Distress Signals

KTCA tried to survive the public TV wars by being bigger and better. Too bad the grants dried up and the talent jumped ship.

Want to know what if feels like? Find a former employee from the now-defunct Twin Cities Reader, who worked for close to a year while his paper rotted on the auction block. Have coffee with a staffer at the Star Tribune, who spent her summer wondering if the newsroom ranks would be thinned by a union-squashing conglomerate. Talk with radio rebel Kevin Cole, who gave birth to REV 105 only to see it slowly suffocate in the crib. The dream gig becomes fodder for your nightmares.

Instead of being inspired by the day's challenges, work becomes a weighty chore. Half-true rumors paralyze your imagination. Pencil pushers toy with your emotions. You become distrustful, your peers begin to backstab. Instead of going the extra mile you're encouraged to look for shortcuts. Instead of taking risks you're asked to play it safe. Yet you refuse to throw in the towel, refuse to accept the inevitable.

Want to know what it looks like? Share some time with Tom Cushman, the producer of NewsNight Minnesota, a 30-minute, locally produced newscast aired Monday through Thursday on Twin Cities Public Television (TCPT), KTCA's channels 2 and 17. Spent by a string of 10-hour days, Cushman's red-rimmed eyes often have the pained glaze of a long-distance runner. Even before the NewsNight crew's daily staff meeting at 9:15 a.m. his face betrays traces of a 5 o'clock shadow. His voice, like his demeanor, is quiescent, its flatness accented only by the

occasional shrug. Yet he keeps grinding it out, searching the dark clouds for a silver lining; not so much for outward appearances as for self-preservation.

"Morale was hell a month ago," he says, shaking his head to convince himself. "But I think things are getting better. There are no guarantees, but I think things are getting better."

In reality, of course, things couldn't get much worse. High noon is creeping over the horizon, not only for NewsNight but for KTCA's managerial hierarchy, a jittery bunch still hoping to cash in on a long shot.

NewsNight--which first aired on April 25, 1994--was the brainchild of former TCPT CEO Jack Willis. It was to be a thoughtful alternative to Minneapolis's white-bread network affiliates; a nightly opportunity to make publicly funded broadcasting relevant on a local level. Reporters were encouraged to avoid sensational sound bites and flush out the most meaningful stories. Producers were charged with bringing unique sources into the studio for meaty debates and discussion. Funders were sold on the show as a means of giving voice to "communities underserved" by the mainstream media.

"We wanted people to leave the broadcast with a better understanding of how society worked," says Bill Hanley, now TCPT's executive vice president for content. "We wanted to emanate from a grassroots perspective, wanted to be representative of what real people were thinking."

Four years later, NewsNight is a shadow of Willis's vision. As production costs have escalated, a station-wide fiscal squeeze has decreased the program's budget from $1.7 million in 1995 to $1.4 million in 1997, resulting in less reporting from the field and more staid, in-studio segments. A staff shrunk from 15 to 10 has made it even more difficult to scoop the daily papers or keep pace with an overcrowded broadcast-news market. Worse, say former and current staffers, the lingering threat of outright extinction has bottomed out morale.

"It's become a show were you do stories that have no news peg or come a couple of weeks too late," says former NewsNight host Cathy Wurzer from her new post at WCCO-TV, where she's been since February. "What you have now is radio on TV. I think that spark is missing because people are worried about their jobs. And it's hard to slog it out day in and day out when you don't know your future."

Like Cushman, NewsNight's remaining staff--from co-anchor/reporter Lou Harvin to Associate Producer Susan Ahn--is trying to hold on until April 15, when the Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation will decide whether to approve a $1 million grant to help extend the show's life three more years. Even though Minneapolis's McKnight Foundation approved a like-size grant for the program at the end of March, the Blandin money is a must. Without it, says Willis's replacement, TCPT's new chief executive officer, James Pagliarini, it would take an unforeseen stream of cash to stay on the air beyond August.

The Blandin decision was originally scheduled for January, but was tabled until this month so the foundation could study NewsNight's effect on out-state Minnesota, home to the population Blandin seeks to serve. The postponement, coupled with stationwide layoffs and staff attrition, has fueled fears at KTCA of a worst-case scenario: that Blandin will conclude NewsNight has failed to reach rural viewers and not renew its initial three-year grant of $1 million, awarded in 1993.

And while no one still fighting for the money--Hanley and Pagliarini included--dares to guess which way the Blandin board will go, two former staffers at NewsNight, including Wurzer, say they abandoned ship in part because they sensed funding was drying up.

"All of us could've found other jobs by now," co-anchor Harvin says. "I guess at this point the feeling is that we might as well hang on for a few more weeks."

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