Updated 16 Sep 2011. Updates at the bottom of the post.
Things are tough all over the public media world these days. But if you think you’ve got it bad, you should try working in the Alaska public media world. It’s brutal.
In case you hadn’t heard or figured it out, I was fired from APTI back in March, along with our news director, ostensibly for failing to “align” with the CEO’s preferred — and secret — strategy of merging all the public radio and TV operations in the state into a single company (there are roughly 25 separate companies). We were firings #3 and #4 from a management team of 7, all in less than a year. The GM hired a personal friend to replace us literally the next day. Oh, and the rest of those 7 managers? Only 1 is left, and that position was demoted below management level last year.
So if you’re feeling down about pay freezes, furloughs or being laid off, just be glad you’re not living with this series of unfortunate events (and these are just the ones from memory)…
- APTI (Anchorage): Reorganization – General Manager (GM) fires Communications/TV and Development directors; no one hired to replace them
- APTI (Anchorage): Award-winning and beloved statewide program, “AK” is canceled, staff terminated
- APTI (Anchorage): GM decides a statewide merger of all public radio and TV stations into a single company is the strategy of the future; GM doesn’t announce his intentions to the rest of the company or the other stations in the state — stations that have been suspicious Anchorage would try this one day
- KTOO (Juneau): It’s revealed — privately — that the Juneau-based stations are roughly $250,000 in the hole due to falling underwriting sales and other issues
- KUAC (Fairbanks): It’s revealed — privately — that the Fairbanks stations and statewide TV service (AlaskaOne) lose roughly $1,000,000 per year, but the University of Alaska Fairbanks fills in the financial hole annually
- APTI (Anchorage): Strategy change! News/content and broadcasting/web directors fired; GM’s personal friend hired to replace them (a print journalist and professor with no broadcast or public media experience)
- KUAC (Fairbanks): GM quits to take a job out of state; he’s not replaced
- KTOO (Juneau): Company scales back operations, eliminating positions and cutting pay/benefits due to cash shortfalls
- APTI (Anchorage): Long-time HR manager and financial analyst (the kind that knows where all the bodies are buried) retires
- CoastAlaska reporters are secretly asked to make reporting contingency plans, in case the statewide news network — APRN, run by APTI in Anchorage — collapses in the new fiscal year due to lack of payment from disgruntled and financially distressed stations
- KUAC (Fairbanks): Radio station goes off the air due to busted automation system
- KUAC (Fairbanks): Company is officially reported to be $450,000 in the hole; station cuts staff and more
- APTI (Anchorage): CFO quits to take a job out of state; Director of Engineering quits to take a job out of state; new hire for HR/Finance position quits a couple weeks after starting
- KYUK (Bethel): GM — a nationally-known pubmedia veteran — literally dies on the job, only a few months short of retirement, shocking the station and community
About that last item… I met with and worked with KYUK’s GM a few times. He was one of the good guys. He resurrected the station’s finances and dealt with the privations of living in rural Alaska — a far cry from his decades of work in the Lower 48. I won’t name him here as that’s not really my right to do so — you can look him up if you’d like. But I can say I sure wish he had taken the GM job in Anchorage back in mid-2007. Things could have turned out very differently for a great group of people that have persevered through so many challenges in the last few years. They don’t deserve the chaos they’ve inherited.
Crystal Ball Time
I have no idea what the future holds for public media in Alaska. Public radio — of the rebroadcasting NPR variety practiced in Anchorage — is probably pretty safe, barring straight-up mismanagement. Pubradio gathers a good chunk of change in Anchorage and the cost structure is comparatively light. Public TV is another story. The cost of merely rebroadcasting prepackaged material is excessive and traditional TV production is out of the question for pretty much all the stations in Alaska (without special project funding, which goes to outside contractors anyway).
Internet effects on the business models are definitely coming to urban Alaska, as are demographic shifts that represent brand new media consumption habits for which public media outlets aren’t really prepared, at least not here on the continent’s edge. Those changes will occur slowly, accumulating quietly until, one day, it’s just too late for the old guard to meet the new challenges, and that’s when public media either gets more government funding (a bailout) or it just disappears.
For the Alaska stations, and especially APTI in Anchorage, the biggest problem remains the same one I identified when I started working there in late 2004: You must answer two questions:  Who are you? and  Why are you here?
Those questions remained unanswered for my entire career in Alaska’s public media world, no matter how many times I asked or how hard I pressed for an answer. (The current GM thinks he answered those questions with a “strategic planning” process everyone regarded as a waste of time.) But without knowing, deeply, the answers to those seemingly-simple questions, it doesn’t matter what “strategy” you have — you’ll drift, you’ll live off the good intentions of past supporters. Without those two answers your future will be created by fate, happenstance, luck and disaster rather than by coordinated effort around a shared, meaningful goal that’s relevant to the world today.
But enough of all that. What happens next in the 49th state’s 50th year? Hopefully nothing worthy of adding to the harrowing list above. Public media up here needs a breather.
And maybe, one day, new leadership.
UPDATE: 15 Sep 2011
A few weeks back, the other shoe dropped. APTI and the other Alaska stations officially gave up on merging the stations together into a unified company. They are continuing to look at unifying the TV service.
This is both a relief and a vindication.
In the months leading up to my ouster, I was clear with the CEO in that I opposed the organizational merger concept, though I agreed that the TV services should be unified since they were so deeply and unnecessarily duplicative.
In place of pursuing a merger, I specifically recommended the organization spend its energies on reconnecting with the local community, not trying to create some mythical “all Alaska” media firm. There were so many things we could do to create meaning and value locally, in Anchorage, that we didn’t need to create a bunch of new work, namely beating back the obvious wishes of those local Boards and communities we’d have to take over.
Now that the merger push is dead, Alaskans that favor local public media can breathe a sigh of relief. Too bad it took 3 years of dragged-out talks and $88,000 of CPB money to get here. I should have just charged CPB $44,000 for the advice I gave on Day 1 and they could have pocketed the other half.
The last thing still under consideration: merging the TV signals into one. This is a slam-dunk and should have been pursued years ago. Oh, wait… it was!
Many years ago (the mid-1990s) 3 of the 4 Alaska public TV stations merged their signals into AlaskaOne. Anchorage was the only hold-out — they wanted to retain local control and — the real reason — local fundraising (cha-ching!). Back then, local PBS stations were pretty localized and raised a lot more money. But over the years all the stations converged on the same schedules as PBS tightened control over common carriage and everyone gave up local production and scheduling capacity as their fundraising and ad sales collapsed.
Today, merging Anchorage into the AlaskaOne family should just be done. The schedules are carbon copies anyway. Hell, I’ve been in favor of PBS just going all C-SPAN and taking the signal national and being done with it. But that’s another story. For now, let’s hope AlaskaOne finally captures Anchorage public TV and APTI turns its attention further and further toward local media and local public services.
Well, except for all the money made by rebroadcasting NPR stuff.