Keillor’s fundraiser for Obama revives complaints of bias

Like many entertainers, Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor has never tried to hide his liberal political leanings, but his decision to host an Obama re-election fundraising party in his Minnesota home last week worked the conservative blogosphere into a lather about NPR’s political bias. Yet NPR has no control over Keillor or his nationally syndicated weekly program. And there’s no guarantee that his program’s distributor, the Minnesota-based American Public Media Group, could heel its star vaudevillian if it tried to neutralize him politically. Keillor owns his production company and is responsible for the show’s content. APMG took a measured stance by endorsing Keillor’s First Amendment rights as an individual.

Jim Ascendio

No-chat zone ’twixt funders and reporters?

Radio news veteran Jim Asendio resigned as news director of Washington’s WAMU-FM last week after an internal dispute over a private fundraising event turned into a public clash over the editorial firewall protecting the station’s newsroom. Asendio objected when top managers required him and two reporters from his staff to participate in a “Meet the Producers” breakfast and panel discussion that the station hosted for major donors Feb. 22. The choice was stark, the news director said: “I could either not show up and be in trouble, or show up and violate my ethics, so I tendered my resignation.”

The showdown, first reported by Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple, put a spotlight on one of the touchiest subjects in cash-strapped newsrooms — firewalls designed to protect working journalists from undue influence by funders and to prevent appearances that such conflicts exist. Similar conflicts are playing out behind the scenes at public radio stations across the country, according to Iowa Public Radio’s Jonathan Ahl, who is president of Public Radio News Directors Inc.

“Some of our members have given us the indication that people aren’t necessarily crossing the firewall, but they’re walking up to it and peeking over it” too often, Ahl said.

Philip Weinberg dies at 86; brought pubcasting to central Illinois

Philip Weinberg, “the man responsible for bringing public broadcasting to central Illinois,” according to the Peoria Journal Star, died Thursday (Feb. 2) in Peoria, Ill. He was 86. “Not only did he start public radio on the Bradley [University] campus,” said Chet Tomczyk, g.m. of WTVP-TV, “but when he came across Sesame Street, produced by the Children’s Television Workshop, he decided that here was a show that people in this community needed to be exposed to.” So Weinberg arranged for the program to play on another local channel for six months before it could be carried on the pubTV station that Weinberg put on the air in June 1971, Tomczyk said.

Output: PBS’s first-ever Online Film Festival screens 20 short films, gilded applause for The Moth, public education through Indian humor, and more

Partners in the project are the pubmedia minority consortia — the Center for Asian American Media, Latino Public Broadcasting, Native American Public Telecommunications, the National Black Programming Consortium and Pacific Islanders in Communication — as well as the Independent Television Service and POV. The festival will be offered for video streaming on and the redesigned PBS YouTube channel, which will be unveiled as the festival opens. The festival includes an audience participation element. Viewers can cast online votes for their favorite films, and PBS will recognize the winner with a People’s Choice festival award. PBS will use the Twitter handle #PBSolff to build social media buzz during the five-week run.

APTS trustees approve new membership dues formula based on CSG

ARLINGTON, Va. – After holding membership dues flat for several years because of the recession, and researching numerous possible revamps of dues calculations, the Association of Public Television Stations will return to its original dues formula, based on a percentage of each pubTV station’s Community Service Grant, beginning with fiscal 2013. The APTS Board of Trustees today (Feb. 26) voted unanimously to adopt a formula based on 2 percent of the CSG, with a phase-in period during which no station will pay $2,000 more or less than its current dues. APTS is asking its three largest member stations, WNET in New York City, WGBH in Boston and WETA in Arlington, to continue to pay their current rate for the time being, said trustee John Harris, president of Prairie Public Broadcasting in Fargo, N.D., who headed work on the dues formula, which began in November 2010.

