How PBS Kansas regained its footing in Wichita

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PBS Kansas

PBS Kansas President Victor Hogstrom outside the station's new building in East Wichita.

By May, PBS Kansas will complete its move into a $4.5 million new headquarters, marking a dramatic turnaround at the once-struggling Wichita station.

The relocation to the 31,000–square-foot building, which offers two spacious studios, a children’s discovery center and a station museum, ends a six-year transformation at the station that began when Victor Hogstrom, a veteran public television executive, became president and CEO.

When Hogstrom arrived in 2016, PBS Kansas was operating out of a former auto parts store next to a railroad track, with trains constantly disrupting studio production. The station had borrowed money to make payroll for its 20-member staff, struggled with lackluster fundraising results and wasn’t producing any local programs for its weekly lineup.

“The station was a complete enigma within the community,” says Jim Grawe, a broadcast journalist with extensive commercial TV experience who’s now EP at PBS Kansas. “It had existed for about 45 years, and a lot of people in Wichita didn’t even know what it was. Even if they did — it just astounded me — a few people didn’t know what public broadcasting was.”

That began to change when Hogstrom, who had led PBS stations in Kansas City, Chattanooga, Tenn., and Redding, Calif., took over and began rebuilding the station’s programming and community image. His strategy has so far worked: Over the past six years, public support for PBS Kansas has more than doubled, to $4.6 million; membership has almost tripled, to 17,820; and nine new local programs have debuted. Six of the new shows are weekly productions.

“Victor really put the ball over the goal in terms of igniting a super interest in supporting PBS Kansas,” says Tom Zwemke, a member of the station’s board of trustees and search committee that hired Hogstrom. “It’s been a long time coming to see PBS Kansas grow in such a way, particularly now with the new facility that they’re going to move into.”

The growth of public support brought about an unprecedented decision this month. PBS Kansas ended its March pledge drive early after the on-air fundraiser exceeded its campaign goal of $120,000 by $13,000, Hogstrom wrote in a March 16 email.

“Viewers were promised that if they would help us reach our goal before the scheduled end date, the rest of the drive would be canceled. So we have,” he says. “This gives us a little more time to begin our move into our new building.”

‘Turnaround CEO’

When the search committee contacted Hogstrom in 2016, it was the third time PBS Kansas had tried to recruit him as chief executive, Hogstrom recalls. During his 27-year public TV career, he had built a reputation as someone who can lead PBS stations out of a financial crisis.

“People know me as the turnaround CEO,” Hogstrom says. “That’s what people call me.”

Before arriving in Wichita, Hogstrom had led three PBS stations through financial turnarounds and overseen construction of new buildings in Chattanooga and Redding.

The station’s board of trustees wanted him to duplicate those successes in Wichita. “What I really sensed in Victor was a real calm leadership quality,” Zwemke says. “I recognized right away what he … could bring to PBS Kansas in terms of moving it in a direction of growth and excitement.”

At the time, however, the station was languishing from its cash-flow problems and inability to attract public support. PBS Kansas, which until December 2020 used its call letters KPTS in its branding, lacked the resources to produce local programming. Its location just outside downtown Wichita was also seen as a liability. When community members attended events at the station, they would often have to be escorted to their cars because of safety concerns.

“One thing about Victor is he’s not afraid to ask for money. He … lets people know who we are and what we do and how they can help make it better for the community.”

Jon Callen, PBS Kansas board member

As a community licensee, the station had no local institutional support, and its state funding was hovering at about $50,000 annually, a fraction of what PBS stations in many surrounding states receive, Hogstrom says.

“It just never seemed like we really ever picked up steam in this community for some reason,” says Jon Callen, president of Edmiston Oil Company and a member of the board of trustees since 2010. “It’s kind of odd because … with the membership drive and the fundraising we have just through the membership, we’ve quietly been one of the largest fundraisers in the community. But we just didn’t seem to make waves.”

Hogstrom’s predecessor, Michele Gors, had been a news director in commercial television and came into the CEO job in 2008 with no experience in either public TV or fundraising. When she resigned in 2015, she told Current that she “wholeheartedly believes in the mission of public media,” but her background and interests lie in “writing and journalism, not fundraising.”

Dave McClintock, the former director of operations, stepped up as interim CEO. The station had once produced award-winning documentaries, but its local productions had ground to a halt, he says. KPTS wasn’t accomplishing much beyond producing pledge drives.

“We were hanging on more by not replacing staff when they left to keep the budget balanced,” McClintock says, recalling the situation. “So we were declining in the number of staff and the amount of production going on.”

By fiscal year 2016, KPTS had a debt load of $169,000 from loans taken from the state and a local bank, according to an audited financial report for that year. Staffers were not receiving annual pay raises, and morale had declined, says Grawe, who joined KPTS in 2014.  

“There was a feeling that nothing could be done,” he adds. “Since this is my first experience in public television, I didn’t know what was possible, and I assumed this was a lost cause.”

‘We told our story’

When Hogstrom arrived in Wichita, he focused on erasing the station’s debt, which he accomplished by the end of his first fiscal year at the helm. Although PBS Kansas is the largest of three public TV stations located in the state, the other two were raising more money during their pledge drives. Hogstrom vowed to rectify the station’s underperformance in fundraising.

