For good or ill, television holds an iron grip on viewers’ interest, although commercial television’s performance has been called into question repeatedly by the highest officials in the land.

In May 1961, for example, shortly after President John F. Kennedy appointed Newton Minow chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Minow used his bully pulpit to directly confront the media powers. In a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, he challenged television moguls to examine their wares. “When television is good, nothing—not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers—nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you—and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.”

Minow reminded television executives that the licenses they had been granted for the free use of the nation’s publicly owned airwaves made them the responsible for more than profits. Minow even had the audacity to quote the broadcasters’ own Television Code and throw it back in their faces as a challenge: “Television and all who participate in it are jointly accountable to the American public for respect for the special needs of children, for community responsibility, for the advancement of education and culture, for the acceptability of the program materials chosen, for decency and decorum in production, and for propriety in advertising. This responsibility cannot be discharged by any given group of programs, but can be discharged only through the highest standards of respect for the American home, applied to every moment of every program presented by television. Program materials should enlarge the horizons of the viewer, provide him with wholesome entertainment, afford helpful stimulation, and remind him of the responsibilities which the citizen has toward his society.”

Minow was reminding the television executives of the aspirations expressed by their own industry’s leaders, but his message apparently fell on deaf ears. As the History Channel notes, “By 1963, the quality of television had scarcely improved, and Minow’s successor as head of the FCC readied legislation to limit the amount of commercial time available to the networks.However, on November 22, 1963, everything changed when television took a leading role in reporting the events surrounding John F. Kennedy’s assassination. From that day on, television, despite the banality of much of its everyday programming, was universally recognized as an unprecedented tool for delivering important information to the public.”

While commercial television could and did rise to the occasion in times of crisis, in day-to-day performance, broadcasters continued to go about their business, enduring occasional barbs of criticism while gleefully posting fat profits.

Public television organizes

It would not be long before an intelligent alternative to the endless parade of schlock offered by commercial broadcasters would rise to new heights. In 1965, Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, a native son of Texas’ hardscrabble Hill Country, hailed the appointment of the Carnegie Commission on Public Television. “From our beginnings as a nation we have recognized that our security depends upon the enlightenment of our people; that our freedom depends on the communication of many ideas through many channels. I believe that educational television has an important future in the United States and throughout the world…I look forward with great interest to the judgments which the Commission will offer.”

Of course Johnson himself was no stranger to television—or to the profits and power that a broadcast license bestows. The Texas Broadcasting Company, whose majority shareholder was Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird, launched KTBC-TV 7 on Thanksgiving Day 1952. For seven years, KTBC was the only television station in Central Texas, giving it the unique opportunity to pick and choose programs from all three broadcast networks, as well as an ironclad monopoly on local television profits. The president—who would shock the nation by refusing to run for reelection in 1968, in large part due to the televised images of the bloody Vietnam War delivered into our nation’s living rooms—was clearly rising above self-interest in spurring the betterment of public television. (In time, the president’s legacy to public television would extend to Austin’s public television station, KLRU, where Johnson’s daughter, Luci Baines Johnson, now serves on the board of directors.)

It must be noted that the Carnegie Commission was not setting about to invent public television, but to figure out how best to organize it for maximum benefit. Public television already existed in abundance. In 1951 the FCC had allocated the first 242 television channels for noncommercial broadcasting, declaring, “The public interest will be served if these stations contribute significantly to the educational process of the nation.” In response, public television stations popped up all over the country. The first was in Houston, where KUHT hit the airwaves in May 1953. Public television would not arrive in Central Texas until more than nine years later.

The Carnegie Commission took its job quite seriously, visiting ninety-two educational television stations in the United States and observing television systems in seven foreign countries. In 1967, the Commission delivered its recommendations, stating, “The goal we seek is an instrument for the free communication of ideas in a free society.” The Carnegie Commission proposed to achieve this goal by establishing a trust fund to benefit the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This would free public television from annual governmental budgeting and appropriations procedures, and the political maneuvering that comes with it.

Recognizing the need for independent funding would prove farsighted. But the proposed source of money for the trust fund—an excise tax on television sets, beginning at two percent and rising to five percent—was not enacted. According to Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, (CIPB), the excise tax was axed because of lobbying by the National Association of Public Broadcasters: “As a consequence, PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) has forever been in a survival mode, always vulnerable to those who control the purse strings.” CIPB is a nonprofit organization founded in 1999 with part of its financial backing coming courtesy of journalist Bill Moyers, who it should be noted served as a special assistant to President Johnson, 1963-1967.

In February 1967, President Johnson weighed in on the Carnegie Commission’s report by addressing Congress. He noted that 178 noncommercial television stations were either already on the air or under construction, with the combined potential to reach close to 150 million people. “Noncommercial television and radio in America, even through supported by federal funds, must be absolutely free from any federal government interference over programming,” Johnson told the assembled lawmakers. The president urged quick passage of legislation, and later that same year, he signed the Public Broadcasting Act into law.

In 1969 the first federal funds, $5 million, were authorized for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). CPB created PBS and National Public Radio. PBS incorporated with a mission to interconnect public television stations. For the current fiscal year, which ends September 30, 2002, Congress appropriated $350 million for CPB.

President Johnson’s insistence that public broadcasting be free of federal government interference was ignored by subsequent administrations. Cutbacks during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, for example, halted the gradual rise that otherwise marks the CPB’s budget.

