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District-Owned Stations Find Their Own Niche

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On Miami's WLRN-TV, an affiliate of the Public Broadcasting Service, viewers won't find "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" or "Great Performances," but they can tune into "G.E.D. on TV" and "Let's Learn Japanese."

On New York City's WNYE-TV, viewers can watch a Spanish-language course called "Destinos" or participate in live monthly "town meetings" with U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

And on KLCS-TV in Los Angeles, some teachers who have appeared on the station's "Homework Hotline" show have been accorded celebrity status when recognized in local supermarkets.

What these three public-television stations have in common, along with a handful of others across the country, is that they are owned and run by local school districts. In most cases, the stations are shoestring-budget operations that complement larger, wealthier PBS affiliates in their communities.

In New York City, for example, WNET-TV is the flagship public-television station and a major producer of national PBS programming, including "MacNeil/Lehrer". It has an annual budget of more than $100 million.

WNYE, meanwhile, which is owned by the New York City Board of Education, has an annual budget of $2 million and about 25 full-time employees for its ultrahigh frequency (UHF) TV station and FM radio station. The stations pay no rent for their school board-owned facility, and their transmitters atop the Empire State Building get free electrical power from the city government.

In a time when many observers, including top officials of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, question whether a given area needs more than one public-television station, officials of stations owned by school districts say their programming fills a need not always served by "community" PBS stations.

"We are trying to carve a niche for ourselves that is unique," Frank Sobrino, the general manager of WNYE, says.

He says that New York City Schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines has given the TV and radio stations a mandate to become more useful to the school system.

"He is placing a priority on making the best use of all resources available to improve teaching and learning," Sobrino says of the chancellor. "In WNYE, he sees a potentially valuable educational tool."

District-Owned Stations Decline

A total of eight K-12 school districts operate public-television stations. Besides New York City, Miami, and Los Angeles, they are the districts in Atlanta; Nashville; Las Vegas, Nev.; Spokane, Wash.; and Austin, Minn. Three of the districts also operate public-radio stations, as do 19 other districts.

Once, as many as three dozen school districts operated public-television stations. But when budgets tightened, support for nonessential operations became an easy target for cuts.

"Local governments are being stretched more, and they are taking a look at their central mission and the extent to which all services fit into their mission," says Mark Sachs, a manager of station relations for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

In Atlanta, years of debate over the school district's public-television and -radio stations culminated this summer in a new management arrangement.

In August, the Atlanta school board voted to turn over the operation of WPBA-TV and WABE-FM to a new organization, the Atlanta Educational Telecommunications Collaborative. The collaborative includes the school system, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Morehouse School of Medicine, Spelman College, and Clark Atlanta University.

"The school system realized that it just wasn't in a position to manage a television station," says Eric Weston, the consortium's spokesman. The television and radio stations, he says, suffered from old facilities, staff turmoil, and questions over their programming.

The Atlanta school system continues to own the stations' licenses and will contribute $1 million a year to the collaborative.

The board of the new collaborative includes such prominent Atlantans as Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, the president of the Morehouse School of Medicine and the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Bush Administration. The television station, which is secondary to a larger PBS station in Atlanta, plans to focus on expanding programming for minorities.

Barry Walker, an administrator at Georgia Tech who helped develop the collaborative, said a focus on minorities benefits "the part of the community typically underserved by PBS and misrepresented by commercial TV."

'MacNeil/Lehrer' Returns

Under the new arrangement, WPBA will once again pay full membership fees to PBS.

For the past year, the station has been a "limited use" participant in PBS's national program service. That means it paid less than other stations and, thus, could not air some major shows like the weeknight "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" and had to delay airing other shows by about a week. Many smaller-budgeted PBS stations in markets with more than one outlet use this option to reduce costs.

"We felt our programming needed to be strengthened," Weston says. "We need to have 'MacNeil/Lehrer' on our station."

In Los Angeles, district officials have debated the future of its PBS station. KLCS-TV requires operating subsidies of more than $1 million a year.

"Several years ago, when we were having serious budget problems, our resolution was to encourage the station to generate additional revenues on its own," says Mark Slavkin, the president of the Los Angeles school board. "It is a very valuable asset for instructional purposes," he says. "But the station could be better utilized. It doesn't have a clear image that links it to the school district."

The district and the larger PBS station in Los Angeles, KCET-TV, are discussing how the two stations might be run collaboratively, Slavkin says.

25 Shows in Miami

While school-district stations may not have high profiles in their communities, their officers nonetheless believe they are fulfilling educational needs with such instructional and how-to shows as "French in Action" and "Sewing with Nancy."

WLRN in Miami, owned by the Dade County school board, runs one television and one radio station, as well as the programming for two cable channels in Miami, and 20 low-power educational channels known as instructional television fixed service, or I.T.F.S.

"We've got 25 programs going out of here at any one time," Donald MacCullough, the longtime general manager of WLRN, says.

MacCullough thinks it's a shame that many school districts got rid of their public-television stations when budget crunches hit. I.T.F.S. channels, he says, provide a lower-cost way to send programming to schools than systems now being devised by cable and telephone companies. The F.C.C. set these channels aside for educational use only.

In a few cities, the school district's PBS station is the only game in town.

WDCN-TV in Nashville gets about one-fourth of its $4 million annual budget from the Nashville-Davidson County school board, which owns the station.

Viewers in Nashville get a lot of instructional programming on weekdays and how-to programs on weekends, in addition to popular PBS prime-time shows, Robert Shepard, the general manager, says.

"People are aware we're owned by the public school system," he says. "It's just something they grew up with."

A Lean Operation

In markets with overlapping stations, officials of school-district stations believe they provide a sufficiently different service to justify their existence.

"We are the largest school system in the country, with a lot of unique needs," says Sobrino of WNYE-TV in New York. Not only does the station share the market with major public-television outlet WNET, but also with another PBS affiliate owned by the city, WNYC-TV. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani this year proposed selling WNYC to help reduce the city's budget deficit.

Sobrino says that WNYE's lean operation is not a drain on the school system's budget and that its programming rarely duplicates what's available on the city's other PBS stations.

"We're trying to do unique things that are going to be useful to the school system," he says. "I think there is a market for that in New York City."

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