With microwave proceeds, Schwartz nonprofits offer to buy and revive pubTV channels

John Schwartz on televisionA consortium of five nonprofits headed by public media activist and founder John B. Schwartz is offering to purchase and help revitalize financially at-risk public TV stations through a new initiative, Independent Public Media.

The nonprofits' proceeds from spectrum transactions, about $40 million, will help “recapitalize and sustain” troubled pubTV stations by implementing a business model and serving a more diverse audience, according to a release.

"We have proposals out to a couple of stations, and we will participate in an auction of KCSM," the pubTV station to be sold in San Mateo, Calif., said Ken Devine, IPM's chief operating officer, who is a former v.p. of media operations and chief information officer of New York's WNET.

"If we can show how it's done, we can raise money from other parties and do a much larger rescue effort," Schwartz told Current.

Revenues of some pubTV stations have fallen 20 percent or 30 percent a year, Devine says. "The stations at the edges are the irreplaceable resource and we can't and won't ever get those licenses back."

Schwartz helped start the independent-minded public TV stations WYBE in Philadelpha and KBDI in Denver, pubradio station WYEP in Pittsburgh. He also leads five nonprofits around the country that have operated 11 educational microwave systems using what the FCC calls Educational Broadband Service (EBS) channels.

Leases of those EBS channels, mostly in an August 2006 deal with the telecom company Clearwire, provide the funds for IPM. The proceeds have fueled Schwartz’s ongoing philanthropy, supplying more than $10 million for projects such as the progressive network Free Speech TV.

Other public broadcasters and school systems also have made big long-term deals with Sprint, Clearwire and other telecom giants for EBS spectrum. The public TV station Vegas PBS, made a $33 million, 30-year deal with Sprint and Clearwire in 2008.

“Public television remains a vital information source that finds itself in the same evolutionary process as print journalism,” Schwartz said in a statement Wednesday. “Old financing models no longer work; a new model must emerge if public TV is to survive.”

“It’s time to reinvent public TV to make it sustainable,” he said. “We need to create a new operating and programming framework to ensure it survives for generations to come. We hope other nonprofit funding partners will join us in this effort.”

Ken DevineIn a blog post on the site, Devine said he became frustrated because the pubcasting system’s “existing governance structure and leadership are not adapting fast enough to save the industry.”

He said IPM’s “direct approach” will involve “intervening with failing stations, telling the truth about the existing system, and presenting a solution that will maintain public television well into the future.”

Schwartz became concerned as he watched public TV licensees selling their financially  troubled stations including WMFE in Orlando, Fla., and KWBU-TV in Waco, Texas, to religious broadcaster Daystar, and preparing to sell KCSM-TV in San Mateo, Calif.

“Many stations are now being forced to consider selling to entities that may not represent diverse community interests, or risk going dark completely,” Schwartz said. “We are prepared to purchase stations that find themselves facing this possibility.”

The initiative will specifically target licensees operating multiple TV stations that are looking to reduce their number of channels; those unable to sustain TV operating deficits; dual licensees with successful operations in radio and deficits in TV; and institutions that no longer rely on TV because they have found more cost-effective tools for their educational missions.

Comments, questions, tips? sefton@current.org

Copyright 2011 American University