Making statements and a home
for Vegas PBS
Many virtues: what donors expect
Public TV conventioneers from the NETA Conference piled out of chartered buses on a cool desert evening last month to examine the new home of KLVX, known in recent years as Vegas PBS.
It was a handsome, austere station headquarters with the usual atrium lobby but not much show biz-not even a whiff of the spectacles seen along the Las Vegas Strip many blocks to the west. Instead, it manifested a long list of civic virtues that left visitors somewhat boggled as they traipsed through its halls.
Not only did one wing contain a Virtual High School for 5,000 distance-education students. The planners had also played every green card in hopes of an LEED Gold certification. The design kept out sunlight except when it was desired. Coolness and water were stored underground to be pumped back to the surface when needed. The building was planned to resist earthquakes, if possible. And terrorists, ditto. And in an emergency it would emit a fat stream of data to help firemen save, among others, out-of-towners like tonight’s visitors.
Tom Axtell, the tall and wry g.m. who worked on the project for a decade, welcomed the crowd to one of the big studios, lit with magenta and blue gels on the cyclorama behind the buffet. Axtell demonstrated he was a fluid talker, as funders must have agreed. He and colleagues had raised some $60 million for the building project, on top of $12 million for the station’s DTV conversion.
The off-white walls would never again be quite so bare. Staffers began moving into the place during the week after the conventioneers’ visit. They’ll complete the move in May when studio production and the master control leave the crowded 1978 former facility and its trailer annexes.
Vegas PBS built its home on a capital funding tripod-about $20 million from each of three major sources:
- The station’s licensee, the Clark County School District, bankrolled the Virtual High School;
- the station raised another third from private donors; and
- good fortune allowed it to lease out a dozen largely surplus microwave channels for a tall stack of chips.
As Vegas PBS raised those private millions, Axtell observed a synergy among the numerous objectives and merits of the building. Donors are impressed with public TV all the more when you add education, and again when you add the “green building” thing.
“You can think of it as a huge vision or as a series of rifle shots targeted upon specific user needs,” the g.m. says. “I think the key thing about the building is that it responded to a series of community needs.”
Shots on target
Some other public TV stations once licensed to public school systems, including the ones in Denver and Nashville, gladly cut loose to thrive as separate nonprofits, but KLVX kept its direct connection.
Some stations found it stultifying to be tied to a school board. In Las Vegas, it was like being tied to a rocket. Clark County’s population reached 1 million in 1994 and nearly 2 million just a dozen years later. (Enrollment declined slightly this year for the first time in 25 years.) For a decade in there, the school system reputedly broke ground for one school a month. And the schools turned to KLVX for various distance-learning fixes to help serve their growing enrollments.
The school system obtained licenses for lots of Instructional Television Fixed Service microwave channels and used them for years to broadcast instructional TV into classrooms. Now videos from KLVX’s media library go out to schools by van. But ITFS, now known in FCC-speak as EBS (Educational Broadband Service) remained useful.
On the theory that releasing the widely underused channels into the private sector would promote telecom competition, the FCC allowed EBS licensees to lease out most of their channel capacity (Current, April 17, 2006) for digital wireless services.
In Las Vegas, the school board took bids and in 2008 selected a joint bid from two competing telecom carriers, Sprint and Clearwire. For a 30-year lease to the dozen channels they gave Vegas PBS $18 million for its capital campaign and pledged about $880,000 a year for 30 years, worth a total of $33 million in net present value, according to school system documents.
All of the proceeds went to KLVX, the school board had decided in 1999. The board was pleased to hear from KLVX that it would raise the local money needed for DTV transition costs. In a stroke of good fortune for the station, the board earmarked the spectrum auction proceeds to help with the capital costs.
As soon as station execs saw what the spectrum lease would bring, they were ready to take bids for construction.
Not nearly enough chairs
When Axtell began making fundraising calls in 2002, describing what technology would bring, it was before many Americans had used web media. When he talked about watching videos on computers, “donors didn’t believe us,” he recalls.
