When Scott Finn begins his new job as executive director of West Virginia Public Broadcasting Feb. 1, he faces an uphill task of re-energizing a network that has been beset over the past several years by funding declines and conflicts over its governance.
Finn succeeds Dennis Adkins, a former commercial broadcaster who ran WVPB for five years and opted to announce his retirement last fall rather than face an ouster by the network’s 11-member licensee board, the Educational Broadcasting Authority.
Adkins’s rocky tenure had been marked by a recession-driven financial downturn that required rollbacks in staff and programming, and a reportedly difficult relationship with the EBA board.
Finn is no stranger to the WVPB system and politics in the state capital of Charleston. He served as the network’s news director from 2007 to 2009 and began his journalism career at the Charleston Gazette, where he covered the statehouse. In 2009 Finn left the state to become news director at WUSF in Tampa, Fla.
Best known outside the state for its nationally distributed music program Mountain Stage, WVPB operates three TV outlets and 15 radio stations that consolidated into a single statewide entity in the 1990s. WVPB currently employs around 100 people, but many key positions are vacant, and the newsroom is understaffed.
As a government-owned broadcaster operating in a rural state with one of the highest poverty rates in the country, WVPB depends on state subsidies for 57 percent of its operating budget, which grew by less than 2 percent from fiscal 2007 to $11.1 million in fiscal 2012. CPB funding has remained stable, according to annual financial data collected by the corporation.
West Virginia Public Broadcasting isn’t among the pubcasting networks that have been targeted for the deepest reductions in state aid, but its annual appropriation from the legislature decreased by $1.1 million over three fiscal years. In 2009, the state provided $6.8 million; by 2012, aid had dropped to $5.7 million. WVPB is bracing to lose another 7.5 percent in state funding in the upcoming fiscal year, as the state government is expected to impose across-the-board funding cuts on all its programs between fiscal 2013 and fiscal 2014.
WVPB hasn’t been able to make up for lost state aid through its fundraising programs. Underwriting revenues declined 38 percent, from $840,000 to $520,000, during the past five years; membership revenues have been more stable, but dropped nonetheless, from $1.4 million to $1.3 million.
“It’s always difficult [to fundraise] in a state the size of West Virginia,” said Bill File, EBA chair. “You find that you’re asking the same individuals time after time to support the same organizations. But people have been very generous.”
Political power plays over WVPB governance have exacerbated the network’s financial troubles.
In 2005, prior to Adkins’s arrival as executive director, West Virginia enacted a law giving then-Gov. Joe Manchin (D) authority to appoint proxies to represent him at nearly a dozen semiautonomous state agencies, including WVPB’s EBA.
Manchin appointed Kay Goodwin, the state’s cabinet secretary for the Department of Education and the Arts, as his proxy on the EBA; she served as chair for several years and remains on the board even though Manchin is now serving in the U.S. Senate. Former state legislator Earl Ray Tomblin (D) was elected to succeed Manchin as governor in 2011.
Manchin also played a role in Adkins’s 2007 appointment as executive director: The governor selected the veteran commercial broadcaster among two finalists for the job. But Adkins and Goodwin repeatedly clashed over WVPB finances during his five years at the helm, according to former WVPB news director John Hingsbergen and Phil Kabler, a Charleston Gazette reporter who covered EBA meetings.
Neither leader had previous experience in public broadcasting, though Adkins, a West Virginia native, had managed commercial TV stations in Colorado and Charleston, W.Va.
“There was definitely tension between Dennis Adkins and Kay Goodwin, no doubt about that,” said Hingsbergen, now associate g.m. at Eastern Kentucky University’s WEKU. “But I’m not sure if that was the fault of Kay Goodwin and the state administration so much as that this was kind of a new experience for Dennis, that he had to work within that system.”
In 2010, WVPB’s private fundraising activities were thrown into question by auditors for the state legislature, who recommended that network employees be barred from working for the Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting Inc. and the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation, private nonprofits that raise individual contributions and major gifts for WVPB.
The auditors’ report threw basic operations such as on-air pledge drives into uncertainty. Hingsbergen called the report “a goofy bureaucratic situation,” while Goodwin said the auditors misunderstood WVPB’s fundraising practices. State lawmakers were all onboard with the private fundraising that benefits the network, she said.
Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting Inc. raises as much as 14 percent of WVPB’s annual operating budget. Its revenues provided $1.3 million to WVPB in fiscal 2012. The Foundation secured $454,000, a sharp decline from the $2.8 million it earned in fiscal 2007.
