Current Online

Advocate, conciliator Dave Brugger moves on

Updated from an article published in Current, Sept. 4, 2000

By Steve Behrens

David J. Brugger, who has just announced plans to resign, served longer than any other president of a national pubcasting organization, all the while generating more respect and less rancor than most.

As president of the Association of America's Public Television Stations (APTS) for nearly 13 years, Brugger constructed a lobbying machine that focussed public support for the field five years ago, helping to repulse Newt Gingrich's attack on CPB funding.

In the most recent of many initiatives to maintain a place for public TV in the new media delivery systems, APTS worked out a voluntary pact with major cable operator Time Warner that would give public TV some assurance of carriage for its digital TV signals. Pubcasters hope the pact, announced Sept. 19 [2000], will become a model for agreements with other operators. Brugger implies that the deal is based on mutual self-interest. "Why would a cable company not want 95 million people tuning into their system?" he asks rhetorically.

On Brugger's long shift, APTS lawyers led by Vice President Marilyn Mohrman-Gillis also won key court victories, preserving FCC rules that require cable systems to carry analog public TV channels, in 1994; and securing reserved noncommercial channels on DBS satellites in 1996.

Brugger, 57, will leave APTS at the end of December, taking time off from full-time work to give first priority to "personal family life, unencumbered by day-to-day responsibilities," he said.

He is leaving a more active, better funded APTS than the one he inherited. The association has added nine member stations for this year and expects to have 152 of the 178 public TV licensees as dues-paying members--an all-time high, according to Thomas Crockett, members rep. And APTS has built its budget to $3.8 million with project grants from the Ford, Pew and AT&T foundations. Last month, the Irvine Foundation gave APTS $120,000 to look into issues surrounding DTV carriage by cable and DBS systems.

Several of the projects and ongoing APTS Board discussions promote DTV programming alliances between stations and other community nonprofits such as museums, public libraries and universities. The local partnerships could eventually lead to a national-level "grand alliance," says Brugger. "You can have grand ideas and plans [at the national level], but you have to start somewhere."

Unlike most national chieftains in pubcasting over the years, Brugger came out of the station system. He held various management and production jobs at Iowa PTV, KDIN/KDPS in Des Moines, WNYC in New York, WDUQ in Pittsburgh and at commercial stations. In Gainesville, Fla., Brugger managed WUFT-TV and established an FM station there. He came to CPB as director of broadcast services and left as v.p. for telecommunications, joining APTS in January 1988.

Beth Courtney, chairman of APTS and president of Louisiana Public Broadcasting, says Brugger keeps a clear focus on the APTS mission: "to tell the story of the individual stations" among Washington policymakers, who think first of national acronyms like PBS and NPR. When APTS sets up exhibits in the Capitol to publicize public TV's educational activities during the association's annual Capitol Hill Day, the emphasis is on projects undertaken by local stations.

To overcome public TV's characteristic rifts on policy goals, APTS routinely hires a facilitator to lead consensus-building sessions of station reps, including its Legislative Advisory Group (LAG).

"I've been to LAG meetings where people start out on opposite sides of the room, and, when they're done, they have crafted something they can not only buy into, but support," says Susan Farmer, a trustee of APTS and president of WSBE in Providence, R.I.

"It's got to be the best run national organization we have," she says, crediting Brugger and staff. "One thing above all, he truly appreciates the individuality of the stations. He doesn't dictate to the stations."

Brugger says the consensus-building sessions allow his constituents to confront counterparts who have different situations and views, countering the influence of "affinity groups" of stations, where like-minded station execs "get their biases confirmed."

"We tend to be way too critical of ourselves in public broadcasting," says Brugger, referring particularly to the field's tendencies toward long meetings and longer battles. What U.S. institution other than public TV must bring together 178 separate companies to discuss issues that affect their separate and mutual interests? he asks. Newcomers from private business sometimes lack patience with public TV, he adds, because they are accustomed to decision-making that's simplified by having money as the primary goal. In public TV, stations often have different definitions for success, as well as different ways of getting there.

Once its constituents agree on policy positions, APTS not only fields its own lobbyists but also mobilizes local activists through systematic action alerts.

Throughout the struggle with Newt Gingrich in 1995-96, "we were completely in the loop" thanks to the alerts, says Bill Reed, an APTS trustee and president of KCPT in Kansas City. APTS also provides federal campaign contributions data so that stations can hunt up influential local folks who not only support public TV but also any pertinent politician, says Beth Courtney.

Though he speaks with heart about public TV's objectives, Brugger isn't a classic backslapping operator.

"David is so wonderfully low-key in an industry [television] where people are flamboyant extroverts," says Courtney.

Instead, he projects a calm assurance based on faith in the idea of public TV. When the Supreme Court was deciding whether to overturn must-carry rules, many pubcasters were worried, Brugger recalls, but he recalls expecting that the rules would prevail because of their "fairness and the rightness." He points to the many times Congress has expressed support for pubcasting and its public-service objectives.

But he's also frustrated that Congress often fails to provide a larger share of the funds needed to meet those objectives. While APTS sought a total of $770 million in federal help for public TV's digital conversion, for example, Congress has been appropriating just tens of millions a year and the White House has endorsed a total of $450 million.

He doesn't expect Congress to deal seriously with digital transition costs until leaders realize that some stations will fail to meet the 2003 conversion deadline. "A lot of times it takes a crisis for things to move," he says.


. To Current's home page
. Earlier news: Court upholds set-aside for public-interest programming on DBS satellites, 1996.
. Related stories : Will there be a reserved lane on the information highway for public-interest programming?
. Outside link: APTS web site.

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