Forty years in Central Texas

It took the organizers of public television for Central Texas six years to get a station on the air. Diane Holloway, television reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, wrote in 1997 that Robert Schenkkan came to Austin in 1958 to build the station, and he was in charge when it signed on the air in September 1962. KLRN-TV 9 was established as a joint-city licensee to serve Austin and San Antonio, with a transmitter located in New Braunfels. The station’s license was held by the Southwest Texas Public Broadcasting Council, an organization with members from Austin, San Antonio, and other communities in the region. Primary broadcast operations were located on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.

In 1979, a second transmitter, also licensed to the Southwest Texas Public Broadcasting Council, began operation in Austin as KLRU-TV 18. (Technically, this means that KLRU itself isn’t really forty years old, although public television service to Austin certainly is.) Separate governing boards were established for the two stations in 1980. In 1987, the Southwest Texas Public Broadcasting Council was dissolved, and governance of KLRU came under the Capital of Texas Public Telecommunications Council. Today, KLRU is the only locally owned television station in Austin.

By all accounts, the man most responsible for what the station was to become was Bill Arhos. In a career that spanned thirty-eight years, he served as everything from camera man to president and general manager, attaining the latter post in 1986. According to a story in the Austin American-Statesman in February 2000, pegged to his impending retirement, Arhos moved to Austin in 1961, when KLRU was getting ready to launch. Arhos is credited with implementing methods of fund-raising that kept the station afloat, including auctions and on-air pledge drives.

Arhos’ monumental contributions to the station include starting Austin City Limits, the program that probably has done more to draw national attention to Austin than anything else. And what an enduring legacy that is. The show’s twenty-eighth season kicks off October 5 starring Bonnie Raitt, with special guests John Prine, Oliver Mtukudzi, and Roy Rogers. Over the years, Austin City Limits has featured more than five hundred different regional and internationally acclaimed artists on its stage.

KLRU_BONNIEThe crucial initial funding for the program that would showcase the music scene flourishing in Austin in the early seventies resulted from the proposal penned to PBS by Arhos when he was KLRU’s program director. That brought money for the pilot episode. Willie Nelson taped the pilot performance in 1974 in Studio 6A, on the sixth floor of the communications building at UT Austin, which still serves as the set for the show. According to the Austin City Limits website, “Nelson’s program set fund-raising records for PBS stations across the south in 1975. As a result, PBS ordered ten more programs for 1976.” When the innovative sounds of artists like Asleep at the Wheel, Townes Van Zandt, B.W. Stevenson, the Charlie Daniels Band, Marcia Ball, Jerry Jeff Walker and others landed in the living rooms of America, it was history in the making. A year later Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues” became the theme song synonymous with Austin City Limits, and America has been going home with the Armadillo ever since.

While the bands continue to rock the Austin City Limits stage, there have been times when the show’s survival seemed in doubt. For one thing, the show has always been kept on a rather lean budget. How lean? Well let’s put it this way: Where on earth besides Austin City Limits could you get Brooks & Dunn—who have sold twenty-two million albums, scored eighteen number-one hits, and been named Entertainers of the Year three times—to be on your show for the not-so-princely sum of $3,869 for the whole band of ten people? That’s union scale wages set by the American Federation of Musicians.

KLRU_MCCARROLLJohn McCarroll, KLRU president and general manager, says, “I remember signing a check for Garth Brooks for $684 and I thought, he probably doesn’t even know he got it…Somebody like that would charge $50,000 or $100,000 for a show.” For most acts, KLRU doesn’t even pay to get the bands to Austin, instead relying upon Producer Terry Lickona’s links to the music industry, to snag a touring group that’s in the vicinity.

If these embarrassingly cheap rates make you think you’d like to have a top act over to play at your kid’s birthday party, fuhgedaboutit. While the performers are playing for what to them would be chump change, this public television program provides national exposure. Lickona’s been quoted as saying that’s worth a lot, for example in helping to revive the career of Canadian Leonard Cohen after his first appearance. McCarroll says, “I think they really feel like they’re paying back to their fans by allowing a noncommercial use of their music, and it’s being presented uninterrupted for one full hour on television.”

KLRU_MARY_BETHAdds Mary Beth Rogers, vice chair of the KLRU Board of Directors, “We don’t tell these artists you’ve got to have a high-value production number, you’ve got to do this or you’ve got to do that. They can try out new stuff, because…nobody says you’ve got to play this or you can’t play that. So they like the venue because they can do what they want to do. And so there’s a range of artistic creation possible for the show here they don’t always get elsewhere.”

Saving Austin City Limits

As a result of this next-to-free performances by the best acts in show business, Austin City Limits is able to steam along, season after season, on a budget that’s now about $1 million a year, modest indeed for a national production. But it’s still a big heap of money for a station whose total annual budget over the past several years has ranged from $6.3 million to $7.4 million.

Early on, the money to produce the show was provided by PBS; after all, it is a national program, and providing programming is what PBS does. “As hard times came along and Congressional funding was cut, PBS pretty much pulled the funding for that and a lot of other shows,” Rogers says. PBS created a tiered-fee system in which member stations had to pay for certain shows, and Austin City Limits was too expensive for many.

For awhile, that system looked like it might send Austin City Limits into a death spiral. Lickona has been with the show since its third season, and it’s his voice you hear introducing each act during the program. In an article written in connection with the show’s impending twenty-fifth season, Lickona told reporter Jim Caligiuri, “Every year at PBS meetings, programmers would approach me and tell me they loved the show but they couldn’t afford the fee that it cost to broadcast it.” It got to the point that only about sixty percent of PBS affiliates were carrying Austin City Limits. Not only that, but the fees charged for rights to broadcast the show were scaled so that bigger markets had to pay higher fees; that caused the biggest markets to drop the show. As a result, national underwriters bailed out.

