New Orleans PDP station WLAE ends PBS membership

By Dru Sefton

WLAE in New Orleans dropped PBS programming as of Aug. 1.

General Manager Ron Yager told Current that the decision to forego PBS membership saves the station around $130,000 annually, allowing it to invest in local productions.

As an overlap station, WLAE’s lineup of network fare had been limited by its use of the PBS Program Differentiation Plan (PDP). The primary PBS station in the market, community-licensed WYES, continues to air the full national schedule, although for the next month fans of the PBS NewsHour may have trouble finding the weeknightly broadcast.

WLAE and its board first considered dropping PBS affiliation three years ago, when the station lost $270,000 in annual state funding. “We’ve tried since then to get it back, but the state is in a tough financial spot,” Yager said.

WLAE will rebrand as a “hyperlocal” station, he said. “We already produce 10 to 15 local shows per month. For a station our size, that’s quite remarkable.” WLAE has 15 full-time staffers and an annual budget of $2.3 million, he said.

Concentrating on local content will better serve the station’s viewers, some of whom continue to recover from the damage inflicted in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, Yager said. He cited Hello Health, a one-hour show that devotes 30-minutes to answering viewers’ questions. It began airing in 2008 through a partnership with the local Ochsner Medical Center.

“Even today, going on eight years after Katrina, there’s still not a working hospital in the eastern part of the city,” he said. “There’s a great need for that medical information, especially for those not being served,” he said.

Other local productions include John Redman: Power of Attorney, a forum on legal issues hosted by a local lawyer; Conexiones, a monthly magazine on contributions of Latinos in Louisana; Chet Chat, a weekly interior design how-to; and Ringside Politics, a weekly interview and discussion program.

And WLAE is one of few in the pubTV system to air a Roman Catholic Mass, originating daily from St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans’ Jackson Square. The broadcast had been a potential point of conflict with PBS in 2009 when the network adopted a policy restricting religious broadcasts by member stations, but the PBS Board agreed to a grandfather clause exempting WLAE, according to Yager.

WLAE also continues to run programming produced by Louisiana Public Broadcasting, the statewide public TV network that co-owns the station with the Willwoods Community, a Catholic organization.

Yager hopes to forge production and business collaborations with WYES, the primary station in the market, although an earlier project to create joint facilities fell apart post-Katrina.

More than a decade ago, when both WLAE and WYES were under different management, the stations received a $691,000 CPB grant to negotiate and establish joint production and master control facilities. In 2000, they agreed on a site in a lakefront research park owned by the state’s University of New Orleans (Current, June 19, 2000). Five years later, the stations were preparing to launch a $4 million capital campaign on behalf of their relocation plan when Katrina hit. The campus was devastated and both stations lost use of their buildings and equipment; WLAE’s transmitter was down for 18 months (Current, May 1, 2006).

“Unfortunately the situation dictated that the collaboration plan just wasn’t going to work,” Yager said, adding that the stations instead used the money to each purchase new master controls.

WYES President Allan Pizzato has met with Yager several times to discuss potential collaborations. “I feel really good about those conversations,” Pizzato said. Yager “is a great person to work with and I’m new here, so this is a chance to start new and build forward.” Pizzato signed on as station chief six months ago.

WLAE’s decision to drop PBS membership “is good for us and them,” Pizzato said. “They can expand their local productions — they’re carving out a niche with that programming — and this makes clear that we’re the primary.”

One immediate concern is scheduling of PBS NewsHour, which WLAE aired at 6 pm under has a years-old agreement with WYES. As the primary station in New Orleans, WYES chose to run the NewsHour on a secondary channel at 9 p.m.

The timing of WLAE’s announcement came too late for WYES to move the NewsHour into its early-evening lineup, Pizzato said, but that shift will take effect Sept. 2.

  • Bill Tutuki

    Here’s what I think some of the problems are. The Secondary PBS Stations in some parts if the country are killed off because the donors in a certain area put more money on the Primary PBS Station. But for New Orleans It was the Catholic Church Mass from WLAE that caused tensions with the affiliate and the network.

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