Richard Carlson, a Republican credited with defending public broadcasting from attacks by members of his party, announced Jan. 24 that he will leave the CPB presidency June 30 or before.
He opposed overlapping stations and pushed new rules to limit grants to them–winning support among politicians but losing the backing of many station execs.
He spoke up for objectivity and ideological balance in programs, while spurning demands that CPB take a more intrusive role in programming to detect and correct imbalance.
He trimmed the CPB bureaucracy and paid a quarter of the staff to leave, changing its human face, with consequences not yet known.
Carlson struck his fans as a far-sighted, affable, eloquent charmer, but his detractors as a disingenuous, vindictive bully.
His departure this winter is no surprise, since most seats on the CPB Board now belong to Democrats, including some who clashed with him when they were in the minority.
Alan Sagner, chairing his second board meeting Jan. 27, said the decision to resign was Carlson’s own, but the chilly scene confirmed a deep rift between the board and its top employee.
Without the usual round of encomiums to a departing exec, Sagner read from a statement from the board that simply “acknowledged [Carlson's] efforts over the last five years.” Executive Vice President Bob Coonrod will remain in his current position during the transition, Sagner said, but may assume additional duties “as necessary.”
The Washington Times reported Jan. 31 that Carlson has been forced out and was to receive a $250,000 severance package, but a CPB spokeswoman denied the story. Carlson fired back in a letter to the Times: “I was not eased out of CPB, or pushed, or ousted either,” he wrote. “Of late, I have been getting along with the board just fine. There is no severance package that in any way resembles the Times‘ claim.”)
Carlson, in his first public comments after resigning, said he was proud of many accomplishments at CPB: “having brought in so many strong, able, competent and smart executives,” turning around a lagging staff morale, and building a “stronger, favorable public image of the company” and public broadcasting as a whole.
He said CPB’s relationship with stations had improved, and despite tumultuous episodes, “we’re still dancing together at parties.”
Carlson said it was a good moment to depart because he had already stayed at CPB longer than the three years he had planned to spend there, and public broadcasting now needs a leader to see it through the digital conversion.
“I have done the job I was asked to do at CPB, and more so,” Carlson wrote in a memo circulated to the CPB staff Jan. 24. “My decision to leave by the end of June frees me to consider several opportunities that have presented themselves. I am ready to contribute a lifetime’s experience to an exciting new venture.”
Carlson’s press office did not return calls requesting an interview with him.
Though Carlson has his fans within public TV and radio, he has lost favor with many pubcasters, as indicated by the reaction to his resignation when it was announced to a roomful of public TV managers Jan. 24.
“It was a great hoot and applause,” recalled David Dial, president of WNIN, Evansville, Ind. Carlson had alienated a lot of station people by exaggerating the extent of waste in overlapping signals, Dial said.
“It goes back to the New York Times op-ed, and comes forward from there,” says a prominent public TV official. The April 1994 column, which entertainingly mocked the redundancy of airing Barney & Friends 29 times a week in the New York City area, “implied that a lot of money is wasted at the local level.”
Carlson’s drive for efficiency, responding to complaints from Capitol Hill, led to some tightening of Community Service Grant rules.
Carlson’s team also alienated some pubcasters by setting aside $11 million a year in Future Funds for CPB-selected experiments and projects to develop the system’s self-sufficiency, rather than trusting stations to spend it locally. “There were mixed emotions on the CSG review,” said a TV official. “Everybody agreed the advisory group did a hell of a job, but on the other hand there were a lot of questions whether the Future Fund will truly benefit the system.”
Station people naturally oppose reforms that reduce grants, responded a Carlson supporter. “Basically they want CPB to shut up and send the checks. They’re very threatened by anybody at CPB who has a mind of his own.”
To some inside and outside the system, Carlson’s initiatives to rationalize the station infrastructure made economic and political sense. They were exactly the kinds of “proactive” activities the board wanted from Carlson, says Marshall Turner, the former CPB chairman who hired Carlson in 1992. “It’s important that we work on strategic issues and not be too strategically passive and let others define them for us,” commented Turner. “I’d rather have controversy than a bunch of people hiding under their desks.”
