Big Bird or Big Oil: Which does KCTS represent?

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!

Adjacent posts

3 replies on “Big Bird or Big Oil? Mismanagement is jeopardizing the future of Seattle’s KCTS”

  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?

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