PubTV stations earn new revenues as ‘problem-solver’ for educators

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When Tom Axtell took over as the general manager of Vegas PBS in 1994, about half of the station’s $3 million budget came from the Clark County School District, to which the station is licensed.

The day after he was hired, Axtell learned that the superintendent’s staff believed the district was receiving little value from its seven-figure annual subsidy of the station. The superintendent told him he had two years to change that, or the school funds would be zeroed out.

From that startling introduction, Axtell developed for Vegas PBS a “strategy of survival” that has since become an innovative education-based model for public television sustainability. During fiscal 2013, the station’s $11.25 million operating revenues included about $5.4 million in revenues for a wide variety of educational services — providing everything from instructional media for the school district to broader workforce training in the region.

Vegas PBS GM Tom Axtell speaks at a town hall convened as part of CPB’s American Graduate Initiative.

“We said, ‘Everything we do will solve a problem. We will focus everything we do on resolving an issue you have,’” Axtell recalled.

“That really became our philosophy, to take our ability to produce and distribute programs and customize those to the needs of K through 12,” he said.

Workforce training came later, and the philosophy has since been extended to all the station’s community work. In just the last year, Axtell said, Vegas PBS has “created TV programming and web content with the Human Trafficking Task Force, online continuing education units on gaming regulation with the UNLV Law school, bankruptcy information with the Legal Aid Center” and more.

Elements of the approach are being adapted elsewhere, including at WHRO in Norfolk, Va. That station, a joint licensee operating radio and TV stations, is owned by 19 local school districts and has deeply rooted educational service capacity. But the station expanded its work in the education realm as it faced the loss of $1 million of its $12 million budget when the state zeroed out grants to public broadcasters in 2012.

Like Vegas PBS, WHRO has developed services that schools will pay for, and the station is now looking beyond the K–12 curriculum, seeking to provide education and training to the older labor pool. In the next month or two, WHRO will partner with Vegas PBS to launch, offering the online workforce development courses that Vegas PBS offers in Nevada.

At both stations, the strategies are built on the belief that that unrestricted support for public broadcasting is only going to continue to diminish. By securing new money in the education sector, stations — even those that aren’t licensed to school districts — can leverage their educational reputations and potentially find a ready market in school districts that are likewise cash-strapped, said Bert Schmidt, WHRO president. “We need to make the shift and go more toward contracts and less toward grants,” he said. Over the past five years, WHRO has been riding that wave of change: It derived just 13 percent of its $12 million fiscal 2013 budget from government subsidies, down from 26 percent five years ago.

Solution-oriented approach

By 1999, Axtell’s strategy for Vegas PBS proved prescient when the school board, facing a budget crisis, voted to eliminate all its general support for the station. Instead, it restructured its commitment, limiting its obligations to payments compensating Las Vegas PBS only for the classroom services that it provided.

Today Vegas PBS manages a wide portfolio of educational programs, including subcategories of K–12 school services, K–12 family support, adult career education and workplace certification, and veteran’s training and outreach. The services are increasingly offered online and supported by a wide range of revenue sources — federal grants, expense reimbursements from local educational institutions, user fees, and corporate and foundation funds.

In creating programs for school services, “We listen to what the issues are and craft solutions,” Axtell said. The Vegas PBS Described and Captioned Media Center is one such solution. It operates as a free-loan educational media library and serves the entire state by distributing audio and Braille books, closed caption DVDs and kits helping teachers and parents who interact with blind students.

Building on its expertise in closed captioning and a grant from the school district, Vegas PBS opened the library in 2004. (Until then, Nevada educators had simply borrowed resources from a California school district, but that relationship ended.) Later, when Nevada policymakers cut funding to the state’s prison system, eliminating an inmate work program that provided Braille translations of educational materials, Vegas PBS “stunned ourselves,” in Axtell’s words, by taking over Braille translations for the state. The station now has a full-time employee who translates material at teachers’ requests, producing nearly 10,000 pages in FY 2013. The Described and Captioned Media Center recently extended its services by hosting monthly social gatherings for children who speak in sign language; new donors stepped up to support the events. The station and the school district are examining possibly expanding services to children on the autism spectrum.

“We provide a basket of services built around an underserved community,” Axtell said, referring to the Media Center’s services, which run on an average yearly budget of $340,000.

Adult learning

Some of Vegas PBS’s educational services aim to help local businesses with workforce development — initiatives that align with its community impact mission and track record in preparing students for General Educational Development exams.

The online workforce education program was launched four years ago in response to the region’s high recession-related unemployment and now offers thousands of self-paced and instructor-led courses in a half-dozen languages — including training in Hotel English for non-English speakers employed by the local resorts, certification for aspiring restaurant workers and courses for those seeking paralegal jobs. Last year, more than 115,000 people enrolled in courses, up from 840 in 2009–10.

Caesars, the state’s second-largest employer, is one customer. Through a grant from its foundation, it pays for many of its employees and their family members to take the $200 Hotel English course and any other workforce training programs they want. The program generated more than $50,000 for Vegas PBS last year.

“A lot of people in public television may not think of that as education,” Axtell said. “We think it is part of the lifelong education stream.”

The pubcaster recently rebranded the program as GOAL: Global Online Advanced Learning and expanded access to it by opening a weekday computer lab with free public access to 21 computer workstations.

Partners in GOAL, which is expected to generate roughly $2.6 million in revenues this year, include Nevada’s economic development office, the Southern Nevada Health District, the Nevada Restaurant Association and the school district’s Nevada Mentor Project aimed at dropout prevention.

Building off its relationship with the Caesars Foundation, Vegas PBS recently began bringing those adult education classes into local schools.

