Current Online

CPB backs outreach hub in Wisconsin

Originally published in Current, Dec. 4, 2000
By Karen Everhart Bedford

Effective this month, CPB has ended its 14-year relationship with the Public Television Outreach Alliance and backed the start-up of the National Center for Outreach at Wisconsin PTV.

PTOA, founded in the mid-'80s by a five-station consortium and credited for establishing outreach as a distinctive service of public television, will cease operations Dec. 31 [2000].

The change results from a system-wide review of public TV stations' outreach needs and the most efficient ways to meet them. Station-based outreach coordinators, although initially baffled by news of the restructuring, will receive more direct funding and flexibility to launch local campaigns.

An analysis by Bornstein & Associates—jointly commissioned by CPB and the PTOA Board—early this year recommended major restructuring of PTOA's operations and governance.

Instead, PTOA's board decided to close up shop. "None of us could afford to keep supporting PTOA to the tune that we had," explained Ginny Fox, board chairman of the alliance and executive director of Kentucky ETV. Based on Bornstein's findings, PTOA's board agreed with CPB to start fresh with a request for proposals (RFP) rather than have the alliance try to fix its problems, she said. Besides the Kentucky state network, the alliance partners are KCTS in Seattle, Nebraska ETV, WETA in Washington, and WQED in Pittsburgh.

Wisconsin PTV, creator of the highly successful "Safe Night USA" project in 1999, won the funding last month. The National Center for Outreach officially went into business Dec. 1 as a national clearinghouse for public TV outreach projects. It will train workers on "best practices," disseminate information widely about programming and outreach projects, and re-grant more than $300,000 to local outreach efforts. CPB will provide $1 million a year to the center under a three-year, annually renewable contract now being negotiated.

A placeholder site for the center is already on the web at <I><I>. The center will convene its first conference next spring in Washington, May 4-6.

The major change brought by the Wisconsin-led organization is that it won't designate any single topic or project as the national campaign for a given year, as PTOA has done, explained Maria Alvarez Stroud, director. "We're not saying to anyone, 'To get this money, you have to do outreach around this broadcast,'" she said. The center will create guidelines for grants; stations will decide which outreach projects are most relevant to their communities, and apply to the center for funding. Grants will be awarded in four different categories to support best practices, local/national outreach and conference attendance, according to a summary of the center's proposal.

"More and more stations are producing programs with national outreach," explained Ann Mauze, deputy director of the educational resources center at WNET in New York and a member of the steering committee that advised CPB during the RFP process. The time has come to move away from the approach of designating one major national project, she added. Stations now will participate in outreach programs that "fit into their local goals and objectives," and receive national funding and training in these efforts from the national center.

Stations still will coalesce around high-impact national outreach projects, predicted Candis Isberner, learning services director at WSIU in Carbondale, Ill., and a steering committee member. Major national campaigns give stations an "immediate leg-up because of the promotion and resources that come with them." They will "continue to be critically important," especially to small stations.

"What we envision . . . is that the direct grants to stations offered by the national center will be more than double what PTOA was offering," estimated Yoko Arthur, v.p. of programming operations for CPB.

The new alliance, like PTOA, will receive $1 million a year from CPB, but PTOA spent the funds on a single outreach campaign tied to a national broadcast. About $400,000 of the CPB monies were directed to programming; local stations received mini-grants to tailor outreach campaigns for their communities.

"We were like—whoa!"

News that PTOA would be disbanded came out in June, when the alliance convened its training conference in Nashville after the PBS Annual Meeting. Arthur announced the upcoming RFP for a new national organization to a stunned audience of station-based coordinators.

"We were like—whoa! We were really in the dark," recalled Lori Georgi of WIPB in Muncie. "It was a real downer on the conference itself."

"Many of the outreach folks were shocked and dismayed and not really sure what was going on," said Lee Allen, interim executive director of PTOA since John Kasdan left the post earlier this year. "They were concerned about the PTOA staff, and what their general managers would think—if PTOA goes away, what does this say about outreach in the industry?"

"When you're making sausage, it's hard to convince people it will be tasty," commented Fox. "At the conference, the sausage was in the grinder. It felt very good to the people who were making the sausage."

She asserted that the hand-off from alliance to the new center "in no way demeans what PTOA did. It was structured for a different time."

"I am tickled to death that the system said what it wants, and CPB and PTOA responded," said Fox.

This whole-scale rethinking of funding for national outreach in public TV has been in the works for several years, but getting all the interested parties to agree on the way forward took some time.

The PTOA staff had worked out of regional offices at the alliance's five member stations, contributing to what Bornstein & Associates recently described as "organizational confusion, split reporting lines, ineffective supervision, staff tensions and perceived conflicts of interest." The Bornstein report, posted at, recommended that PTOA staff work from a central location close to PBS, and that the membership of its governing board be opened up to station executives, outreach professionals and programmers outside the PTOA circle.

PTOA's board was limited to the chief executives of the five founding stations. "A lot of people thought the five stations were passing project money around amongst ourselves," said Fox. "They didn't see the money we put in." She estimated that the founding stations contributed one-fourth of the $30 million given to the alliance by CPB, outside funders and PTOA stations over its lifespan.

As PTOA explored how to re-tool itself in 1997-98, CPB was also re-examining its television program grants. The corporation's annual support of PTOA came under close scrutiny. Among the issues identified were PTOA's structure, its need for closer links with PBS, and the limitations of its one-year project cycle. Turnover among CPB's top programming staff also "made it very difficult to keep any consistency going," according to one observer of the process.

Last fall, the PTOA board approached CPB about commissioning a full-scale strategic analysis of PTOA and outreach in general. Bornstein & Associates "did an array of things to get the most balanced and fair feedback" and "really canvassed the field well," said Allen.

More than 65 percent of stations responding to a Bornstein survey indicated that their outreach activities had increased in the last five years, and 75 percent said local efforts would increase more in the next five. PTOA's programs and services were rated highly by 60 percent of stations, but they also indicated needs for more funding, better coordination, enhanced programming and more training.

Another major finding of the study was that CPB support for national outreach has strong support within public television. Many predict that outreach will become more important to stations in the multichannel environment. Bornstein recommended that CPB continue "significant financial support of a national outreach organization."

Rather than the turnover sending a negative signal about the importance of outreach, as many station coordinators had feared, Isberner sees the change as a strong affirmative message. CPB's backing for the National Center for Outreach "signals significant institutionalization in our industry of outreach."

"Instead of individual stations having to pull their resources together to make PTOA, it's now happening on behalf of all stations."


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