A legend for our times

On the front line of funding, in a parking lot

By Steve Behrens

In a year of budgetary cutbacks, the incident in the parking lot last April has achieved the status of minor legend, though the details have been mangled by retelling.

One version has the manager of the public TV station lying down in the doorway of a barber shop in order to detain the governor and catch his ear.

Susan Farmer file photoIt didn’t happen quite that way, says Susan Farmer, the black-dress-and-pearls general manager of Rhode Island’s only PTV station — WSBE, Providence.

“On April 3,” she says, “I received a call from the state budget office telling me I was getting official notification we were to be zero-funded for the coming year and gave me a date to close the station, the 15th of May.”

Unable to get an appointment to see the governor and with just 36 hours before the governor’s proposed state budget went to the printer, Farmer found out where she could find the governor the next day.

Gov. Bruce Sundlun, it turned out, would be vowing “no new taxes” in remarks to a political club meeting in the back room of a popular political hangout, Joe Pashalian’s Boston Submarine Shop in Providence.

When he emerged from the sub shop, Farmer was waiting by his limo. “I said to the trooper, `If you drive that car over this body, you’ll live to regret it,’” she recalls.

She denies reclining in front of the car’s wheels — or in front of a barber shop.)

Farmer begged Sundlun to hear a brief appeal and then, as reporters looked on, urged him to give her time to look for outside funding. She argued that providing college-credit courses and high-school-equivalency courses in person would cost far more than by broadcast. And she pointed out that the station’s private fundraising pays for PBS shows.

When the governor emerged from the sub shop, Susan Farmer was waiting by his limo.

The governor may well have been persuaded by her point that the state would have to continue paying $800,000 a year on its debt for WSBE’s new headquarters — which had just gone online in March — whether the station was mothballed or not.

Or maybe the appeal touched his professional sympathy — he had previously been chairman of Outlet Broadcasting, a major TV company based in Providence.

The governor left for a final budget meeting with his staff, but phoned Farmer that afternoon to ask what her “absolute minimum” was.

“I said, ‘80 percent,’ knowing I’d never get any more anyway, because many of the state agencies were being cut by 20 percent. And then I said, `Maybe 75 percent.’”

And that’s what Sundlun later that day decided to give WSBE — though it was 75 percent of an already-reduced appropriation he had been considering. Farmer had succeeded in saving $1,076,000 of her budget.

State funding, nevertheless is down. If you count a cut that came in November, the loss within a year now amounts to $460,000, by Farmer’s estimation. Overall, her budget is down from $3.5 million to $2.2 million. Next July, the state’s part of it will fall another 15 percent, she expects. In four years, the state’s share of WSBE’s cash support has dropped from 70 to 43 percent. Half of the staff positions are vacant, and the studios operate only one day a week.

To keep the transmitter warm, WSBE has approximately tripled fundraising in the four years under the direction of Farmer, a former Republican secretary of state. Her “ability to put the arm on people” for donations is celebrated in local newspapers and the governor pretends to fend her off when he sees her.

Farmer doesn’t seem to mind the growing legend.  She admits with a trace of satisfaction: “I’ve gotten now so that people won’t get into elevators with me anymore.”

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