“We made the decision in the twenty-fifth anniversary year, the only way we were going to get back on those stations that couldn’t afford to buy the show was to offer it free,” Rogers says. “Which meant we had to go bite the bullet to raise corporate underwriting or whatever funds we could get to pay for the production costs. Finding underwriting proved to be quite a challenge. During the dot-bomb era of the twenty-sixth season, for example, two high-tech companies, Agillion based in Austin and Bluron based in North Carolina, signed contracts but then flamed out.

How difficult is it to raise the money? Rogers says she gauges it by how hard it is to sleep at night. “That year when we lost that Austin City Limits underwriting, that was a sleepless year.”

One of the things that has boosted financial support locally for Austin City Limits is putting on galas that have been highly successful. This fiscal year, KLRU was able to produce two galas, instead of the usual one, grossing $845,000, with the second event keyed to opening the expanded Austin Convention Center. Next month, yet another event will benefit the show, when the Austin City Limits Music Festival kicks off September 28-29 at Zilker Park. (Six stages. Top acts. Tickets $20 for one day, $35 for the weekend if bought by August 15. For details visit www.aclfestival.com.)

Still, McCarroll describes Austin City Limits as a “break-even or a lose-money situation.” This despite the fact that some money flows from the license granted to CMT Television to rebroadcast some of the earliest programs from Austin City Limits archives.

For awhile, another factor in Austin City Limits not being picked up by other PBS stations was the competing PBS program Sessions at West 54th. California-based Gloria Medel of Automatic Productions, which produced Sessions, says the show aired for three seasons ending in 2000, then died, “Basically due to the fiscal climate. It’s very difficult for companies to put up money to finance shows.”

McCarroll says when Sessions lost its funding, it was, “Oh, well, we’re not going to do it anymore.” But KLRU is rock-solid behind Austin City Limits and is looking for another twenty-eight years. “We’re going to ride out the good times and the bad because we’re in it for the long-term,” he declares. “It’s not a matter of, well we don’t have the funding this year, we’ll not do it. It’s something that is so important to this station—and we believe to Austin—that’s it’s gotta be there. And we’re going to work toward that.” To the everlasting gratitude of PBS.

Wayne Godwin, chief operating officer of PBS, says of Austin City Limits, “If you’re talking about national shows, it’s literally right up there in the category with the Masterpiece Theatres, the Novas, the Washington Week in Review, programs that we would consider to be high-profile, part of the legacy collection of the public broadcasting series.” Godwin says that Austin City Limits in its twenty-seventh season last year reached ninety-eight percent of television households in the United States. Which proves that KLRU’s decision to ditch the tiered fees, and give the program free to any station that would broadcast it, achieved the desired result: almost universal acceptance.

The value of the show reaching nearly every household in the nation is incalculable, but it’s obviously a boost to Austin’s growth, especially in attracting companies that bring jobs, draw skilled workers, and increase prosperity.

Saralee Tiede, vice president of communications for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, puts it this way: “Austin City Limits conveys an image that we couldn’t buy with advertising, that this is a cool, hip place to be.” The show’s popularity paves the way for the chamber’s recruiters when they fan out all over the country to spread the gospel about Austin’s virtues. “When we go out to talk to people in San Jose or Boston or Toronto or other places, they already know who we are,” Tiede says, “and a lot of other cities can’t say that.”

That point is underscored by PBS’ Godwin: “I think the fact that it’s Austin City Limits, and not merely a new wave country music show, is a wonderful commentary on the station’s commitment to the city, as well as the benefit that community derives from it. There’s no way you can drive into Austin and not think of that station and that legacy they’ve created.”

National programming

Like any of the nation’s 349 PBS member stations, KLRU relies greatly upon the programs provided by the national organization. KLRU paid about $728,000 for those programs in the current fiscal year, plus roughly $30,000 for programs procured from other sources as well. These expenses are more than met by the community service grant received from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which this fiscal year totaled $877,000.

These payments to PBS buy a mother lode of high-quality programs that fill the station’s broadcasting over Channel 18 (Time Warner Cable Channel 9) as well as KLRU2 programs made available to viewers through Time Warner Cable Channel 20. The second cable channel offers KLRU a savvy way to repackage programs to give viewers multiple opportunities to catch a favorite show, like The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. The show is shown three times each weekday evening, once on KLRU starting at six o’clock, and then twice on KLRU2 starting at seven and ten o’clock.

From the station’s viewpoint, the biggest attraction to KLRU2, says Rogers: “It allows us to do a large block of children’s programming. We do a seven-and-a-half hour block of children’s programming on KLRU2, which is more than we do on Channel 9.”

Other important national shows get similar treatment, for example, Washington Week in Review, Wall Street Week, Mystery!, and, in season, Frontline.

While PBS programs such as The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer are in the pantheon of the gods, so far as PBS is concerned, even this program, whose anchor has been the sole moderator of all debates in the last two presidential elections, has its critics. In December 1990, the Austin American-Statesman reported the flak levied against the show by watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. The group found the show to be “virtually a mouthpiece for the establishment and the power elite, with the viewpoints of minorities and women underrepresented in its coverage of issues.” Never mind that a Gallup Poll in 1986 found the NewsHour to be the most believed program in America.

