Alaskans okay joint TV schedule but balk at more togetherness
A plan for extensive joint operations among public TV and radio stations in Alaska’s three largest cities has been narrowed to create only a partnership to package a joint TV service.
General managers from KAKM-TV, which covers about 60 percent of the state’s population in and around Anchorage, and AlaskaOne, which serves the remainder with its signal originating at KUAC in Fairbanks, have agreed to develop a centralcasting scheme for launch by July 2012. The strength of the proposal enabled the stations to win an extra $200,000 in state funding for the necessary broadband connections.
The merger discussions also led CoastAlaska, a Juneau-based support organization for seven pubradio stations on the state’s southeast coast, to add KYUK-AM/FM/TV in Bethel as a client for back-office functions.
Those deals, however, are shadows of the original goal, which emerged over the past three years as station leaders discussed the growing demands for services and waning resources to support them.
The collaboration would have created a single new entity, Alaska Public Media, to provide not only the joint TV signal but also to perform most operating functions for the stations in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Bethel. Under unified branding, Alaska Public Media would have produced statewide public-affairs content and operated documentary and new media units.
However, the licensees would still operate their own radio stations and maintain ownership of buildings and licenses.
Merger plans went off track earlier this summer. On July 6, the board of the largest participant, KAKM-TV's parent Alaska Public Telecommunications Inc. in Anchorage, issued a memo citing its concerns: The relationship between individual stations and a new board was "unclear." The financial model was "too broad and general." Approving an operating agreement to be negotiated at a later date would require "a great deal of blind faith." The Anchorage leaders even questioned the entire purpose of the proposal.
"As one board member put it," the memo said, "he did not feel the nexus between the problem being solved and the solution being proposed was sufficiently established." The board ultimately decided it wasn't willing to approve the current plan as proposed.
“In our decision the key phrase was ‘not at this time,’” KUAC overseer Jake Poole, a University of Alaska vice chancellor, told Current. “Work has been done that has put us in a position where down the road, if need be, this can be looked at again.”
The 10-member merger transition committee disbanded July 26 and explained that the licensees involved “could not reach a consensus to proceed.”
The plan’s collapse disappointed CPB, which had supported the talks with an $88,000 grant from its Merger/Collaboration Planning and Implementation Assistance Program, launched last year to help make the public broadcasting system more efficient.
“In talking to folks in stations in Alaska,” said Mark Erstling, CPB’s senior v.p. for system development, “it sounds like they’re all fiercely independent and didn’t want to lose their community identity to Anchorage. But these kinds of collaborations and consolidations don’t have to result in a loss of localism. We know from looking at how this works that public broadcasting can be strengthened through these agreements, not weakened.”
CPB is assisting similar talks elsewhere. Just last week, New Hampshire Public Television revealed it is in collaboration talks with WGBH in Boston; Erstling said CPB provided support for financial analysis of those possibilities.
The corporation earlier provided $150,000 to assist merger discussions between the pubTV stations in Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, in 2008, and it’s helping three Los Angeles-area pubTV licensees discuss plans to combine some operations.
A separate digital fund at CPB is fueling planning for joint master-control projects in New York and Illinois.
Three g.m.’s. in Alaska — Steve Lindbeck of APTI in Anchorage, Bill Legere of KTOO in Juneau, and Greg Petrowich of KUAC in Fairbanks — began talking informally in 2008 about pubcasting’s future in the state.
When Petrowich left Fairbanks in February 2009, Poole took his place in those talks. By late spring 2009, Lindbeck, Legere and Poole produced a “G3 Vision Report” that said “nothing short of transformation is required for public broadcasting and its core values to survive and flourish in our communities in a transformed media environment.” Soon after the document began circulating, KYUK in Bethel and CoastAlaska in Juneau got involved, and the group became known as the G5.
The initial G3 document, as well as several reports that followed, did not promise specific cost savings or gains in revenue but envisioned a more cohesive, forward-looking public media service and greater financial stability through strength in numbers.
“I think from the beginning of the process some recognition could be savings, and that would be one thing to strive for,” said transition committee chair Lloyd Morris, a retired telecom exec and former board member of the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission. “But the greater benefits of having savings would be to fund additional programming and services that could come out of the consolidation, as well as a leap forward in terms of new technology.”
“The spirit all along wasn’t about what each station could win or gain,” Legere said, “but what we could build together as a new and important statewide institution while still preserving important parts of local service.”
In Alaska, however, that’s trickier than it sounds. The state is twice the size of the next biggest, Texas, and some towns with pubcasting stations can be reached only by plane or ferry. “Geography alone can, if you let it, isolate everyone here,” said Mike Martz, g.m. of KYUK in remote Bethel, near the western edge of the state. “It’s easy to fall back on dealing with just your own station’s problems on a daily basis and that’s it. You may not be thinking about other stations because they’re so far removed.”
