Editor’s Note: John de Graaf is a respected documentary filmmaker and progressive activist with decades of public television experience. He was the keynote speaker at NPI’s 2010 Spring Fundraising Gala and is a valued supporter of NPI’s work. In this post, he explains what has been happening recently at KCTS Seattle, and what we as a community can do about it.
The slow but steady takeover of American media, including public media, exemplified in the efforts of the Koch brothers and other right wing multimillionaires to influence PBS content, now seems to have reached Seattle.
Quietly, without fanfare, a destructive force has taken control of KCTS/9, Washington State’s flagship public television station, and is reshaping its mission and direction for the worse. It’s time for Puget Sound residents — and everyone who has supported KCTS over its sixty-one year history — to wake up and smell the oil. Progressives should be deeply concerned about what is going on at KCTS.
sHell No; BP yes?
On the very same day that an armada of kayakers was protesting the movement of a giant Shell drilling platform into Elliott Bay, over the opposition of Seattle’s city council and mayor, BP announced that Paula Rosput Reynolds, Chair of the Board of KCTS TV, was joining BP’s board as a director.
If anything, BP’s environmental record is even worse than Shell’s; residents of the U.S. Gulf Coast will never forget the massive explosion (on the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day!) on BP’s Deep Horizon drilling platform that sent millions of barrels of oil onto white sand beaches and clear Gulf Waters, taking an untold toll on wildlife and requiring billions of dollars in cleanup efforts.
Scientists are finding that the effects of the spill still linger in the Gulf ecosystem. BP has tried to avoid paying the full costs of cleanup and reparations.
But BP is only the latest in Reynolds’ questionable ties to fossil-fuel polluters.
She served at CEO of Duke Energy, notorious for its coal-fired plants that have been fed by wholesale mountaintop removal in Appalachia and have continuously polluted drinking water in its streams. She served on the board of Anadarko Petroleum, another oil giant with large hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations.
The division of Anadarko responsible for exploiting natural gas, by the way, made a sizable donation to KCTS last year.
Reynolds still sits on the board of the TransCanada Corporation, known for its efforts to build the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that climate scientists view as potentially disastrous. Keystone XL would carry thick petroleum from the now desecrated “tar sands” of Alberta to Gulf Coast ports.
Ruptures in that pipeline could do immense damage over wide areas; a burst on-shore oil pipeline was responsible for the horrible oil spill that fouled nine miles of Santa Barbara, California beaches just last week.
Among her other board memberships: BAE, a leading manufacturer of tanks, missiles and surveillance equipment and major supplier of dictatorial Middle Eastern regimes; and, for good measure, Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.
While Fred Hutchinson is a wonderful institution, I cannot help but wonder if some of the cancers it treats may result from a fossil-fuel poisoned environment.
Reynolds’ political contributions lean heavily to the Republican Party; recently she contributed to the campaign of the climate-crisis denying Georgia Congressman Johnny Isakson, one of the most notoriously right-wing members of the House.
Readers might ask what Reynolds’ connection with Seattle is.
She is a woman of considerable clout, without question. An economist, she was brought in to help restructure the insurance giant AIG after the onset of the 2007–2008 financial crisis, and then hired on as CEO of Safeco in Seattle, which she promptly restructured for sale to Liberty Mutual Insurance.
Retiring from her day job after the sale, Reynolds took up philanthropy, and soon after was asked to join the KCTS board because of her presumed fundraising abilities. Apparently, no one paid much attention to her military/petroleum-industrial complex ties. In short order, Reynolds used the force of her personality and business acumen to get elected chair of the board.
The corporatization begins
Reynolds acted quickly to oust the station’s CEO, Moss Bresnahan, a seasoned PBS executive (former CEO of South Carolina PTV and board member of ITVS, the PBS organization serving independent producers).
She replaced him with Rob Dunlop, a former KOMO Radio and Fisher Broadcasting executive, with no experience in public TV and little TV experience at all. Bresnahan has found new employment as CEO of the Illinois public television system.
Dunlop was named interim Chief Executive, but elevated to a permanent position five months later, when an alleged “national search” somehow turned up no better-qualified, more experienced public television executives from the more than two hundred public television stations in the United States.
On its surface, this seems almost unimaginable. Seattle is a major PBS market with a loyal audience and a vibrant city with an acknowledged high quality of life. Almost immediately, Dunlop began making a series of far-reaching changes in the station.
Prior to 2013, KCTS’ stated mission was to “improve the quality of life in the communities we serve by providing meaningful programming on air, online and in the community that informs, involves and inspires.”
Since that time the mission has changed and, along with it, much of the direction of the station. The new mission: To Inspire A Smarter World.
Ironically, the adoption of this statement was accompanied by enormous reductions in the very areas of the station which most lived up to the new mission.
For example, KCTS’ education unit was closed down, its outreach unit drastically cut back and eventually shuttered, its popular Science Café (run in cooperation with the Pacific Science Center) and History Café (a partnership with the Museum of History and Industry), were ended, and its national distribution unit, which prepared KCTS program for wider broadcast to other PBS stations, was also eliminated.
And while Dunlop says he wants to teach Seattle citizens how to make videos, he shut down the Nine Media Lab, a project started under Bresnahan to do just that.
My own experience
Also in 2013, the station announced drastic cuts in employee health care benefits and the elimination and restructuring of many jobs.