“Downton” Emmy category switch may prompt “TV awards smackdown”

The hit Edwardian costume drama Downton Abbey from Masterpiece Classic is switching Emmy categories from mini-series to drama, “thereby setting up a fierce TV awards smackdown,” according to awards news site Gold Derby, in an exclusive report by Tom O’Neil, author of the books Movie Awards, The Emmys and The Grammys. Last year, O’Neil writes, Downton’s Season 1 won best miniseries “over widespread complaints” that it was a drama series “masquerading” as a mini-series in order to avoid competing with Emmy heavy hitter Mad Men. Season 1 of Downton had four episodes; Season 2, seven — exceeding the six that generally define a regular series.O’Neil points out that the after another PBS Brit hit, Upstairs, Downstairs, won best drama series twice, in 1974 and ’75, the TV academy moved it to the best limited series category so it wouldn’t compete against favorite American shows like The Waltons and Kojak. “But Upstairs, Downstairs triggered a new outcry when it beat the hugely popular mini Rich Man, Poor Man,” O’Neil notes.The 2012 Emmy Awards will be broadcast Sept. 23.

At NPR, Wilson promoted to chief content officer, Low Smith to senior news v.p.

NPR President Gary Knell has restructured the news organization’s top ranks, elevating digital chief Kinsey Wilson to executive v.p. and chief content officer, and appointing Margaret Low Smith as senior v.p. of news, a job she took on an interim basis last year.When Wilson joined NPR as senior v.p. and general manager of digital media in 2008, the position was parallel to the senior news exec post then held by Ellen Weiss. Knell’s restructuring elevates Wilson in NPR’s organization chart to supervise all of NPR’s content areas — news, programming and digital media.”In Kinsey and Margaret, we have two journalists, strategists and leaders with a keen understanding of the craft that distinguishes NPR — and how we continue to innovate and evolve,” Knell said in a news release.In an interview with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, Knell described his objective to create “a unified and strategic approach” to providing news, cultural programming and other content across radio, online and mobile platforms, according to Mark Memmott, blogger/reporter for NPR’s The Two Way. “Radio is not going away, radio is going everywhere,” Knell reportedly said.Additional changes in NPR’s executive ranks to take effect immediately:Eric Nuzum, acting v.p. of programming, takes the job permanently, succeeding Smith as she officially takes over as news chief;Keith Woods, v.p. of diversity in news and operations, expands his collaborative work with NPR stations to bring greater diversity to public radio’s audiences. He now reports directly to Knell.Joyce McDonald, v.p. for membership and audience partnership, also directly reports to Knell.Knell adopted the new reporting structure for Woods and McDonald to ensure that he has “a direct line into NPR’s work with its community of stations.”

Oscar nominee “If a Tree Falls” now streaming on P.O.V. website

The full-length Academy Award-nominated documentary If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, which premiered on P.O.V. last year, is now streaming on the show’s website through March 4. The film, exploring environmentalism and terrorism, is up for the documentary feature Oscar this Sunday (Feb. 26). It’s a co-production of ITVS, directed by Marshall Curry, and won best documentary editing at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Downton gives public TV a ratings blockbuster

The Season 2 finale of Downton Abbey on Masterpiece Classic, aired Feb. 19, won the biggest audience for a PBS program since the premiere of Ken Burns’s National Parks: America’s Best Idea in September 2009. Nielsen estimated that 5.4 million viewers watched the two-hour finale, giving PBS a 3.5 household rating. That doesn’t include the additional viewers of rebroadcasts, DVR recordings and online streams, PBS said. For the seven-week season, broadcast viewing was double the PBS average in primetime and 25 percent higher than in Downton’s first season.

Some 5.4 million viewers watched “Downton” finale, PBS says

Ratings for the Season 2 finale of Downton Abbey on Masterpiece Classic are in, and the Feb. 19 episode scored the highest numbers for a PBS program since the premiere of Ken Burns’s National Parks in September 2009. An average audience of 5.4 million viewers (a 3.5 Nielsen household rating) watched, not including those viewing through station replays, DVRs or online streaming. On the web, full episodes of Season 2 received 4.8 million views on the PBS Video Portal, an increase of more than 400 percent over Season 1. Downton content accounted for more than 9 million streams from 1.5 million unique visitors across all platforms since the Season 2 premiere on Jan.