Today, Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting (CIPB) is in the forefront of the reform movement, claiming some seventeen chapters around the country; most are on the West Coast and in the northeast. There are no chapters in Texas. Jerold “Jerry” Starr, who teaches sociology at West Virginia University in Morgantown and lives in Pittsburgh, is the group’s executive director.

Starr says CIPB was initiated when he was approached by Bill Moyers and Jack Willis. Moyers is not only a respected journalist, but at the time was president of the Florence and John Schumann Foundation. Willis, a former head of public television stations in Minneapolis-St. Paul and New York City, was connected to the Open Society Institute, which is funded by the Soros Foundations. Moyers and Willis supplied the funding for CIPB to educate the public, and public officials, about the need for public broadcasting reform, Starr says. All this was the result of a growing concern for what Starr calls “media democracy,” a concern that grew stronger in the wake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which allowed far greater monopolies in media holdings.

To understand what CIPB is about, one only need recognize that its most important goal is to establish a trust fund for public broadcasting—as recommended by the original Carnegie Commission in 1967. The trust fund is an idea which has been advanced and defeated countless times since the Carnegie Commission’s proposal. CIPB states the trust fund is crucially important because it would allow public broadcasting to focus on what the public needs, rather than on what corporations or the federal government will pay for.

“PBS member stations…produce somewhere between eighty-five and a hundred hours of local programming a year, that’s all,” Starr says. “And national programming is concentrated in just three stations, Boston, Washington, and New York, and they account for sixty percent of all national programming. Another twenty percent that is independently produced comes through those (three) stations, as presenting stations…So it’s highly concentrated.”

PBS Chief Operating Officer Wayne Godwin agrees with Starr, as to where the programs originate. “I think it’s fair to say that…WGBH in Boston, WNET in New York, and WETA in Washington are leaders in presenting the national schedule,” he says. Godwin says the strength of the production system is that national programming marries the funding from corporations and the federal government with funding from the stations and their membership base. “That allows PBS to be one of the most recognized brands as far as quality and trusted media in the country, perhaps even in the world.”

Starr views it differently, saying, “One of our great concerns is that, by and large, PBS has failed to provide local programming that reflects the diversity of the community.” Starr says the overarching question becomes, “‘Which corporation is going to be interested in a program like this?’ rather than ‘What does the public really need to be educated about?'” Starr knows nothing about KLRU, of course, and his comments are aimed at PBS in general.

PBS increasingly commercial

Starr says it’s getting to the point where public television is almost indistinguishable from commercial television, except public television doesn’t run commercials in the middle of a program.

If Starr sounds like a voice in the wilderness, think again. The Wall Street Journal, certainly no bastion of liberalism, ran a story last month that quoted critics who said that PBS is getting too close to its underwriters. The story pointed to a Sesame Street practice, only recently discontinued, in which a furry red character would hear his computer shout, “You’ve got mail!” As everyone knows, that’s a line ripped directly from AOL Time Warner Inc.’s marketing campaign for its on-line service. AOL is a major underwriter for the program.

Citing the PBS Annual Report, the Journal noted that PBS shows that target kids were underwritten by five corporations in amounts of more than $1 million, and by another three for more than $500,000. Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular TV at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, was quoted in the story. Thompson said, “It used to be, ‘The following program is brought to you with support from Mobil.’ Now it is a moving video and some of it is pretty substantial—it’s longer, it’s a full-fledged commercial. It’s no longer just a mention. It’s a commercial, pure and simple, and sometimes not so pure and simple.”

The growing trend toward full-fledged commercials on public television has irked more than one federal lawmaker. U.S. Representative W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-Louisiana), who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, noted in an address during the PBS annual meeting in 1998 that Congress had been “schizophrenic” about public broadcasting, holding down its federal subsidy while complaining about commercialization. Tauzin’s Public Broadcasting Reform Act of 1998 proposed a blue-ribbon commission to recommend a long-range funding mechanism, plus a hefty increase in federal funding in the interim. In exchange, public broadcasters would face a significant rollback in the commercialization of underwriting credits. No more thirty-second spots. Public broadcasters liked the idea, but as with so many other proposals to reform funding for public broadcasting, the legislation went nowhere.

Nor did the recommendations of the Gore Commission, appointed by President Bill Clinton and formally known as the Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters. Among that Commission’s ten recommendations delivered in 1998: “Congress should create a trust fund to ensure enhanced and permanent funding for public broadcasting to help it fulfill its potential in the digital television environment and remove it from the vicissitudes of the political process.”

With no permanent funding solution in sight, PBS continues to scramble for funding, and to that end underwriting rules were liberalized even further in June 2002. The PBS board approved changes to allow corporate mascots to appear in the underwriting credits for PBS kids’ shows—as long as they don’t move. “Primetime sponsorship guidelines will allow depiction of multiple products in a spot, appearances by employees or celebrities expressing support for public TV, and toll-free phone numbers and web site addresses,” said a July 8 report in Current, an independent newspaper covering public broadcasting. “The hope is this will help improve the underwriting climate,” said Catherine Hogan, senior director of program management and underwriting policy for PBS. In other words, to better compete for sponsorship money, PBS will allow even more commercial content to invade its programming.

If television viewers are concerned about the increasingly commercialized aspects of public television, they must be having fits over the latest gimmick being tried out on commercial television stations: pop-up ads, tied into the story content. A recent report from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, published in the Statesman July 18, described a movie in which actor Steve Martin’s wife and daughter are both pregnant. Suddenly up jumps an advertisement covering the bottom of the television screen: “Expecting a baby? Call American Express Financial Services.”

