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.

Besides throwing the crew of NewsNight into a psychological tailspin, Blandin's do-or-die decision is forcing an internal debate over NewsNight's and KTCA's overall mission and effectiveness. If funding is approved for another cycle, Hanley and Pagliarini have made it clear NewsNight will become KTCA's flagship--an eventuality that terrifies many past and present staffers who mutter phrases such as "SnoozeNight," mourn the depletion of arts and cultural programming, and worry that the station's community mission will continue to be compromised by tight budgets and a lack of vision.

On the other hand, if NewsNight dies, it's not clear what would come next. Hanley says he hasn't had time to give it much thought. Pagliarini says he and the board would start over with a "blank page." Staffers, many of whom asked to talk off the record, hope it would mean a re-emphasis on locally produced documentaries and specials, not beholden to specific grants but funded by TCPT's core budget. Others believe it would kill any dwindling hopes for meaningful local production, turning KTCA into just another conduit for national programming.

Either way, the short life and hard times of NewsNight serve as a metaphor for the whole of KTCA. Known nationwide through most of the '80s and early '90s for its innovative, in-house programming, the station--like the show--has been backed into a corner, forced to compromise its vision in the name of survival.

ON FEBRUARY 25, Village Voice media columnist James Ledbetter was on Minnesota Public Radio's Mid-Morning program to discuss his 1997 book, Made Possible By...The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States. Sympathetic to the original spirit of public broadcasting, Ledbetter is unrelentingly critical of the institution's frequent short-sightedness and weak-kneed leadership.

To start the interview off, Mid-Morning host John Rabe asked about the local relevance of Ledbetter's criticisms, pointing out that TCPT has a long tradition of vital community programming, citing shows such as NewsNight. The author, in the interests of getting the ball rolling, acknowledged TCPT's nationwide reputation for community-minded production and noted that other PBS affiliates were piloting nightly programs much like NewsNight.

The next day TCPT management sent excerpts of the exchange out in an all-staff e-mail. The implicit message was clear: Even Ledbetter, one of PBS's fiercest critics, had to admit KTCA was above the fray, ahead of the pack. What the note didn't mention was that a number of locals who called in during that episode of Mid-Morning were worried about recent programming cuts at KTCA. Not surprisingly, the e-mail also avoided any references to Made Possible By..., since it goes a long way toward explaining why the St. Paul station is slipping.

"Minnesota does have a tremendous history of public broadcasting," Ledbetter says a few weeks after his MPR interview. "But it seemed to me the vast majority of the callers that morning were agreeing with me. That their local public broadcasters are getting too commercial, too safe. That they aren't doing what they should do."

In his book Ledbetter contends political pressures have forced stations like KTCA to imitate the free market, where alternative content is scant, community involvement curtailed, and political commentary squashed. He argues that these same broadcasters are cultivating a culture of fear, where eking out a survival keeps stations from really living.

"I call it the half-loaf argument," he says. "Advocates for public broadcasting are very content with the half loaf and scared to death that someone will turn it into a quarter loaf. It's self-defeating. If you make all the compromises necessary to keep the half loaf alive, you'll never have a system vital enough to make the public stand up and say they must have the full loaf. You're just treading water."

For longer than most public broadcasters, TCPT managed to buck the two-decade attack on PBS, which was spearheaded first by Ronald Reagan in the early '80s and then reinvigorated by House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 104th Congress. In 1988, TCPT spent $12 million raised in a capital campaign to build a state-of-the-art building in downtown St. Paul, complete with roomy office suites and two mammoth studios. Video editors were blessed with computers that dwarfed the industry standard, audio technicians were digitally wired, and ranking administrators enjoyed rooms with a view.

For the next five years KTCA's halls buzzed with the youthful, can-do energy of public television's best and brightest. They were rewarded with the chance to work on such cutting-edge documentaries as Hoop Dreams, and credited with generating local series such as Tapes Rolling and successfully franchising their nationally syndicated children's science show, Newton's Apple. Meanwhile longtime PBS heavy hitters such as New York City's WNET and Boston's WGBH floundered, replacing ambitious, community-minded programming with British sitcoms and gardening shows.

By 1995, though, the attack on public broadcasting started to take its toll on both KTCA's spirit and its purse strings. Kathy Halbreich, Walker Art Center director and current board secretary for TCPT, says the Republicans' two-front assault on the arts and public broadcasting hit KTCA where it lives. "Those were and these are remarkably complicated times for cultural organizations in this community, who in the past were able to support visions outside of the mainstream," says Halbreich. "So KTCA as a cultural institution in the largest sense suddenly was faced with making very conscious and judicious decisions."

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