N.Y.C. Plan Wants District Radio, TV to Make Online Network

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The New York City board of education has unveiled a plan for a "broadband educational network" via its television and radio stations, which have been the focus of some controversy recently.

The New York City board of education has unveiled a plan for a "broadband educational network" via its television and radio stations, which have been the focus of some controversy recently.

Board members say that restructuring WNYE-TV and WNYE-FM to create a one-stop technology shop—which would integrate cable, phone, satellite, microwave, and digital and Internet communications— would better serve the school system's 70,000 teachers and 1.1 million students, as well as the community.

The online network, board members hope, would help alleviate problems such as overcrowded classrooms and a lack of new academic resources.

"There is the tremendous possibility to bring a number of resources together to deliver amazing educational content," said Irving S. Hamer Jr., the Manhattan member of the citywide school board. "Do the TV and radio stations have the contribution to make to a high-quality education? The answer is yes."

Under the plan, the proponents say, teachers in New York could participate in professional-development classes beamed directly to their classroom television monitors. Their students may be able to take science lessons through online and television programs from the American Museum of Natural History. And adults might be able to buy books and make travel plans as well as take "on demand" audio or video distance-learning classes—all through the district's high-tech portal.

The board is looking for ways to pay for the plan's estimated $200,000 in start-up costs. Board members don't have to formally approve the proposal, but must vote on parts of the plan, such as funding and programming.

It's unclear what the operating costs of the broadband educational network would be. However, revenue would be generated partly through an online "commercial zone" available only to adults, according to the report. On that side of the network, a user could shop for books by clicking on hyperlinks to Amazon.com, for instance, or make travel reservations or learn about the city by clicking on other advertisers.

Mr. Hamer said the rest of the funding would come from grants, philanthropic groups, and businesses. School officials hope to unveil the broadband network next June. Teachers would first use the network for online professional-development training, and students would get access to it the following year.

Focus of Controversy

The proposal to use the radio and television stations to create a high-tech portal came after the topic of the stations' future had already sparked controversy.

A year ago, Chancellor Harold O. Levy proposed transferring management of the WNYE stations from the board of education to WNET/Channel 13, a local PBS provider, and public-radio station WNYC-FM.

That move would have saved the school system $8 million to $10 million because WNYE must switch to digital television transmission, as required by a federal mandate, said David Klasfeld, the deputy chancellor of operations for the school system. WNET would have paid for WNYE's change to digital television transmission, as well as all other operating costs; WNYC-FM would have paid for the operating costs of the district's radio station.

"The chancellor's proposal was to relieve ourselves of the burden of the cost of operating the stations," Mr. Klasfeld said. "He didn't see it as part of our core business. And generally speaking, relatively few people watch or listen to it."

WNYE has a $2.7 million budget for its radio and television operations. More than two-thirds of its programming is education-related and general news; the rest is foreign-language news and culture.

The radio station broadcasts from a 600- foot tower above Brooklyn Technical High School and reaches listeners in a 50- mile radius. The television station broadcasts from the top of the Empire State Building and reaches more than 18 million viewers, of whom 800,000 tune in regularly, according to the district.

But Mr. Levy's plan was scuttled this fall when fans of WNYE's cultural programming, which includes shows such as "Cosmos FM Greek Radio" and "Haitian Perspective," protested by running advertisements in local ethnic newspapers, circulating petitions, and lobbying local politicians to oppose the plan.

They were afraid their shows, which they said provided an important community voice, would be cut. Their protests gained community support, and Mr. Levy consequently withdrew his plan last month.

"The board," Mr. Klasfeld said, "was not supportive of [of Mr. Levy's plan]."

To begin with, board members didn't see how the move would benefit students and teachers, Mr. Hamer said, and didn't want to give up control of all but 10 hours per week of airtime, as called for in Mr. Levy' plan.

"I asked, 'What are we going to get from this?'" Mr. Hamer recalled. "When they couldn't answer that question, I strongly objected to the transfer."

But the board's plan isn't getting the full support of school officials yet. Mr. Klasfeld, the deputy chancellor, questioned the proposal's price tag and the increased amount of work he said school employees might have to do.

Asked whether he thought the plan was financially feasible, he said: "It's a very visionary proposal."

Vol. 21, Issue 14, Page 12

Published in Print: December 5, 2001, as N.Y.C. Plan Wants District Radio, TV to Make Online Network
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