Rebellion at Channel 9

KCTS-TV's creative staff takes on management.

Like the legendary show that ran for years on public television, at KCTS-TV there is what is known as an "upstairs" and a "downstairs." This week, some of the people who work "downstairs"producers, editors, writers, videographers, crew members, and others involved in the creative work at the public stationare finally going public about their feelings regarding the "upstairs" managers and board of directors. The "downstairs" people feel that management has led them into a prolonged financial crisis that came to a head last week with deep layoffs and the announcement of the retirement of president and CEO Burnill Clark. Rallying together, staff members are trying to present a united front to the board and the public in the hopes of saving the station.

At press time on Tuesday, production staffers were scheduled to meet at the Seattle Center House to strategize (the meeting snowballed during the day, having originally been planned to be held at the house of producer Jean Walkinshaw), and several planned to attend the station's open board meeting Thursday afternoon. The 76-year-old Walkinshaw, the most senior and influential producer at the station, says she expects staff members to write letters to the board. Judging by her comments and those of co-workers, some of those letters will be blunt.

Clark "really should get out," says Walkinshaw. And she means now, not at the end of October, which is when the KCTS chief first said he would retire. (On Wednesday, Clark in fact moved up his retirement date to as soon as April 30 and no later than the end of June.) She further wants the board to "open up" and add new faces. Such "really radical change," she believes, is the only way to restore public confidence in the station.

Another voice the board is finally hearing is Vanessa Greene's. The veteran Los Angeles TV producer, in the course of working as a consultant for the station last fall, told Clark he should resigna recommendation that Clark never communicated to the board. Since a Seattle Weekly story made that recommendation public ("S.O.S. at KCTS," March 12), two board members have contacted Greene to hear her views. She is now letting the board know that she thinks the station is still "going about it all wrong." Greene says she doesn't think the station should be laying people off before a thorough investigation into its financial problems. "If you don't find out what really happened, you'll never have public confidence again."

While management and board members have chalked up the station's problems to the country's sour economic climate, the longevity and scale of the problem demand a fuller explanation. The station is so short on revenues and deep in debt that it can't even pay its rent to the Seattle Center. Says David Tanner, the deputy inspector general at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is considering an audit of the station: "I can't remember a situation like this in public broadcasting where a station is in this much financial difficulty. Nothing approaching this."

The normally secretive KCTS admitted to a financial crisis last week after it had already become public through reports in Seattle Weekly, and the station was facing further negative publicity through an impending Seattle Times story. Yet even now, the station isn't being completely forthright about its financial situation. Clark has said the layoffs and his retirement are happening because of financial losses, most recently a $1.25 million deficit for the 2002 fiscal year. But months ago, the station supposedly approved a break-even budget. So why the need for all the cost cutting now?

It turns out that the current budget was based upon much speculative revenue, $1.8 million worth, confirms board chairman Doug Beighle. Yet as the fiscal year (through June 30) draws to a close, that revenue has not materialized. "It's becoming obvious that it's not going to be a break-even budget," admits board member Don Nielsen.

Staff members are afraid that station leaders now intend to shut down production altogether and become merely a broadcaster of shows produced elsewhere. "At this point in time, there are no productions in the pipeline scheduled to begin after July 1," says producer Gale Franko. She and others say that the staff was recently issued a mandate to finish all projects by the end of June. They warily note that management in recent days has been talking about a new focus on local "initiatives" rather than programming; they suspect such initiatives might merely mean town meetings or outreach materials for national shows. That is indeed what at least some "initiatives" might be, confirms chief administrative officer Mark Leonard, who calls programming but one of many tools for connecting with the community.

Still, producer Franko says, "I want to see something emerge from the ashes of all this." She and others hope the public will see that it's the management that screwed up, not a staff that they believe is full of talented, dedicated people.

That dedication was apparent even as staff was being laid off last week. Studio technician Mark Burkey, for instance, got the ax about 1 p.m. last Thursdaynot exactly great news for a father of three. But even though he was told he could leave immediately, he stayed until 8:30 p.m. to finish his shift on the public affairs show KCTS Connects. "We're a team downstairs," he says, and he didn't want to let everybody else down.

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