Carlson also made cuts at CPB, winning the praise of key House subcommittee Chairman John Porter (R-Ill.). The corporation reduced spending 7 percent over two years and trimmed its staff 25 percent to 86, largely by not filling vacancies. Then, last fall, CPB offered generous buyout incentives for longtime employees, giving his appointees a chance to hire 19 new staffers–about a quarter of the remaining staff. Together, the cutbacks and buyouts may result in major changes in CPB’s character and capabilities.
Carlson counted the hiring of his vice presidents among his major achievements, and some observers agree. He made a “significant improvement” in professionalism at CPB, said Carl Matthusen, a former NPR chairman and g.m. of KJZZ/KBAQ in Phoenix, who praised Carlson particularly for hiring Bob Coonrod, “a good listener,” as executive v.p.
One of CPB’s key policy directions in Carlson’s years was declining rather than taking additional authority in response to conservatives’ complaints about “liberal bias” on the air. Carlson gave those complaints a thorough airing through a series of public meetings around the country in 1993-94, and acknowledged occasional lapses of imbalance, but he repeatedly defended pubcasters’ overall fairness. CPB never went ahead with suggestions that it set up formal mechanisms to review and correct political imbalances, which could have developed into an ongoing journalistic witchhunt.
Instead, “with decisions he made and with the staff he put in place, he assured there was a diversity of thought” in national programming, said Michael Schoenfeld, a longtime associate who was his chief spokesman and a CPB senior v.p.
“Congress was very concerned that the heads of the public TV organizations weren’t sufficiently concerned about objectivity and balance,” said conservative producer Michael Pack. “Dick made clear that he was personally concerned, which was reassuring to Congress.”
Carlson noted in his farewell memo to stations that the balance dilemma “had the potential to destroy public broadcasting and the integrity of its program decisions.”
His handling of the issue “was something he could get credit for and doesn’t,” said a well-placed pubcaster. “It’s been overlooked.”
His role in fending off a CPB phaseout over the past two years would be hard to assess, though even his most vocal Republican critic, former board member Vic Gold, backed his strategy. Compared with many pubcasters, Carlson “had more of a political feel for what was going on on Capitol Hill,” said Gold. “He was not unrealistic.”
“Dick inherited an organization and an industry whose relations with Congress had hit rock bottom,” said Schoenfeld, “I think he will never be given enough credit in the industry for what he did directly and indirectly to repair the relations on the Hill.”
Carlson came to CPB with a good reputation on the Hill–he had been director of the Voice of America for five-and-a-half years–and he gained credibility by “acknowledging there is some legitimacy in concerns about balance and financial management,” explained Schoenfeld.
Under Carlson, CPB’s legislative goals diverged from those of the other alphabet agencies, PBS, NPR and APTS. A common strategy fell apart in May 1995, with CPB emphasizing cost savings and the other organizations pushing harder for a trust fund to replace annual CPB appropriations.
“We had what we thought was an agreement between the major players in public radio and public TV, and thought we had CPB on board with that,” recalled Matthusen. “Presenting less than a common front to Congress at that point was not the strongest thing we might have done,” he added.
Carlson soon found himself fighting to keep CPB in proposed legislation, as other pubcasting leaders left open the question whether CPB would continue to exist if the trust fund were created.
Neither the trust fund nor a phase-out has come about, and Carlson supporters credit him with a role in saving federal aid to pubcasting.
“Public TV was lucky to have at the head of one of its major organizations a person with great political skills,” said filmmaker Michael Pack. “He helped public TV avert disasters. That’s not something you put on a press release.”
If Carlson had a disaster, it was his relations with some of his board members, including Gold and several Democrats. Though the law requires a bipartisan board, as many as five of the nine members can be members of one party or the other.
The board had a Republican majority and chairman when it hired Carlson, and that did not change until last September, when the board elected Sagner as chairman. Then, at the end of the year, the board switched to a temporarily lopsided Democratic majority with the departure of three Republican members whose terms had expired.