He began by reducing the number of virtual pledge drives on national programs and instead invited PBS Kansas supporters to appear on-air and solicit donations. Board members and business leaders were among the donors who made appeals for viewers’ contributions.  

“We told our story to the public,” Hogstrom says. “One of our most powerful messages is … that we have to raise over 70% of our budget locally.” The other powerful message is the limited public support PBS Kansas receives from the state government as compared to public broadcasters in neighboring states.

Public TV and radio stations in Kansas split annual appropriations of $500,000 in fiscal years 2021 and 2022. The funds amount to 17 cents per state resident, based on 2017 U.S. Census population data. That makes Kansas tied with Missouri for the third-lowest state funding for pubcasting per capita, according to Current’s analysis of state appropriations data.

While changing the messages in on-air appeals during pledge drives, Hogstrom began meeting with community leaders to tell them about the station’s needs and his plans for local programming. He actively solicited donations from everyone he met, while targeting major donors.

“One thing about Victor is he’s not afraid to ask for money,” Callen says. “He … lets people know who we are and what we do and how they can help make it better for the community.”

Hogstrom introduced special events for donors such as the BritClub High Tea, held annually in the city’s Botanica Gardens Hall for supporters of British programming. During pledge drives, the station appealed to BritClub members to sponsor one of the seven British shows in its schedule with a donation of $75. The campaign boosted the audience for the lineup and brought in enough money to acquire other syndicated British programs, such as Midsomer Murders, Hogstrom says.

PBS Kansas also expanded its staff, adding six full-time and two part-time positions, and began producing local programs. One of the first, One on One with Victor Hogstrom, borrowed a concept he developed in Chattanooga. The weekly show features his interviews with local politicians, civic leaders and the occasional PBS personality, such as the late Jim Lehrer, a former Wichita resident.

Hogstrom calls the series an “excellent friend-raiser” that attracts viewers who enjoy learning about people in their community. The average weekly audience for the show ranges from 3,500 to 6,000 households, depending on the featured guests.

“While it is wonderful to have the national programs, mixing the national programs with some good local programs makes it all great,” Hogstrom says. “That’s what people want. You tell the story of the communities that you serve.”

Journalists and anchors Larry Hatteberg and Susan Peters record an episode of “Hatteberg’s People.”

The station began rolling out weekly programs that told those stories. Positively Kansas, for example, features interesting people, places and histories of Kansas in a magazine format. Empowering Seniors, hosted by a local realtor, offers interviews with experts on the complex issues facing the elderly and their families. And Hatteberg’s People, a popular show hosted by two former local television anchors, repackages human-interest news stories that first aired on a local commercial station with updates on the featured guests.

Local history documentaries, such as Lost Theaters of Wichita, which premiered in 2019, have helped to boost fundraising. Produced by staff members and a handful of freelancers, historical accounts of big tornadoes and Wichita’s aviation industry, for example, are strategically broadcast during pledge drives.

“People see their small town on PBS Kansas when it was hit by a tornado, and it makes them feel like their history is being seen and reported,” says Rachel Wetta, a lawyer who chairs the board of trustees. “And then they call into the station and make a donation that they might not have otherwise made.”  

Creating space for the community

When the staff relocates to the new headquarters, PBS Kansas plans to expand and improve its local programming. The building’s two large studios provide capacity to produce live events, such as town hall meetings and symphony concerts.

“It just opens up so many possibilities for us,” Grawe says. “We can do just so much more than is possible in the tiny studios that we’ve had.”

The building also creates space for inviting members to interact with the station in person. The Children’s Discovery and Education Center will offer rotating hands-on STEM-related exhibits, and local companies could be tapped to sponsor an exhibit on Wichita’s thriving aircraft industry. Another exhibition space, the PBS Kansas Museum, will showcase the station’s history with displays of archival items such as old equipment, videotapes and photographs.

“One of the goals is to bring more people into the station so they can take ownership of this station,” Hogstrom says. “This is a community license. The community is our base, it is our support and it is our foundation.”

PBS Kansas acquired the building last summer for $3 million from the Meritrust Credit Union. In addition to selling the building that housed its headquarters in northeast Wichita, the credit union included all its office furniture in the sale price. The costs of renovation and new equipment, such as a new 150-foot on-site microwave tower, added $1.5 million to the project’s price tag.

To finance the purchase and renovation, Hogstrom created a campaign that offered packages of 25-year naming rights for various rooms and offices in the facility and invited donors to become chartered contributors with gifts of up to $2,000. The strategy raised more than $2 million from a total of 113 donors, without having to launch a capital campaign.

Former board member Lynn Stephan and her husband sponsored a conference room at the front of the building to show their support for PBS Kansas. “I just want to be part of the station, and I wanted to make a public statement that I believe in it,” she says.

PBS Kansas leaders and supporters look to the move to the new building as a change that will attract more donors to the station and leverage public support to create a more solid foundation for its future.

“Everyone is extremely excited about what’s going to happen next with PBS Kansas and — more so — very excited to have Victor leading the charge,” Zwemke says. “The next chapter in the history of the station is yet to be written, and it’s going to be a very positive, exciting period of time.”

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