With these ever more aggressive advertising tactics on commercial stations, how can PBS survive by taking the high road? Corporate underwriting at PBS totaled $221 million last year, up from $175 million the year before, Godwin confirms, noting that revenue is booked in the year in which programs air. This year’s a different story. “Anything that looks at the advertising base from the commercial marketplace probably has some degree of difficulty this past year, and we’re no different,” Godwin says.

At the national level at least, the trend is toward convergence of commercial and public television, not so much in content as in the concessions to gain revenue. This situation is exacerbated by an economy worsening daily, as major companies disclose billions of dollars in overstated profits, accounting scandals, record-high corporate bankruptcies, and a stock market sliding rapidly into the toilet.

Which is why the CIPB’s proposal to establish a trust fund for public television has at least enough merit to warrant consideration. No pikers, CIPB asks for a trust fund large enough to provide a yield of $1 billion per year. The alternatives offered to provide that revenue include (pick one) either a five percent tax on factory sales of digital television sets (if that sounds familiar, recall the excise tax proposed by the Carnegie Commission in 1967); a five percent tax on the sale or transfer of commercial broadcast licenses; a two percent tax on annual broadcast advertising; a two percent annual spectrum fee; or a tax on the auction of up to $100 billion in digital spectrum; or any smaller combination of the above.

If this sounds far-fetched, consider the results of a December 1998 national survey of 1,150 adults conducted by Lake Snell Perry & Associates, a national political research firm based in Washington, DC. Seventy-nine percent favored (forty-eight percent strongly favored) a specific proposal to require commercial broadcasters to pay five percent of their revenues into a fund for public broadcasting, to provide more educational and noncommercial programming.

Newton Minow, the former FCC chair who in 1961 had confronted the National Association of Broadcasters, was a member of the Gore Commission. His written statement, made part of the Gore Commission’s report in December 1998, said, “Howard Stern’s new television show featured Stern shaving a young woman’s pubic area. Have our broadcast standards descended to a level where public interest is confused with pubic interest?”

But the problem is far more serious than matters of taste. The situation is destroying democracy. Minow, addressing the fact that the National Association of Broadcasters fervently opposes auctioning of the public airwaves, wrote, “We now have a colossal irony. Politicians sell access to something we own: our government. Broadcasters sell access to something we own: our public airways. Both do so, they tell us, in our name. By creating this system of selling and buying access, we have a campaign system that makes good people do bad things and bad people do worse things, a system that we do not want, that corrupts and trivializes public discourse, and that we have the power and duty to change.”

Local programming

While KLRU produces the stellar national program Austin City Limits, to the tune of $1 million a year, its resources for other local programs are modest, so modest that KLRU managers haven’t bothered to calculate the costs. Still, the station manages to produce two weekly local shows that have strong followings: Austin at Issue and Central Texas Gardener. Both are hosted by Tom Spencer, who last month celebrated his twentieth year with the station.

Austin at Issue, like so many things that KLRU does, was the brainchild of former station honcho Bill Arhos. Spencer says that in the late eighties KLRU was doing a weekly show called Austin Online, in a freewheeling magazine format that allowed plenty of room for lighter topics. (Spencer thinks Lyle Lovett’s first televised appearance may have been on this very show.) Significant public affairs topics were usually confined to a segment of no more than fifteen minutes. “Arhos felt the thing the station most needed was to delve into issues more thoroughly,” Spencer says.

Thus, Austin at Issue was launched in 1989 as a weekly one-hour show. Initially it was devoted to one topic per program, but that proved to be too much of a stretch for most topics. So the show was broken into segments, one called the headline interview, for such things as local politics, and an ideas interview, which might feature almost anyone with interesting ideas to spread around.

“My favorite segments include one where I had Ernie Cortes (Ernesto Cortes Jr.)—a political organizer, formerly an Austinite, widely respected throughout the nation as one of the leading grass-roots organizers—and author William Greider, who wrote Who Will Tell The People: The Betrayal of American Democracy.” The result was a high-level conversation about such things as the corruption of American democracy, with an electrifying exchange between the two guests. Viewers responded. “We got phone calls and letters for weeks after that interview aired,” Spencer says of that 1994 program.

Whether it’s an interview with Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, author of Why Christianity Must Change or Die, a man Spencer calls “the most controversial bishop in all of Christendom,” or a bunch of local journalists who pounce on the hot political issues of the day, suffice it say that Austin at Issue has established itself under Spencer’s guidance to do something that no other television show in Austin will allow, provide an hour’s unfettered discussion. (Full disclosure: I have been a regular, unpaid guest on the show when the topic is local government and politics; Spencer writes a column on gardening for The Good Life.)

“Our audience is not huge but they’re not couch potatoes. They’re hungry for information. And they act on it—that’s another critical fact,” Spencer says. “People who watch the show are active, curious, and one other thing we know about them: they vote.” Which is why local candidate forums are a vital part of the show, during election season. “A lot of times, especially for down-ballot candidates, this is the only chance these candidates have to appear in the media, and it gives the people at home, within a five- or ten-minute segment for each candidate, the chance to size them up and say, ‘Are they sharp? Can they speak English? Do they seem to have their wits about them?’ You can tell a lot in that length of time.”

Most weeks, Austin at Issue airs for an hour on KLRU and is rebroadcast three times, twice on KLRU and once on KLRU2. Spencer’s co-producer on the show is Susan Abrams. “She’s been absolutely invaluable,” Spencer says. “She fills gaps and brings her own ideas.”