Party politics was not an incidental detail in the lives of board members on either side. Former board members Sheila Tate and Gold were former aides to Republican presidents, and Honey Alexander was married to a Republican candidate for the job. Sagner is a big Clinton fundraiser and Vice Chairman Diane Blair a close friend of the Clintons.
Carlson retained the support of Tate and most other board Republicans, but fought periodically with a minority, including Gold and Democrats Sagner and Martha Buchanan.
Though most CPB Board spats–as well as substantive policy debate–occur behind closed doors, the divisions became public over the election of the board chairman in 1994. Henry Cauthen, president of South Carolina ETV and an independent, was elected chairman over Buchanan, who favored a more active role for the board in CPB’s management.
In February 1995, the board minority balked when Carlson proposed to hire a friend of Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Rep. Vin Weber, as a strategic consultant who aimed to plan the “privatization” of CPB. After a flap that was “handled incredibly poorly,” in the view of one station manager, the contract was killed.
Then in May 1995, the board minority was outraged that Cauthen had quietly extended Carlson’s contract for three years and, without a formal review of his performance and without telling the board, had given him a $296,800 golden parachute that would make him expensive to fire. The board confirmed Carlson’s contract, however.
And in the summer of 1995 Carlson added Cauthen to the board members he had alienated, fighting with him over handling of sexual harassment allegations against Buchanan. Memos containing the accusations were leaked to the press in December 1995, embarrassing Buchanan and others. She denied the allegations but told the White House that she was not seeking reappointment. Cauthen had no comment on Carlson’s resignation.
Carlson turned out to be an assertive personality at the head of the traditionally passive agency that serves as conduit for federal aid to pubcasting.
Bill Baker, president of New York’s WNET, regards Carlson as a “genuine leader,” who was unafraid to question institutional traditions and who looked into the technological future. “He was pointing the ship in the right direction,” Baker said.
“Dick offered stronger leadership to the corporation than they had enjoyed previously,” commented former NPR Chairman Matthusen. Previous CPB presidents “had not always been decisive, had not had a high profile at times when one might have been useful.” Unlike most of them, Carlson had the advantage of long political experience.
Carlson “made CPB a far better place to work in terms of its morale, he brought new good, people into public broadcasting, and he got CPB to be more proactive and got it moving in new directions,” said Turner.
CPB badly needed to be reinvigorated, Turner said. “There was a discontinuity between the excitement and creativity and purpose of working in public broadcasting,” and CPB’s “overly mechanical, quite dull internal culture” with a great aversion to risk.
The board wanted the voluble former TV anchorman to use the job as a “bully pulpit” to articulate the role of public broadcasting in society, Turner said.
With his aggressive style, Carlson won both fans and detractors.
“I liked working with Dick, I thought he was pretty straightforward,” said Matthusen. “He’s a wonderfully charming person.”
“I found him to be a delightful man,” said Ritajean Butterworth, a CPB Board member and former chairman. “He brought a solid team together and did a wonderful job in a difficult period of time.”
But when people criticized Carlson, he gave as good as he got, or better.
“He leaves a trail of venom whereever he goes,” said one source who observed Carlson’s management at CPB closely. In 1995, when Ralph Jennings objected to an “unconscionable grab for resources” in proposed CSG policies that threatened to end aid to his station, New York City’s WFUV-FM, Carlson’s letter in reply accused him of “hysterical name-calling” and advised him to “devote the same emotional intensity for which you are becoming so well-known” to improving his station’s standing in grant criteria.
“He seems to burn people off like that,” says Jennings, who nevertheless took Carlson’s advice and doubled WFUV’s average audience size.
The consensus heard in public radio “describes Dick Carlson as an autocrat, a politician in a position that called for much more of a bipartisan sensibility, a person who I don’t think has a very high regard for the public broadcasting community,” says a player in the radio system.
Carlson took the CPB job in July 1992, succeeding Donald Ledwig, a former Navy Department administrator. Though he had been ambassador to the Seychelle Islands for about a year, the most pertinent job on his resume was the previous one, director of Voice of America in the Bush Administration. Chairman Turner said at the time that the board hired Carlson for his articulateness and his media background. On both counts, he had Ledwig beat.