Funding shifts at WHRO

The foundation, which had already been working with Teach for America to help establish a parent-teacher organization at a local elementary school, brought Vegas PBS on board to offer free workforce training to parents as an incentive to take part, setting up an on-site computer lab for parents who lacked Internet access. In the first year, the program enrolled 170 parents in courses ranging from Hotel English to advanced certifications as a forensic science investigator or a dental assistant; Vegas PBS also offered Ready to Learn workshops at the school. In its second year, the program expanded to a middle school and another is in the works.

Thom Reilly, executive director of the Caesars Foundation, said Vegas PBS “got it” when the foundation told the station its expectations, including measurable outcomes for the projects. “The metrics and stats they provide us are good,” Reilly said. “They’re also good at the storytelling,” bringing in parents who had succeeded in the program to share their stories the second year. Moreover, he said, “the PR the company has gotten has been over-the-top good,” with on-air recognition of its efforts satisfying one of its grant criteria: “If we make a gift, they have to have opportunities for employees to get involved and they have to brand it.”

Vegas PBS has higher primetime ratings than the PBS average but lower-than-system-average membership among local viewers, which Axtell attributes to the transient nature of the Las Vegas population. But with his array of job training and school services, among the long list of initiatives, earned income generates about half of the station’s revenues, which Axtell believes is among the highest in the system.

Inroads with e-learning

At WHRO, the list of education offerings is more limited, but growing. WHRO can count on getting $2 per student in the schools it is licensed to, but that provides roughly $500,000 of the $12 million budget.

Like Vegas PBS, the station’s staff listen to school officials — meeting with them 30 times a year — and develop products from those conversations, said Schmidt. The station, he said, approaches the process with an “entrepreneurial spirit. We have a real strategic planning process and ask hard questions.”

That process proved valuable last year after the state passed a law requiring completion of online coursework as a requirement for high school graduation. The law put many schools in a bind, unable to afford to create their own courses or pay the average $6,500 per student that commercial providers charge.

Schools affiliated with WHRO were prepared. They gave WHRO money to begin developing online courses six years ago, and today the station offers 22 highly interactive high school classes in topics from algebra to oceanography to Virginia history. Schools in each of its licensee districts access the courses for free. With the new law, other schools have asked to get in on the classes, and WHRO has sold them to a dozen school divisions at an average of $10,000 per course, a base rate that makes the course available to any number of students — a huge savings from the per-student rate commercial providers are charging.

“I’m making a business of it selling around the state,” Schmidt said. The program’s expansion has brought in about $200,000 in income so far, with another $300,000 or so projected from the districts’ enrollments.

Likewise, WHRO was ahead of even PBS when several years ago it began developing eMediaVA, a digital portal with some 40,000 digital learning objects, from games to opera lesson plans and, more recently, PBS LearningMedia content. The station built the portal at its schools’ request, tapping grant money and reserves; but it began generating substantial revenues last year, after WHRO landed a five-year state contract worth $400,000 per year, making it free to every public and private school in Virginia. Already 130,000 educators have created accounts.

Under another state contract, WHRO has for many years operated the Virtual Virginia Advanced Placement school, offering nearly 40 online courses for students seeking AP and world language classes not offered locally.

Monetizing the educational products, Schmidt said, has helped offset the $1.2 million that WHRO lost when the state eliminated its annual subsidies to public broadcasting stations in 2012.

The state contract for eMediaVA didn’t come about by chance. When it was clear that the state was going to take away the money for instructional television services, WHRO worked “aggressively” to position eMediaVA as an educational service the state might support and make available for free to all schools. When the state later put out a request for proposals for ITV services, WHRO bid and won the contract, said Joe Bruns, the retired c.o.o. of WETA, which is licensed to Arlington, Va.

The move ruffled feathers among pubcasters at other stations in the state, who had earlier been invited to participate in eMediaVA and would have preferred to have the money divided up among the stations, even though the new contractual process wouldn’t have allowed that. “It was business,” Bruns said, and WHRO “developed something that’s really good.”

Overall, Schmidt said, “We’re improving education in the state in a way that saves taxpayers money.” Ashby Kilgore, the superintendent of Newport News Public Schools and a WHRO board member, agreed. She praised the virtual classes the station developed — “We each weren’t inventing the wheel on our own” — as well as eMediaVA, saying, “I don’t have the people that can go out and do that.”

Notably, she said, in the wake of the state budget cuts during the recession, “my board has never questioned the value of the relationship with WHRO because I think we’re getting tremendous return on investment.”

Even though public school systems nationwide are also scrapping for every penny of savings, Axtell and Schmidt have heard from station leaders that their education service model is not replicable elsewhere — or at least not at stations that don’t have built-in support from their school district owners. Both, not surprisingly, disagree.

“It can be done; there are models,” said Schmidt, expressing surprise that neither he nor Vegas PBS has found other stations willing to share their courses in exchange for an offered revenue-sharing deal.

Being owned by a school district doesn’t guarantee any income, Schmidt said; the only advantage is easy access to school officials so the conversation can begin. “You’ve got to start with a conversation with the superintendent or board members. Listen to what the needs are in your school,” he said.

Education services, he said, have the potential to change the minds of public media funding detractors. “You may not like Bill Moyers or Diane Rehm, but you care about education and that it’s done in a cost-effective way,” he said, referring to pubTV’s critics, adding, “We should strive to be one of the most important partners for public education in the country. If we were, we would never have the conversation about whether public broadcasting should be funded.”

On the other hand, Schmidt said, “If we’re just going to be another television network out there, boy oh boy, I don’t know how you sustain that.”

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