This Keillor-hosted fundraiser isn’t helping public radio

Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor has never tried to hide his liberal political leanings, but his decision to host a private fundraiser this week for President Obama’s reelection campaign has worked the conservative blogosphere into a lather about NPR’s political bias.The trouble is, NPR has no control over Keillor or his nationally syndicated weekly program. Neither does Minnesota-based American Public Media Group, which distributes Prairie Home Companion to public radio stations. Prairie Home Companion is not a news program — it’s an entertainment show — and Keillor’s own production company is responsible for its content.”Mr. Keillor’s political opinions and activities are his own, and do not reflect the views of APMG or its affiliated companies,” said Bill Gray, spokesman. APM’s ethical policies prohibit those who work in news and public affairs programming from participating in partisan political activities, but “Mr. Keillor is not a journalist, and thus his political opinions and activities do not have an impact on how news is presented to listeners.”NPR has spent more than a year updating its ethical standards to withstand the white-hot scrutiny that came after the firing of news analyst Juan Williams, and public radio and TV have just adopted an industry-wide code of editorial integrity, yet the field can’t get around the glee that political foes will take in bashing public radio when given the opportunity.Michigan Radio News Director Vincent Duffy sees nothing unethical with Keillor’s decision to host the fundraiser, but he describes it as “a bone headed move.”Keillor “is certainly aware that most of America probably thinks he has an office down the hall from Terry Gross and the Car Talk guys,” Duffy writes on his blog. “He also must be aware that a large crowd in America enjoys pointing fingers at NPR and screaming, “Liberals!” and working to cut the ever dwindling amount of public tax dollars that stations receive.”Duffy faults Keillor for failing to consider how his political activism affects the local stations that carry his program.

NETA, Coca-Cola Bottlers partnering on insurance for pubcasting stations

The National Educational Telecommunications Association today (Feb. 23) announced that it is offering group health insurance coverage plans to pubcasters, a project it has been working on for several years. So far, 70 licensees, both television and radio, representing nearly 2,900 individuals, are participating in the new initiative. NETA is partnering with the Coca-Cola Bottlers Association to provide the coverage, through that company’s Alliance of Professional Service Organizations (APSO) subsidiary. The partnership marks “the beginning of significant savings and improved insurance coverage opportunities for those who participate,” NETA President Skip Hinton said in the announcement.

Final choices set for U.S. pubmedia selections to INPUT in Sydney

Official selections have been finalized for the United States public broadcasting content to be screened at INPUT, the annual weeklong international public media showcase, coming in May in Australia. Screening in Sydney May 7-12 will be “Flawed,” the story of a woman’s long-distance relationship with a plastic surgeon, from POV; “More Than a Month,” about the history of Black History Month, from Independent Lens; “Southern Belle,” which went inside a Civil War historical-reenactment summer camp for girls, from Nashville Public Television and MakeWright Films; “Wham! Bam! Islam!,” on the man behind a comic book of Muslim superheroes, from Independent Lens, and “Worker Drone,” part of the online Futurestates project from ITVS. Pre-selection took place Nov.

PBS’s first Online Film Festival premiering on Feb. 27

PBS kicks off its first-ever Online Film Festival on Feb. 27, showcasing 20 short pubmedia films from and YouTube over five weeks. Partnering in the project are organizations that make up the pubmedia minority consortia — the Center for Asian American Media, Latino Public Broadcasting, Native American Public Telecommunications, the National Black Programming Consortium and Pacific Islanders Consortium — as well as the Independent Television Service and P.O.V. The festival will be available on, and also marks the debut of the redesigned PBS YouTube channel. Viewers may vote for favorites online for a People’s Choice festival award. PBS will Tweet from #PBSolff during the five-week run.

