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Combs quits Milwaukee stations after clash on strategy

Originally published in Current, Nov. 15, 1999

Bryce Combs, g.m. of Milwaukee's public TV stations for 12 years, resigned Oct. 26, [1999], accepting a cash settlement, after the licensee Milwaukee Area Technical College suspended him Sept. 16 in a dispute over the stations' future [earlier article]. Combs will receive a cash settlement of nearly $87,000 between now and next July, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. Longtime WMVS/WMVT programmer Tom Dvorak is serving as acting manager.

Surrounding Combs' resignation are questions about the dual stations' future--whether they will remain college property or be transferred to an independent nonprofit, as Combs reportedly advocates, and whether the college will help support the stations and their digital conversion. If the stations were transferred to a nonprofit, the leading candidate would be the Channel 10/36 Friends group, which already raises half of the stations' funds, but factions are polarizing, and Birkholz has angrily referred to the Friends as an "enemy," according to station staffers who spoke to the Journal Sentinel.

In assuming that the Friends group is attempting a power grab, Birkholz is misunderstanding its intention, says Elaine Peterson, a former president of the group. She said the Friends nonprofit offered to assume the licenses last year only to keep them out of the hands of a proposed statewide nonprofit network to be built around Wisconsin Public Broadcasting, based in Madison.

After the college suspended Combs and Luise Fuzy, director of program production at WMVS/WMVT, the Journal Sentinel editorialized that college President John R. Birkholz "owes the public an explanation of what really happened." Birkholz replied that his lawyers advised him to avoid commenting and jeopardizing due process.

Combs told Current he also can't discuss the situation, by agreement with the college, but he did indicate he was considering entering a business venture.

Fuzy's status is still unresolved. She told the Journal Sentinel that she hadn't done anything wrong and refused to resign.


Milwaukee managers suspended in dispute over license

Originally published in Current, Oct. 4, 1999
By Geneva Collins

Milwaukee PTV's general manager and director of program production have been suspended by the president of the technical college that holds the two stations' licenses.

General Manager Bryce Combs and production chief Luise Fuzy were suspended with pay Sept. 16 from their duties at WMVS/WMVT over a "personnel matter," according to William Roden, attorney for Milwaukee Area Technical College. However, at least one station employee believes the suspensions are really a result of a long-running debate over whether the college should relinquish the licenses to a separate nonprofit community board or other group.

College President John Birkholz referred calls for comment to Roden, who would not provide any details about the personnel matter or even the review procedures in use. "The [suspension] procedure is governed by board policy. Until it's fully unfolded we're not in a position to say what the timeline will be. Once it's completed, people will know that it's over."

Combs, reached at home, said, "I'm waiting to hear myself" on what happens next. He also declined to discuss the events that led to his suspension, saying, "There's too much going on right now to say much of anything at this point."

Fuzy has an unlisted number and could not be reached for comment. However, she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Sept. 23 she didn't think the suspensions were about personnel; they were because of her strong views about how to run the station. "I think it's about the college president. This is about control," the paper quoted her as saying.

"I thought the suspensions were an attempt by the college to intimidate not only the two individuals who were suspended, but everybody else on staff who thinks they should give up one or both of the licenses," said Dan Jones, an executive producer and longtime contract employee at the dual stations--one of the few people who would comment on the situation.

He said the suspensions occurred after a heated meeting between Birkholz and station employees in which the president pounded on the table and "made it very clear that the college will under no circumstances give them [the TV licenses] up."

A state commission recommended in 1997 that Milwaukee PTV turn over its licenses to a community board--or undergo some kind of restructuring--to help finance the federally mandated digital conversion.

The topic was the subject of a contentious college board meeting in October 1998, according to the Journal Sentinel. The stations' fundraising auxiliary, Friends of 10/36, had offered to take over the licenses, but the group's chairman, Marty Costello, told the paper last year that the offer was "grossly misconstrued" as a grab for control.

Calls to Costello's office for comment last week were not returned.

Combs and Fuzy were widely perceived as supporting a change in licensing, even though they never publicly addressed the topic, according to the Journal Sentinel. Jones told Current, "Combs was a college employee. He was forced to toe the company line."

Jones, who has proposed that at least one of the licenses be turned over by the college, said Combs and Fuzy were unable to hire and fire the people they wanted and make other management decisions because of the technical college's "tight relationship" with the local unions.

In a later four-page fax to Current, Jones said, "The union basically runs the television station. Many of the union workers here won't do anything they don't want to do. Many of the employees, both union and non-union, seldom put in a 40-hour work week. There is no accountability. No one is ever disciplined or fired."


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