Carlson had worked in journalism on and off since 1962–as a wire-service reporter, investigative reporter for commercial TV stations and news anchor at the CBS affiliate in San Diego, winning three Emmys and sharing a Peabody Award. He had also ventured into other fields, running for mayor of San Diego and serving as senior v.p. of a bank there.
Public broadcasting, he told the Washington Post after his hiring, “is a great, worthwhile thing to save. I know there are some people who want to cut it back, but that’s kind of a cyclical thing. I’m interested in mending some fences. I intend to spend time talking to some of the critics of public broadcasting and listening to what they have to say.”
Carlson sent this message to public broadcasting stations on Monday, Jan. 27:
I want to share with you my decision to depart my position here at CPB no later than June 30 of this year.
Both professionally and personally, the timing is right. After nearly five years on the job, I believe we have met or exceeded the goals and expectations the CPB Board presented to me when I was hired in the summer of 1992. We have instituted a great many internal changes since then, almost all of them intended to make CPB a better-functioning, more efficient, more responsive organization to the stations. We have worked hard to put to rest old animosities that were damaging both to CPB and the system. They are not all gone — and since some of their origins are institutional, they may never be — but they have been diminished. We have reacted responsibly and constructively to the rapidly worsening budget climate here in Washington.
We have begun to address the painful but unavoidable issues of overlap and consolidation, and have taken important steps toward more realistic grant criteria. Together, we even survived the objectivity and balance dilemma imposed by Congress in 1992, which had the potential to destroy public broadcasting and the integrity of its program decisions.
At the same time — as you all well know — broadcasting is entering a revolutionary era of new digital technology. It is clear to all of us that this transition will force extraordinary demands on this system — not only financial challenges but a need for long-term planning and commitment. This is a logical juncture for CPB to seek new leadership — someone with his own vision of what broadcasting will become, and someone willing to commit to dealing with this challenge over the next several years.
Personally, this transition is well-timed for me. I intended to stay at CPB for three years, and will have stayed for five. I am eager to pursue other opportunities, particularly some interesting possibilities that have come to my attention recently.
In the meantime, please be assured that we are planning no short-term changes here. CPB’s board and I are in agreement on that.
It has been a privilege to serve public broadcasting over the past five years. I have made many friends in the industry, particularly among station managers. I will look back on you and this time in public broadcasting with great affection and personal respect. I wish each of you the best of luck and great success in the future.
Originally published in Current, Aug. 19, 1996
Nineteen CPB employees–nearly a quarter of its staff, including some long-serving staffers well known in the field–have accepted management’s voluntary buyout offer and are leaving their jobs between Aug. 9 and Sept. 30 .
Among them are Mary Scieford, associate director of the Television Program Fund, who played a key role in the development of children’s TV series; Richard Morrison, director of financial management; Priscilla Weck, director of station grants administration; Lester Latney, inspector general; and Loretta Hobbs, System Development Fund manager, CPB confirmed.
Also leaving are Meg Villarreal and Eloise Payne of the Office of International Activities, following longtime director David Stewart, who retired in March. The future of the office is in doubt; international projects will be more closely integrated into the work of the programming office, according to Michael Schoenfeld, senior v.p., corporate communications.
Schoenfeld said a restructuring of the education and programming offices–both now supervised by Senior Vice President Carolynn Reid-Wallace–will be announced by the end of August.
Other experienced CPB executives retired or resigned in the months before the buyout include Gene Katt, senior v.p. of programming; Wendy Hoover, director of business affairs; and Yoko Arthur, director of system human resources development.
“It’s almost like cutting off any contact with the history of public broadcasting,” a former CPB staffer observed.
The buyouts will have a cost in terms of lost experience, Schoenfeld acknowledged, but will give CPB an opportunity to restructure its staff and hire people with skills needed in the future. After new hires, the staff will still number about 82 employees, he predicted.
CPB offered employees below the level of officers an attractive severance package if they would resign, waive the right to sue CPB in the future and agree not to seek employment with the corporation again. The package included a payment equal to 1.25 days’ pay for every month of employment, plus up to a year of health insurance, and outplacement aid.
Copyright 1997 American University