Asendio resigned over ethics dispute with WAMU brass

Jim Asendio’s sudden departure as news director of WAMU in Washington, D.C., was triggered by an internal dispute over his reporters’ participation in private meetings with major donors.Asendio objected when he and two journalists from his newsroom were required to participate in a “Meet the Producers” breakfast and panel discussion, which the station hosted this morning (Feb. 22). Involving WAMU reporters in the meeting was an unethical breech of the station’s editorial firewall, Asendio said in an interview with Current, and the sort of interaction that he forbid during his six-year tenure as news chief.”I maintain a strict firewall between the working journalists in the newsroom and the funders who fund the station,” Asendio said. “It’s my responsibility to keep them separate.” Donor-only events involving reporters are especially problematic, he said.

WFYI denies any link to TV production company approaching local nonprofits

WFYI in Indianapolis is warning local organizations that it has no ties to Vision Media Television, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based company that says it can produce informational segments about the groups to appear on public television, reports the Indianapolis Business Journal.On its website, Vision Media Television references its relationship with Joan Lunden, but Lunden has posted a warning distancing herself from similar firms on her own website. PBS also includes a warning on its website, and cites Vision Media Television among various entities claiming to produce content for broadcast on  national public television for a fee. In Indianapolis, several nonprofits have been contacted by the company, which asks for up to $26,000 to cover production costs, and claims the content will run on public television. The New York Times covered the firm’s pitch as far back as 2008, when Vision Media was using retired broadcaster Hugh Downs’ name, and Current wrote in 2004 about a Boca Raton firm using a similar approach and dropping the names of veteran newsmen Morley Safer and Walter Cronkite.

“Downton” helps PBS SoCal reach beyond typical PBS audience

The massive popularity of Downton Abbey on Masterpiece Classic “couldn’t have come at a better time” for KOCE, the new PBS primary station in the Los Angeles market now known as PBS SoCal, writes TV Guide’s Michael Schneider at his blog, Franklin Avenue. “Downton Abbey enabled us to reach audiences that are not just the typical PBS audience, including younger people, and gave us a chance to establish ourselves as the area’s PBS station,” Mel Rogers, station president, told Schneider. Downton’s season finale on Sunday (Feb. 19) scored a 2.3 rating and 4 share in the Los Angeles market.

Remembering WJWJ

The recent announcement that South Carolina ETV was closing WJWJ in Beaufort County due to budget woes prompted this rich reminiscence in the Beaufort Gazette by the paper’s former longtime editor, Pete Pillow, who also spent five years as a producer and anchor on WJWJ’s weeknight newscast, from 1978 to 1983.”There was no high-def television or satellite reception back then,” he recalls. “A special antenna was needed to even get WJWJ’s signal. One of our initial tasks was teaching viewers how to avoid a snowy picture by manually fine-tuning their sets for Channel 16. A safecracker’s dexterity would have helped.”As for production, “field reports were videotaped,” he writes, “but the nightly newscast was live — television at its most daring and mistake-prone. Slips of the tongue could render one (or both) anchors helpless with mirth.

News Director Jim Asendio gone from WAMU, staffers told in memo

WAMU News Director Jim Asendio has left the station, according to an internal station memo posted by the Washington Post. Mark McDonald, program director at the American University licensee in Washington, D.C., told staffers: “Jim has left WAMU. We wish him well in his future endeavors. Meymo Lyons is Acting News Director with immediate effect, and she and I will be working with the newsroom staff to find a replacement for Jim in the coming days and weeks.”UPDATE: Journalist Dave Hughes, who runs DCRTV, an independent website about radio and television in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore area, reports that Asendio told him: “I resigned as news director at WAMU because I did not agree with an upper management decision to have reporters meet with donors at a donor-only station-sponsored event. It is my long held and oft-stated belief that working journalists should not be subjected to the real or perceived influence of the individuals and/or foundations who fund the work of the newsroom.”

New Hampshire town starting new PEG channel

While the Alliance for Community Media fights to keep PEG (public, educational and government) channels on the air, there are local bright spots emerging, such as in Exeter, N.H., which is starting a new public-access channel, according to the Exeter News-Letter in Portsmouth. “I think of it as an opportunity for people to be more of a part of their community and to know what is going on,” Doug York, the Exeter Public Television coordinator, told the paper. “It can also be a way for people to express themselves artistically.” Supporters of the public-access channel have spent the past few years working on the project.