Even today many Americans would be surprised by the size and rapid growth of the Virtual High School that shares a building with KLVX. Last year it had 5,000 students and 160 courses. Next year, enrollment may reach 7,000, Axtell says.
There are chairs for only a fraction of that number because the students do most of their work at home. They watch courses online or on DVDs and communicate with teachers by phone, e-mail and texting. The kids show up in person only a few times a year for science labs and tests.
Originally, in 1998, the school was created for “credit-retrieval,” letting students repeat a flunked course so they could graduate on time. Students came up with their own additional reasons for choosing Virtual High.
They could knock out courses in the summer to lighten their loads later on. They could leave town if their parents did. And they could take advanced placement physics at Virtual if it wasn’t offered in their own school, which was increasingly likely.
Ready for the worst
Like the Virtual High students, the new Vegas PBS building accumulated additional reasons for being.
In 1999, the Columbine High School killings in Colorado awakened school leaders to new security nightmares. “Our licensee was desperately looking for ways to comply with state laws, to get more immediate information if there was a hostage crisis,” Axtell remembers. He found a response in datacasting. It was suggested as a DTV option by the Association of Public Television Stations. Clark County school officials liked the idea.
So Vegas PBS stands ready to lend its TV channel’s heavy-duty capacity and wide reach when emergency first-responders need it. If a building in town is burning or under assault, Axtell says, Vegas PBS can transmit large electronic files through the closed-circuit datacasts. Within minutes, fire and police commanders’ laptops would receive blueprints showing hazardous material sites, utility lines and evacuation routes. In a school hostage situation, authorities could be alerted promptly if any captive students urgently needed medication.
Assuming this job doesn’t turn Vegas PBS into a police agency. “We don’t stop the bad guys,” Axtell says. “We’re really about providing emergency communications should something go wrong and other public networks are effectively down.”
Still, the added duties require discipline. “Every day our computer pings over 30 databases where the station looks for the latest, most reliable data, Axtell says. To download data, there are fiber optic and wireless links to each source. The station maintains the ability to operate seven days without external power—longer if you count the power from the solar cells on the roof.
The staff does periodic drills and practices its response to a hypothetical crisis staged annually by the county’s emergency managers. An actual catastrophe hasn’t presented itself yet, but Axtell says Vegas PBS once activated its studio for crisis broadcasts, “based on information from Homeland Security.”
On the self-defense
Making the building itself more secure became important after 9/11. When the Media Security and Reliability Council published guidelines for spectrum users, KLVX added anti-terrorist defenses to the plan. As a worldwide tourist destination, Las Vegas ranked high among at-risk cities. To ignore the MSRC precautions, Axtell decided, “was to make a mistake.”
So the building was planned to resist damage by seismic as well as political events. “About every 10,000 years, we have a really big earthquake,” Axtell says. “It’s not likely in my lifetime, but if it happens we will be ready and will be on the air.” Some sections of the building are fortified, and others are “crumple zones,” including Axtell’s office, he says. Various pieces including stairwells rest on their own separate foundations.
Going green and gold
Prudence also reminds Nevadans to stay in tune with their hot and dry climate. Even casino operators are ordering hotels designed to meet tough environmental standards-pushed by convention bookers who want green credentials.
So the station is expecting the news this summer, after operating for a year, that it has passed the country’s top “green building” test and won LEED Gold certification. The new building, including the high school, is almost four times the size of the old one, Axtell says, but it consumes less electricity. Cooling water is piped 450 feet into the earth and comes back cooler. Vegas PBS engineers picked nontoxic, low-heat equipment that meets European standards.
Why and how did Vegas PBS go all-out in so many directions?
“As we went out to the donor community, we explained this vision for the building as an example of our stewardship,” Axtell says. “The response was interesting: ‘This is what we’d expect.’”
The congruence of values and deeds made the fundraising appeal stronger-and the donors prouder.
The city is constantly evolving and appreciates innovation, Axtell sums up. “Vegas is a city that loves winners.”
Posted Jan. 11, 2010
Copyright 2010 Current LLC
Takoma Park, MD