While many markets in the lower 48 states deal with overlapping station signals, “that’s not a problem here,” said Lindbeck. “If there’s such a term as ‘underlap,’ that’s what we deal with.” He cited little KYUK, which serves a population of some 40,000 in an area the size of Oregon.
Alaskan communities are fiercely independent and proud that their local stations are, too. “The one thing we heard loud and clear from every community,” Poole said, “was, ‘Look at the plan, if it makes sense, do it — but don’t mess up local radio. I want to still hear my guy on my radio. You have stuff you can do behind the scenes, great. But I still want to hear my radio station.’” Station staffers also expressed concerns about being overtaken by Anchorage, the state’s biggest city.
Fairbanks residents are particularly sensitive to that. “There’s always been a little bit of a rivalry between Fairbanks and Anchorage,” Morris said. So the choice of a headquarters for the unified television service generated “a tremendous amount of discussion,” he said.
“We said all along that seemed the simplest of the problems to solve, and yet it lingered until the end,” Legere said. “To the rest of us, it didn’t matter where the control room was, just so there was high-quality service bringing TV to as many households as we could.” Right now the plan is for Anchorage to handle the unified PBS signal, with Fairbanks serving as backup.
“Certainly these issues surfaced and resurfaced, of turf and territory,” Legere said. “But I thought we had worked through them and all come to an understanding about having a shared vision.”
A pause, to regroup
“The stations saw an opportunity to use their complementary features to create a bigger win for everybody,” said Jo DeBolt, a senior manager with LaPiana Consulting, an Emeryville, Calif., firm that assisted in negotiations. “But in seeing where there was that synergy, they didn’t look as deeply at the differences.”
Indeed, the five participants in the collaboration talks are extremely different:
- KUAC, a university licensee that operates AlaskaOne, the statewide public television network that provides a joint TV channel for Bethel, Fairbanks and Juneau;
- APTI in Anchorage, operator of KAKM-TV, KSKA radio and the Alaska Public Radio Network;
- KTOO, pronounced “K2” for short, which serves the state capital Juneau with three pubradio stations,
- KYUK, a Native American-owned and operated joint licensee in Bethel; and
- CoastAlaska, a nonprofit that provides services to seven radio stations, based at KTOO in Juneau.
The interstation talks went on so long that “fatigue had set in,” according to DeBolt. Her firm has found that successful deals take between four and six months, she said.
Economic pressures for mergers also eased as stations took emergency action to cut costs. At KUAC, a $450,000 budget deficit forced a reduction in staff from 28 to 19 in June 2009. “As a result, the stations were right-sized for a while, and we got beyond the crisis so that pressure to merge was lifted,” Legere said.
“A lesson for this,” Lindbeck said, “is if you think savings by themselves drive a collaboration — at least in a place like ours — it’s unlikely to be enough. We’d already cut ourselves deep long ago. There’s got to be some larger strategic purpose besides economies.”
Another hurdle was “the depth of commitment to legacy media,” DeBolt said. “When you begin to look at what a combined balance sheet would look like, there’s a heavy investment in TV studios that are underutilized — to put it mildly.” Boards and managers are extremely reluctant to consider closing facilities built with community money, she said, even though the buildings are expensive to maintain.
“So how do they shed those old expenses and move toward the kinds of investments they need to make in new media? It’s a thorny, complicated problem,” she said. “And I’m sympathetic, because you see the sense of stewardship and obligation to the community around these facilities, and yet you walk into a building where a big chunk is dark.”
Despite the challenges, DeBolt is optimistic on the agreements that did emerge. “It didn’t feel to me as though they hit the end of the road,” she said. “Rather it felt like, ‘We need to pause here and regroup.’”
Martz at KYUK in Bethel believes that what emerged is valuable to public media statewide. “I got to know my managerial colleagues a lot better,” Martz said. “We met face-to-face and dealt with thorny and difficult issues but continued to respect one another. Now, there’s a much more open and trusting relationship between the five managers.”
When Mollie Kabler, executive director of CoastAlaska, heard that KYUK needed assistance compiling financial documents for merger research, she reached out to Martz. CoastAlaska is a support organization shared by the small radio stations in southeast Alaska, handling their financial systems, fundraising and engineering and even helping with news reporting.
“I got an email from Mollie, she said, ‘We’ve been doing this for 12 years, maybe we could help,’” Martz said. He’s convinced that never would have happened if the two hadn’t met during the talks. The Bethel station just signed a contract for CoastAlaska to handle its back-office services.
“We all used to be in little silos,” Poole said, “and the talks definitely improved that.”
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Correction: Coast Alaska is a nonprofit support organization for seven public radio stations in southeast Alaska, including three owned by KTOO in Juneau and located at KTOO. Because of an editing error, our Sept. 19 story incorrectly stated that Coast Alaska is part of KTOO.
Copyright 2011 American University