Alaska public media falling apart

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)…

August 2008

  • APTI (Anchorage): Reorganization – General Manager (GM) fires Communications/TV and Development directors; no one hired to replace them

December 2008

  • APTI (Anchorage): Award-winning and beloved statewide program, “AK” is canceled, staff terminated

February 2009

  • 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

March 2009

  • 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

May 2009

June 2009

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: [1] Who are you? and [2] 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.

16 thoughts on “Alaska public media falling apart

  1. I love this part: “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.”

    Question: Are you talking about public broadcasting, or our state government?

    It just sounds painfully familiar to what a financial advisor told me 30 years ago (back when I had more time to really fail at something):

    “If you fail to plan, you will plan to fail.”

    • Public media in the state, our state government — both seem to lack guiding strategies.

      I think businesses and other groups can do fairly well without such strategic thinking, if the world is predictable and doesn’t change much. Inertia, while not a strategy, has its charms. But when the bad times come or the world around you changes, knowing who you are and why you’re here makes all the difference. It may not “save” you, but it gives you a chance.

      In public media, NPR is the best example of a company on a mission, and they have a few strategies in play to achieve that mission. PBS, on the other hand, is a study in mission and strategy drift (sorry PBS, but it’s true!). PBS is ultimately doomed unless they can get enough free money (government funding) to sustain the old mission and model.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment! I hasn’t thought about the Legislature! 😉

  2. Quite a story – chilling, and not in the weather sense. It’s sad to see the legacy of public media in Alaska fall apart. Thanks for telling the tale. I hope others can learn. Best of luck on your new ventures.

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  4. But Wait!! There’s more!! The only real answer is to give the media consumers a choice about where their donations go – like, for instance, maybe — wait, don’t tell me — news?

    • Rob, we were SO fortunate to have had some of your time. Your valiant efforts to help were deeply appreciated. But if a Board and a GM don’t want the advice to stick, it won’t. Really, we shhould apologize to you for wasting your time.

  5. John, the other part of the TV problem here in Fairbanks – most of the outlying areas can’t get the digital signals, and as of right now there’s nothing to be done about it. Who’s going to donate for something you don’t/can’t use?

    • If I remember correctly, the DTV issues KUAC has were driven by several technical factors, not all of which were in the station’s control. I suspect they’ll fix it eventually, but with tha cash troubles, I wonder how soon.

  6. Right on the money, John. It’s sad that something so many people put their hearts and souls into – and bled over trying to save – something so vital and important is slowly dying from lack of vision. It’s like watching a beloved family member die of cancer – it doesn’t happen overnight, but the pain and deterioration grow a little each day, and the end is inevitable. In the case of APTI, things could still be turned around, but it would take extraordinary vision, courage and leadership, all of which seem to be in short supply…and time is running out.

  7. Sorry to learn of the sad state of APTI and of your situation in particular. Visionaries always make such tempting targets.

    A brutal biz indeed.

    A new, more exiting media infrastructure is emerging. Just a matter of time before it replaces the increasingly failing current order….

    • Ken, you are too kind. I don’t really think of myself as a “visionary.” More like a person that’s paying attention. No different than you.

      Well, there is ONE difference… You’re in a more enlightened organization! WBUR is now and has been doing some great stuff. I’m a huge fan of The ConverStation, in no small part because I want to steal the blog name!

      Keep doing that great work you do. Maybe someday I will once again be a public media colleague. There are certainly pockets of fantastic innovation out there. Something good will come from all of this, I’m sure.

  8. John, I worked in the ptv system for 18 years and through it all — I can honestly say that you’ve been one of the few people to clearly articulate the issues and, most importantly, opportunities for ptv’s future. We’ve never met but your blog posts have been so refreshing and RIGHT ON about how the system should respond to the challenges of changing media.

    To discover that you were let go is a sad chapter as the story unfolds. You gave many of us hope and you’re the kind of talent the public media system needs. Thanks for all you did and please know that you have many fans out here.

    • Well, thank you CJ — a wonderful compliment (your check is in the mail – ha!). I’d like to write more, and perhaps I will, but I find myself drifting away, since I’m not in the thick of it every day right now. I worry for public media — there’s such a need, such an unrealized demand for a quality, trustworthy public service like it.

      I’ve met so many people in public media, across the country, that are innovative, hard-working and smart as whips but their creativity suffers in organizations stuck, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not, in the old ways of thinking. They stick with the comfortable and the familiar. They’re unwilling to risk outright failure or admit weaknesses to the public, to their supporters. Outreach is so often limited to asking for money, and on public TV, it’s almost always via “lite” informercials and new age booksellers.

      It’s ironic, really. We stand at the edge of a new world, yet so many in public media (and private, too) are desperately trying to make this new world feel like the old world. We’re fighting the flow of history.

      History typically wins. I hope some pubmedia leaders switch sides before it’s too late.

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