CNN veteran will head  Georgia’s big network

Published in Current, March 30, 2009
By Dru Sefton

Teya Ryan in dark suiit, arms foldedA media heavy-hitter with experience running three CNN networks is taking over as president and executive director at state-owned Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Teya Ryan will be the first top exec in five years without “acting” or “interim” in her title at one of the nation’s largest pubcasters. With nine TV and 19 radio stations, GPB has a budget of $30 million.

She also will be GPB’s only one of the five directors in at least a dozen years who didn't come from another department of the state government.

Most came from accounting — understandably: In 1999 the state installed a team of auditors to dig out the network from a $6.5 million deficit that resulted from lax financial controls.

Some insiders hope Ryan’s appointment, announced March 18, signals that GPB will put a higher priority on program quality and innovation.

Still, the chair of the state commission that oversees GPB, suspects “there has to be a lot of waste” in the state network. “We have 175 people in Atlanta and we don’t know what all of them do,” said Lowell Register, chair of the Georgia Public Telecommunications Commission and president of his family-owned WPGA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Macon.

“There need to be major changes if we’re going to do the things that need to be done,” Register told Current. “And Ms. Ryan is the person to do that.”

Register said that Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) — a personal friend of his — wants the station “run more as a business rather than with the longstanding mentality of public broadcasting,” which Register defines as “a cultural thing that fits a certain class of people.”

Georgia governors have a strong say in GPB’s governance. They appoint the pubcasting commissioners and, though state law says the commission appoints the executive director, it was Perdue who brought Ryan to the board’s attention and backed her selection.

The governor also effectively vetoes appointments to the job.

“We sent several people to the governor but just couldn’t find the right person,” Register said, referring to a year of attempts to fill the top job at GPB.

When the governor suggested Ryan, Register said, the commission agreed.

In advance of Ryan’s arrival in April, GPB laid off nine staff members last week to avoid overspending. Ten staffers near retirement also departed.

One staffer laid off last week was once GPB’s top candidate to become its new director, Bob Houghton, a former commercial broadcaster who was GPB’s g.m.

Houghton is philosophical about not getting the job. “The last thing I wanted was to be executive director,” he said. “I’m a broadcaster. Maybe that came through in the interview. But I like to think I’m a better poker player than that.”

Ryan said she did not decide the layoffs, including Houghton’s. “That was not my move, I want to make that clear.” The personnel actions “had been in place before I arrived.” she said.

Acting Director Bonnie Bean said she drew up the plans for the layoffs and briefed Ryan on the day of her appointment. “I went through the plan in great detail, and she concurred. We discussed the pros and cons.”

“She offered to be the one to do the layoffs, but that struck me as not fair to her,” Bean added. “The best thing I could do for her, the most appropriate thing, was to finish what I had started.”

Ryan began her career at pubTV station KCET in Los Angeles, joined CNN as an environmental news producer, switched to business news, headed the CNNfn business news network and then CNN Headline News, finally rising to  executive v.p. and g.m. of CNN/US. Her work has won seven Emmys and four CableACE Awards.

She says she was the CNN exec who adopted the busy Bloomberg-like screen of the financial networks for use on CNN news channels. “Now,” she told Current, “even a middle-age audience not only likes this but is drawn to it.” 

For a period at CNN she reported in part to future PBS President Pat Mitchell, then at CNN’s sister TBS unit, and in 2004, after both left the company, she freelanced for PBS to “give ... editorial shape” to Mitchell’s proposed PBS Public Square channel. PBS eventually failed to raise startup money for the public-affairs channel.

Ryan is also president of Rocking Horse Media, which develops multimedia children’s programming.

While Ryan was working for CNN, also based in Atlanta, GPB was going though a series of wrenching changes. In the late 1990s, State Auditor Claude Vickers began noticing signs of trouble at GPB: Missed payments on a satellite lease. Bouncing payroll checks.

He notified then-Gov. Roy Barnes (D), who ousted Werner Rogers, the network’s executive director, in June 1999. Barnes asked Vickers to take direct control. Vickers, pondering retirement, said he agreed to stay just long enough “to get the thing out of a ditch.” The state commission followed through, naming Vickers executive director.

To audit and reform GPB, Vickers brought with him James Lyle, a senior official in the state’s Department of Administrative Services; and Bonnie Bean, then director of accounting for the Georgia Department of Technical and Adult Education. Lyle and then Bean later headed GPB. (In between Lyle and Bean, GPB's liaison to the state legislature, Nancy Hall, served as interim executive director.)

The books were a mess. Early in his tenure Vickers placed a large box in the office and gave staffers a 10-day amnesty to toss in missing expense documents. Vickers said the amnesty turned up $700,000 worth of purchase orders — ”money we didn’t know had been spent.”

Bloody Thursday

Vickers also repopulated GPB’s management. In January 2000 he fired six of the networks’ top managers in a restructuring described locally as “Bloody Thursday.”

One year after their work began, Vickers said, his team had shifted GPB’s bottom line from a $6.5 million deficit to a $7 million surplus — accomplished through spending cuts and tighter accounting.

GPB employees and former employees aren’t eager to assess the network’s past decade.

The accountants were obviously experts about bucks but not about broadcasting, says Chuck Miller, GPB’s former radio chief and now g.m. at WNKU in the Cincinnati area. Lyle, who served as executive director from 2001 to 2004, was mystified by the common practice of airing Morning Edition twice in a row. “And if the satellite dropped out, he thought it was our fault.” But Miller said he doubts GPB was hurt by occupation by finance professionals.

Bean is optimistic about GPB’s future, especially after meeting Ryan.

“The minute I shook her hand, I knew GPB was in good hands,” she said.    

This is a corrected version of the article. The print edition indicated that all recent GPB heads came from state financial offices, but Nancy Hall, who served as interim executive director between James Lyle and Bonnie Bean, came from the state Department of Education, where she was legislative liaison.

Comments, tips, questions? seftond@current.org
Web page posted April 2, 2009
Copyright 2009 by Current LLC

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EARLIER ARTICLES

Governor ousts Rogers, board at Georgia network, June 1999

Vickers relieves 6 top managers at Georgia net, January 2000

Ryan briefly worked on planning for a proposed PBS public affairs channel, Public Square, that won an initial planning grant from the Knight Foundation and then a bigger matching grant and hired another CNN exec to start it up. But PBS was unable to raise adequate funding to launch the channel.

LINKS

Ex-CNN exec to take over Georgia Public Broadcasting, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 2009

Quotes in this article from state commission Chair Lowell Register set off a sustained rant by anonymous Atlanta blogger Intown Writer.

 

 

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