NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Big Bird or Big Oil? Mismanagement is jeopardizing the future of Seattle’s KCTS

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?

Big Bird or Big Oil: Which does KCTS represent?

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.

Keystone Republican

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.

Insulting staff

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!

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks so much for pub­lish­ing this exposé. It comes as a huge shock to me. Either I’ve been on anoth­er plan­et or this has been a sub­ma­rine attack on an insti­tu­tion that has played a huge­ly impor­tant part in my life as a sig­nif­i­cant alter­na­tive to com­mer­cial TV.

    Has this arti­cle appeared else­where?

    # by Elaine Phelps :: May 23rd, 2015 at 10:02 AM
    • No — John wrote it for NPI.

      # by Andrew :: May 24th, 2015 at 5:23 PM

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