In December, John Lindsay, a celebrated public television manager who had built strong production units at Oregon Public Broadcasting and St. Louis public television, was fired and replaced as Vice President for Content by another executive with no public television experience… a man named Tom Cohen.
At the time, I had been producing documentaries — including a dozen prime time national PBS specials, including the hit, Affluenza — with KCTS for thirty-one years.
Soon afterwards, Cohen informed me that my new documentary, The Great Vacation Squeeze, produced with KCTS editorial control and already approved for broadcast by station programmer Hildy Ko, would not be broadcast. The film points out that the U.S. is the only rich country with no law mandating paid vacation time.
When I asked why KCTS wouldn’t show it, Cohen told me that “no one would be interested in the subject.” But at that very moment, State Representative and Northwest Progressive Institute Vice President Gael Tarleton had introduced a bill to require paid vacation time in the Washington State Legislature.
Not long afterwards, Cohen told me I had to leave the station, where I’d had an office for three decades. My vacation film will appear on PBS stations next January.
The most recent (and perhaps most questionable) of Dunlop’s decisions was the elimination of a dozen producing, photography, editing, and audio positions, with the result that only a couple of members of the station’s production unit remain.
Among those who lost their jobs were several of the most accomplished members of the station’s staff, including Cleven Ticeson (with forty years of service) and David Ko (with thirty-nine). Management astonishingly suggested that these trained professionals could not learn the digital skills needed to transfer their productions to online media, an insult to these flexible professionals. (Ticeson had recently been honored by a station video extolling his digital skills).
While the station has seen other layoffs during earlier management regimes, they have been made necessary at least in part by serious financial straits — in one case the station was millions of dollars in debt. But, as even Dunlop admitted, there was no financial need to lay off these workers. There was no crisis of membership either — he told KUOW that the station’s audience is currently “stable.”
From “long-form” to short attention spans
KCTS recently announced a Digital First Initiative that will eliminate studio productions, studio pledge drives, and, according to Dunlop, will dramatically change the way local programming is produced and made available to viewers.
If these changes prevail, the KCTS community will receive much of its local programming solely in short-form videos delivered mostly through phones, computers and tablets rather than broadcasting.
The rationale for this is that younger viewers are not watching the television broadcasts. Not long ago, Dunlop had argued that one way KCTS makes people smarter is through the production of “long-form” documentaries that allow viewers to examine an issue in depth. Now he claims that shorter is better.
Dunlop argues that KCTS’ audience is mainly children and viewers over the age of fifty. While this is true, it is not new. KCTS has always been more attractive to older viewers, who are also more likely to contribute.
In any case, reaching younger people is not merely about changing the viewing platforms, but rather, about producing content engaging to young people. Documentaries can appeal to young people, as HBO and Al Jazeera have realized. But documentaries play no part in KCTS’ new strategy.
Moreover, it is highly unlikely that in the overloaded world of YouTube and short-form internet video, KCTS’ pieces will reach a wider audience than on television. The current television audience for KCTS programs is vastly larger than its online audience. It is also more democratic: Some ten to twelve percent of the KCTS community do not use computers or go online.
It should be noted that smooth playback of online video requires a computer with decent horsepower, as well as a reliable broadband connection. People on the wrong side of the digital divide cannot easily or readily view video online.
Station employees who have survived now work in a place of low morale and fear; those who wish to speak out against the direction that corporate management has taken know their jobs and livelihoods are on the line. They have been told they can resign if they disagree with the new order.
Saving KCTS from a terrible fate
So what can be done to reverse the damage? A group of station insiders and former members of the KCTS community like myself have started a FB page called Take Back KCTS. I hope you will look at and “like” that page.
Together with IBEW46, the union representing a quarter of KCTS’ employees, we are calling for the immediate resignation of Paula Reynolds from the board.
We simply must not allow PBS to become the Petroleum Broadcasting Service; when it comes to a choice between Big Bird and Big Oil, we stand with Big Bird, and with a PBS station that continues true service to the Seattle community through serious local journalism. At a time when our nation must make a transition to alternative energy for the sake of future generations and to protect the climate, it is simply unacceptable to us that the board of our public television station be chaired by someone with so many conflict-of-interest ties to the fossil fuel industry.
Secondly, we ask that the board be restructured to represent the Seattle community. Most of the station’s eighteen board members are from the corporate world. All but one — Matt Chan — is white. None are young. None represent labor.
We believe that KCTS’ board should reflect the values of this community, not those of BP and TransCanada or the big banks (Linda Killinger, the wife of Kerry Killinger, whose dangerous speculation brought down Washington Mutual, is the board secretary). As local author Kirsten Grind’s excellent book The Lost Bank explains, they were fined $64 million by the FDIC for Killinger’s actions.
We believe the KCTS board should be broadly representative.
Directors who come from the corporate world should be limited to a third of the board (their fundraising skills are admittedly valuable).
KCTS staff should elect the next third of the board, and KCTS subscribers another third. Every effort should be made to assure diversity, including representatives of youth, minority communities, labor and academia.
We also seek transparency from the board.
We find it suspicious that board business is increasingly carried out in closed “executive sessions,” and that the Community Advisory Board is now being treated as merely a mouthpiece for Reynolds, Dunlop and Company.
It’s time to put the public back in Seattle’s Public Broadcasting System affiliate, and get the petroleum out. Please join us as we work to save KCTS from a terrible fate!