Satellite Broadcasts Put Department Policies in Spotlight

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As blinding lights bear down on the guests in a hotel ballroom's makeshift studio, the camera crews hastily position their equipment for the live broadcast and a chirpy talk-show moderator greets the 100 or so audience members.

In the midst of the blur, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley sits oblivious, pensively staring at a camera where his speech will soon be beamed by satellite to thousands. By now, prepping for the cameras has become commonplace for Mr. Riley, who participates in one satellite town meeting the third Tuesday of each month and other special programs on educational issues.

Department of Education officials say the satellite meetings--which are usually taped at the Freedom Forum-run Newseum in Arlington, Va.--have helped school leaders and others interested in education learn about new research, innovative initiatives, and the department's agenda.

At this special presentation with the American Institute of Architects, Mr. Riley's task is to lead a discussion on school designs and research on how architecture can affect learning. He is flanked by six school officials, architects from across the country, and Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson.

Typically, the programming content reflects the secretary's agenda, using topics that are fairly noncontroversial but newsworthy. For instance, reading and access to higher education have been featured in other recent broadcasts. The approach has attracted some loyal viewers.

"It's amazing how good [the shows] are, and the content has been relevant every time," said Pat Teske, the supervisor of television and distance learning for the 19,000-student Arlington public schools in suburban Washington. The school system broadcasts the shows in English and Spanish on its two cable-access channels.

An Evolving Format

The broadcasts were initiated by Mr. Riley's predecessor, Lamar Alexander, in 1992, when he decided to use new technology to promote his "America 2000 Communities" plan. Mr. Alexander, who served as education secretary under President Bush, wanted to encourage communities to embrace the national education goals, so he created a satellite broadcast targeted to reaching business and community leaders, said John McGrath, the show's producer.

But the show's format and audience shifted when Mr. Riley began his broadcasts in 1993. Now, thanks to the rise of cable television, Mr. Riley can reach educators and pretty much anyone interested in education.

Today, a show will typically generate broadcasts on 300 to 400 TV stations across the country--mostly local cable-access channels, Public Broadcasting Service affiliates, and Channel One--the advertising-supported news broadcast that is beamed into 12,000 secondary schools. More popular topics--such as a recent broadcast on reading--may be picked up by as many as 700 stations. There's no way to estimate how many people actually watch the show, Mr. McGrath said, because audiences vary and the shows are often taped and distributed or rebroadcast.

Still, "when you think that we're on regularly in New York, Los Angeles, and the D.C. area, even a fraction of those audiences is pretty significant," he said.

Over the years, the satellite town meetings have also acquired a much more sophisticated format--more like a television show than a teleconference.

Last year, the department spent about $100,000 on the programming. Each show now costs about $27,000 to produce in the Arlington studio at the Newseum, a museum of the news media, and a little more for out-of-town sites, Mr. McGrath said. The department pays about half the cost, and the rest is picked up by corporate sponsors, including Procter & Gamble, the Bayer Foundation, and local businesses when Mr. Riley takes his show on the road.

No Complaints

The Tampa Educational Cable Consortium in Florida has been showing the broadcasts for several years and has received a lot of feedback--all positive--from viewers, said Lucy Griggs, the program director for the consortium. The shows are broadcast monthly on a local cable-access channel.

Teachers have reported that the broadcasts are particularly helpful, Ms. Griggs added, because they rarely have enough time to share ideas and best practices.

"It's a good focal point to get people talking about what they want education to be in their communities," she said.

Jack E. Davis, the director of educational media and technology for Florida's 147,500-student Hillsborough County district, which includes Tampa, said he often makes tapes of the shows to send to administrators and teachers. And he opens his office to any school employee who wants to watch a live broadcast.

The satellite town meetings also appear to be in an ever-shrinking group of Education Department programs that haven't come under the gun from Congress.

Jay Diskey, now a spokesman for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, served as a press spokesman for Mr. Alexander and helped launch the initiative.

Mr. Diskey agreed that it has veered from its original mission, but said the GOP committee members so far have not criticized the broadcasts or the money allotted. "We have heard no complaints about them, so we hope there is some good" coming from the programs, he said.

Vol. 18, Issue 15, Pages 23-24

Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Satellite Broadcasts Put Department Policies in Spotlight
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