In March 2011, the legislature amended the state law — which had been set to expire — to restore some autonomy to WVPB. Goodwin stepped aside as chair and the board elected File, the city attorney for Beckley, W.Va., and former v.p. of the West Virginia State Bar Foundation, as its leader. File had been EBA chair prior to Goodwin’s appointment.
But by 2012 Adkins’s struggle to manage the state network extended beyond his difficult relationship with Goodwin.
WVPB put its public affairs show This Week in West Virginia on hiatus in January 2012 and reduced the number of radio news updates as well. Adkins explained the program changes to state lawmakers: “To put it bluntly, our expenses are outpacing our revenues,” he told the state’s House Finance Committee. The network has since cut other popular TV programs, including broadcasts of West Virginia University women’s basketball games.
Last summer, Adkins proposed another $180,000 in spending cuts, and state policymakers requested that the EBA form a task force to examine the future of public broadcasting in West Virginia. According to Goodwin, the group held only one meeting, during which it discussed nothing of importance. It put aside plans for future meetings during the leadership transition.
Adkins announced his retirement in September 2012, and his last day was Jan. 18. He told Current he decided to leave after File warned him the board was preparing to vote him out of office.
“I’m just pretty bitter with the board. I was here five years and never got a performance review whatsoever, and then out of the clear blue sky, the chairman said there was no support there for me,” Adkins told Current.
Goodwin, who denied that there were tensions between Adkins and the EBA, doesn’t see the board’s actions during Adkins’s tenure as meddlesome. “Mr. Adkins has been there for five years. We had had adequate time to assess his strengths,” she said.
As for the decline in WVPB’s state aid, policymakers had to cut spending to pay for rising Medicare costs and other financial concerns, Goodwin told Current. WVPB wasn’t targeted or treated unfairly, she said.
“I don’t see [the government] as cutting funds much at all. I think the state’s been extremely generous to public broadcasting,” Goodwin said. “Public broadcasting is not being singled out.”
Many openings to fill
Though Finn is an Iowa native, he sees West Virginia as his home. He came to the state after college to work as an AmeriCorps Vista service member in the southern region of Big Ugly Creek, where he founded a local children’s literacy nonprofit called Appalread before leaving for a career in journalism.
“Whether you’re a news director or whether you’re an executive director, it’s about motivating your employees, it’s about doing research,” Finn said. “That’s one of the things I’d like to start working on, is figuring out what works in the public media system.”
Finn arrives to a WVPB staff that has been stressed and stretched thin through the turmoil.
Vacant positions on the WVPB staff include those of full-time grant writer, development director, chief engineer and director of broadcasting. Several key human resource positions are also open. Some employees have taken on these duties with no increase in pay. For example, Bill Acker, who recently retired as director of broadcasting and technology, was writing grants and performing engineering duties before his departure, Acker told Current.
The network’s newsgathering capacity is so limited that, when news director Beth Vorhees traveled to the Public Radio News Directors Inc. conference in Houston last June, the radio station was too short-staffed over the weekend to report on a derecho storm that whipped through the state and knocked out electrical power to more than 600,000 West Virginians. No updates on the storm aired for the entire weekend, and though a WVPR reporter filed a story on the storm over the weekend, it was not broadcast until the following Monday due to a power outage, according to Vorhees.
In October 2012, WVPB hired two new reporters, whose duties include producing weekend news coverage.
Goodwin, Adkins and File expect that Finn will recruit staff to fill key vacancies, including in the newsroom, once he arrives.
Goodwin says WVPB’s prospects are looking up and that the network’s funding problems “have been taken care of.” WVPB decision-makers have “reoriented their funding priorities,” she said, and they anticipate that increasing demand for radio and television tower rentals will provide new revenues to WVPB. The network earns around $300,000 annually through tower rentals.
The turmoil at WVPB has been debilitating for both staff and supporters, who want the network to prosper.
“I think West Virginia Public Broadcasting is imminently important,” said Acker, the retired broadcasting director. “I want to see it succeed. I want to see it shake the shackles of the political hacks and be what it could be. And I know it’s possible.”
Finn, who has met with every member of the EBA, will soon get to know members of WVPB’s nonprofit siblings. He has no reservations about working under the network’s governance structure.
Working with a board is “just good management,” he said. “You want to have a board of directors to give you advice, to give you directions, to represent the people.”
File is optimistic that Finn can reinvigorate public broadcasting in West Virginia.
“We want him to have a fair opportunity to come in and to analyze where we are,” File said. “We expect him to look at our facilities, our equipment, our current programming and certainly our employees.”