The other local KLRU show with a strong following is Central Texas Gardener, which actually got on the air about a year before Austin at Issue, Spencer says. After a few features and a couple of special programs on gardening drew strong responses, Spencer and fellow KLRU staffer Linda Lehmusvirta teamed up as co-producers for what at first was a monthly show. “After doing the specials, we were flooded with phone calls, hundreds of phone calls,” Spencer says, “and we thought, ‘Hey, we’re onto something.’ We’re both gardeners. We just lobbied.” That monthly show became a weekly half-hour gig that’s still running, although Lehmusvirta does all the producing now, meaning she’s responsible for the show’s preparation, content, and booking of guests, and Spencer is the on-air host.

Creative freedom like that is what keeps Spencer thrilled with his work, that and the fact that the station has given him the time to explore other things. One of those other things that’s meant a lot to KLRU is documentaries. His most recent was The Painted Churches of Texas, which he describes as “purely a labor of love.” Of documentaries, Spencer says, “You have to love doing it, because you don’t make any money doing it and it’s just extra work, more than anything else. Especially toward the end, nearing crunch time, it’s your life. You live it and breathe it seven days a week until you finish it.

“But when it airs, and people start calling and you start getting letters about how it has touched people—I’ll tell you it’s a dream job. I have to pinch myself all the time that I’ve been given this opportunity to pursue things I love, things that I think are important, and try to get them out there. I don’t think there are many people who have that, so I feel very fortunate.” Not bad for a guy who had to be awfully persistent to get an unpaid internship at the station, just to get his foot in the door.

Painted Churches turned into a moneymaker for not only KLRU but other Central Texas public television stations, which aired it during pledge drives to ring up strong support. Spencer estimates he’s put together about a dozen documentary projects, and about six have aired nationally, the first in 1989, an hour-long piece on the writer James Michener.

Spencer is also KLRU’s emcee of choice for a number of special local programs, including town meetings on topics like the digital divide and a vision for Austin’s future. These kinds of projects grow out of a part of the station’s mission that extends far beyond concerns of what’s going to plug a hole in the program schedule. It’s called the Public Square. The Board of Directors in fact made KLRU’s primary goal to bring to Central Texas ideas and information to enhance education, culture, and citizenship—on air and in the community. Public television would “become the catalyst for discussions about important issues, as well as the convener of key interest groups who have a stake in the future of the community.”

Want to address youth and gang violence? KLRU’s been there, done that. Ripping a tactic from Ernie Cortes playbook for empowering people at the grass roots, Spencer says, he realized that the community needs to develop the program, rather than the television station swooping in and saying, this is what we’re going to do. “I think that’s one that had lasting impact,” he says. “A lot of real connections were made. Things did happen. Programs moved forward.” Which is the desired outcome. The hope is that projects like this won’t fail Socrates’ test: “Talk without action is meaningless.” “We don’t ever pretend we’re going to solve the problem,” Spencer says. “But we can serve as a catalyst that brings together the right people, where they can get together and say, ‘Hey, I didn’t know you were interested in this, too. Why don’t we get together and do something?’ ” KLRU’s outreach coordinator, Karen Quebe, has been a full collaborator in all these special efforts. She has worked with dozens of community groups, helping them to coalesce, and integrating their talents into the station’s projects.

“Media people get all puffed up if they change the world,” Spencer adds, “but we don’t do that—maybe once in a lifetime if we get lucky. But what we do is impact people to act themselves, and that’s where change happens.”

Beyond Limits

It hasn’t been publicly announced and probably won’t be for another year, but KLRU is in the midst of a capital campaign, called “Beyond Limits,” with the goal of raising $15 million. The figures are somewhat fluid as the campaign evolves, but the original outline was to designate the lion’s share, $9 million, for a Digital Innovation Fund. Another $3 million would go into a Program Venture Fund. And another $3 million would go into an Endowment Fund. The overall goal may be reduced somewhat as costs come down for equipment needed to make the conversion to digital broadcasting.

Vice Chair Rogers says about $5.5 million has already been raised in the “quiet period” through contributions from board members and other donors. Rogers says the board is not yet ready to release the names of individual donors. She says the forty-nine KLRU board members have collectively kicked in for about $3.5 million over the past two fiscal years, although not all of that money went into the capital campaign.

But the overall progress of the campaign has been good. “When you go to seek foundation funding, they want to know what your own board has done, and our board has been very generous,” Rogers says.

Board Chair Martha Smiley, executive vice president for corporate policy and services at Grande Communications Inc., says of the board’s financial support, “I’m very pleased with the commitment of our board to put their money where their ideas are.”

Board Member Gary Valdez of Focus Strategies, a company that provides corporate finance and merchant banking services, has been on the KLRU board for fourteen years, minus a couple of years in which he did not participate. Valdez says he’s pretty sure that every board member participated in the capital campaign.

The conversion to digital broadcasting will be assisted in part by the State of Texas. The fourteen public television stations in Texas obtained a grant totaling $20 million from the state’s Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund to create a Texas interconnect system that links the public television stations in what will be called the Texas Educational Broadcast Network, Rogers says. In return for the grant, the Network will provide bandwidth to the state for uses to be determined later, she says. KLRU is slated to get nearly $1 million from that grant to build its portion of the digital interconnect. That money will be used to purchase the digital transmitter KLRU needs to meet the federally mandated May 2003 deadline to begin broadcasting a digital signal.

Rogers says that she’s ninety-nine percent certain that, barring a glitch, KLRU will be broadcasting digital signals by the mandated May 2003 deadline.

But what is digital broadcasting? Well the details can quickly become stupefying. A good primer is posted on the PBS web site at www.pbs.org/opb/crashcourse, titled “Digital TV: A Cringely Crash Course.” (The course includes a brief history of television as well.)

In a nutshell, employing a digital television transmitter will permit KLRU to broadcast at least four programs simultaneously—perhaps more, depending upon how technology evolves—as well as other data streams. This contrasts with the now ancient analog technology, which allows stations to broadcast a single program, plus a bit of data such as closed captioning for the hearing impaired, says KLRU President and General Manager John McCarroll.

Digital television is not itself high-definition television, but the option is inherent in digital television to broadcast high-definition programs, says Rogers. Instead of using the available capacity (called bandwidth) for four programs, the station could broadcast only one program, in one major signal. The result would be sharper images and high-quality sound equivalent to Lucas systems in theatres, Rogers says. “You can either compress the data into smaller and smaller units, or you can fill the space that you have with one signal, and when this is all filled, it’s high definition.”

Currently KLRU broadcasts an analog signal over Channel 18 and will continue to do so until the federal government requires broadcasters to cease analog operation and relinquish the analog frequencies, which is scheduled for 2006. When KLRU commences transmitting digitally, that signal will be broadcast on Channel 22, Rogers says.

Meanwhile, if you don’t have cable service for your television, no sweat. You can continue to receive all the programs on analog broadcasts on Channel 18. If your old set dies, or you just want to convert to get the digital broadcasts, some of which will be in high-definition format, then you can buy a suitable new set and pick up the programs on Channel 22.

According to The Association of Public Television Stations, seventy-six public stations are already broadcasting digitally, including seven that have been doing so since 1998. Rogers and McCarroll say they have delayed implementation of digital broadcasting to allow time for the technology to improve. But in the meantime, some new digital equipment has been purchased.

Rogers says, “We started the systems upgrade three years ago, on everything from computers to internal systems to the broadcast equipment. And by 2006…we’ll have everything that we need to do the editing, production—state of the art. We haven’t been an early adapter and that was deliberate, because we hoped that prices would start coming down, and in fact that’s what’s been happening.”

McCarroll says KLRU has acquired a digital audio board and seven new digital cameras with high-definition capability, and these are being used for locally produced programs.

More local content coming

As important as it is to advance technologically, the Transformation Project that Rogers is leading may be of even more benefit to KLRU’s 25,000 members, who contributed $2 million to the station this year. In June, she was freed of day-to-day responsibilities as president and CEO and booted upstairs to become vice chair of the KLRU board, and McCarroll was promoted from general manager to president.

Rogers had been campaign manager to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ann Richards in the general election of 1990. When Richards was elected governor, Rogers served as her chief of staff until 1992, then resigned to teach at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and finish her second book, Barbara Jordan: American Hero. Rogers was later recruited to be president and CEO of KLRU, a job she started in February 1998. Bill Arhos, who had been running the station single-handedly as president and general manager, and was nearing retirement, welcomed Rogers’ involvement.

KLRU Board Chair Martha Smiley joined the board in 1998 at the behest of Rogers and other friends on the board. “I just know that wherever Mary Beth is involved, there’s going to be good things happening,” Smiley says.

Asked to explain the Transformation Project, Smiley says, it begins with assessing what the community needs and then figuring out how to deliver it, while recognizing that KLRU’s role extends far beyond broadcasting PBS programs.

All KLRU officials seem to believe that the station will be developing a lot more local programs as it moves through the Transformation Project. One already in development is a Hispanic business show, being piloted in conjunction with the Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce. Rogers says the show likely will be developed this fall and aired beginning next spring. The strategy would be to not only broadcast the show locally but offer it to other Texas PBS member stations.

Smiley says, “I’m really hungry for a local public affairs program, where people who understand the complexities of our community and are thoughtful and reflective leaders can discuss the nature of the issues, the implications of different choices that we face, and really help us understand the critical needs and the critical decision points that we face as a community.” This show could address not only local issues but regional and even statewide issues, she says.

Board Member Gary Valdez says that when he ponders KLRU’s future possibilities, he recalls the wisdom in a book by Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t. He said the book talks about the need for an organization to have the capacity to look at the needs of its customers in the future, and try to intersect those needs with your organization. “That’s probably the best description of Mary Beth’s new job,” Valdez says. “That’s one of Mary Beth’s strong suits.”

As for local program possibilities, Valdez says, “I’m a big fan of Tom Spencer’s. It would be nice to have a NewsHour with Jim Lehrer for Central Texas.”

While flattered, Spencer observes that local news is already being done by News8 and the network affiliates. “They don’t do the in-depth conversations and the details that you would find in a NewsHour-style program, but they are covering the waterfront and they do it quickly…I’m not sure a NewsHour-style program is the answer. But that will come out of the planning process. That’s why we’re going to embark on the Transformation Project, to really engage the community and one another within the station.”

According to Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, perhaps as few as sixteen PBS member stations have local news broadcasts, and PBS officials say that number may be shrinking. The reason, Rogers says, is these shows are too expensive. Rogers agrees with Spencer that it would be not only costly but unnecessarily duplicative to do a local news program. She says News8, KVUE, KXAN and KEYE already cover the spot news, the crime, the fires, the floods.

Rogers says, “I think the role of a public television station is for what you do cover in public affairs and public events, is to try to assess impact and meaning, and give people objective information so they can make informed decisions. I think as we go to more local programming, we can do more of that kind of viewing of our own community than in a hot-news operation. I think Tom Spencer does a lot of that on Austin at Issue, but because it’s a weekly show and a relatively low-budget show done in-house, there’s probably a range of issues that we can’t get to.”

“So when I’m talking about doing programming, I’m talking about expanding that, maybe a slightly different format, to look at issues in a different way,” Rogers adds. That new format could cover Austin’s arts, film, and literature, for example, and mine the vast resources of the University of Texas campus. What the station will be doing for the next few months, she says, is “looking at what does this community need that we can offer that nobody else can? And then, okay, how do you put that into specific projects or programs? And then what does it cost to do that, and what kind of resources do you need to be able to make that happen?”

Rogers says, “That’s our goal. I’m not sure exactly what form it’s going to take. We’re going to give ourselves enough time to get it right, to plan it, to figure out how we’re going to fund it…And (KLRU’s) fortieth anniversary is a way to precipitate this.”

Asked whether she thought KLRU’s budget would have to be increased to pursue these local initiatives, Rogers replies, “I hope not significantly. I think we’re in a period where we’re not going to see these dramatic increases in giving. Everybody’s holding back, of necessity.”

“I think it’s the future of public television is to be anchored to your local community in a way that you can provide meaning and relevance to the local community,” Rogers says. “We’re going to continue to get fabulous PBS programs that do that on a national level. We have very little control of that in terms of shaping (content). We’re the beneficiary of that. But we do have some control over what we do locally.”

Rogers has been at KLRU going on five years. Spencer’s been with the station two decades, and the Transformation Project adds up to a lot more than a chance to do a feel-good exercise or even simply serve the community better. It’s more serious than that.

“There’s a growing sense that cable is eating our market share and stealing our best ideas,” Spencer says. The proof? “The first home-improvement program, the first nature program, the first science program, the first history program were all started here (at PBS), and now entire networks are devoted to these niches. And a lot of people are wondering about the future of public broadcasting. Can we survive? And the ratings show that these cable casters are hurting us. They are eating into our audience. So what’s the answer for public broadcasting? Do we still have a mission?

“That’s why this planning process, this Transformation Project that we’re engaged in right now, is so important,” he says. “Because I think KLRU can be a model for the whole PBS system. I really believe that. I think that Mary Beth is going to lead us in the direction that will set the future for the entire PBS, that it’s going to come from Austin, Texas. That future, I believe, is maintaining the highest standards for national programs that we air, but also really mining the treasures in our own backyard and getting those before our local audience. Making a difference here will ensure the survival of KLRU.”

Ken Martin, editor of The Good Life, swore off TV about fifteen years ago, but after examining KLRU for this story, he’s considering tuning in—especially if more local programs are developed.

Television Milestones

1884: Paul Nipkow invents mechanical television, the forerunner of electronic television.

1935: Vladimir Zworykin and Philo Farnsworth are both broadcasting intermittently using all-electronic systems.

1939: Zworykin and Farnsworth kick off regular broadcasting at the World’s Fair in New York.

1941: The National Television Standards Committee (NTSC) writes guidelines for electronic television transmission; soon all 22 US television stations convert to the new standard.

1951: The Federal Communications Commission allocates the first 242 television channels for noncommercial broadcasting.

1952: KTBC-TV 7, Austin’s first television station, goes on the air on Thanksgiving Day. For seven years it would remain Austin’s only television station.

1953: The first educational television station, KUHT in Houston, goes on the air. The NTSC adopts RCA’s system for color television.

1958: Robert Schenkkan arrives in Austin to build a public television station for Central Texas.

1960: The first televised presidential debate pits Richard M. Nixon against John F. Kennedy.

1961: Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, calls commercial television “a vast wasteland.”

1962: KLRN-TV 9 goes on the air as a joint operation to serve Austin, San Antonio, and surrounding communities. Bill Arhos, who is aboard at the launch, will later become president and general manager.

1967: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Public Broadcasting Act into law. The Carnegie Commission on Public Television’s recommendation to establish a trust fund for public broadcasting is not enacted, making public broadcasting dependent on federal funding.

1969: The first federal funds, $5 million, are authorized for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

1970: The CPB creates the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR).

1975: Willie Nelson is featured in a national pilot for Austin City Limits.

1979: KLRU-TV 18 goes on the air. Public television stations are interconnected by satellite.

1986: Bill Arhos is named president and general manager of KLRU.

1987: The Capital of Texas Public Telecommunications Council takes over the governance of KLRU.

1988: Central Texas Gardener debuts on KLRU.

1989: Austin at Issue debuts on KLRU.

1996: The Telecommunications Act becomes law, enabling greater concentration of media outlets.

1998: Mary Beth Rogers assumes duties of KLRU president and CEO.

1999: John B. McCarroll is hired as KLRU general manager.

2000: Garth Brooks opens the 25th Anniversary Season of Austin City Limits. Bill Arhos retires after 28 years with KLRU.

2001: PBS airs Lady Bird, the one-hour documentary about Lady Bird Johnson originated by KLRU and co-produced by KLRU and MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, which produces The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

2002: Mary Beth Rogers is promoted to vice chair of KLRU Board of Directors to lead the Transformation Project. John McCarroll is promoted to president.

2003: Public broadcasters are required to begin transmitting a digital signal by May.

—Ken Martin
This article was originally published in The Good Life magazine in August 2002