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Tuesday, June 24, 2008 | Saddled with declining revenue, public broadcaster KPBS is shedding jobs and eliminating its monthly program guide.
The combined television and radio operation has laid off six people within the last several weeks and will stop publishing the On Air guide.
In another development, longtime station boss Doug Myrland announced Monday that he will retire at the end of the year.
KPBS expects to spend $19.3 million in the 2008-2009 fiscal year that starts next week, compared to $20.6 million in the previous year, Myrland said. That’s a decline of 6 percent before inflation is taken into account.
“We’re projecting slightly fewer donations, and a reduction in corporate support,” he said, along with a two percent decrease in station membership.
Most of KPBS’s budget comes directly from individual and corporate donors. “When there’s a recession, people start spending less money on all sorts of discretionary spending, including donations,” said Steve Behrens, editor of Current, a public-broadcasting trade journal.
The six layoffs came in various departments at KPBS, which now has 105 full-time employees, Myrland said.
KPBS spokeswoman Nancy Worlie declined to specify which positions were eliminated, saying the cutbacks are a personnel matter. However, she did say KPBS cut jobs that had “the least impact on our public service.”
Last year at this time, budget cutbacks eliminated the television public affairs show “Full Focus” and the radio show “A Way with Words,” which later returned with independent funding. This time around, programming shouldn’t be affected, Myrland said.
The station does expect to save about $100,000 by eliminating the On Air program guide, a glossy compilation of articles and TV and radio listings that’s sent to about 40,000 people each month, he said.
In a note to KPBS members in the July issue of On Air — the last one that will be printed — Myrland writes that viewers now have a wide variety of ways to get TV listings, including those available through cable TV.
The station, which had 49,000 contributors in the 2006-2007 fiscal year, will probably lose a few members because they’ll be upset about the disappearance of the guide, Myrland said.
Fancy program guides were once common but few of them remain, said Behrens, the trade journal editor. “They have dwindled down to smaller and smaller publications. Sometimes it’s a one-sheet thing that folds out 18 times until it’s a big single sheet of paper,” he says.
KPBS will no longer publish a program guide of any kind, although listings will remain available on its website.
KPBS is hardly the only public broadcaster facing cutbacks. Minnesota Public Radio, which distributes shows like “A Prairie Home Companion” and “Marketplace,” announced earlier this month that declining revenue will force it to cut jobs, according to the online newspaper MinnPost.
Meanwhile, state budget cutbacks are expected to hit at least 11 public broadcasting networks in states such as Kentucky, Maryland and Alabama, according to Current.
Sponsorships have fallen too. Even PBS’s venerable “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” is facing major cutbacks.
Public broadcasters are also facing challenges on the audience front. Public-radio listenership reached a plateau about three years ago and hasn’t grown, Behrens said, while public-television viewership has fallen along with that of other broadcast networks.
About 240,000 people listened to KPBS each week, according to rating numbers from last fall, said spokeswoman Worlie. The total average weekly audience of the television station during February — an important ratings month for TV stations — was 820,000.
Public broadcasting is facing the same economic challenges as other types of media, although cuts haven’t been as severe as at newspapers such as The San Diego Union-Tribune, said Scott Horsley, a National Public Radio correspondent who’s based at KPBS.
“None of that is unique to KPBS. If you’re in the media business and you’re not worried about your job, you’re not very alert,” he said. “You just hope the station has the strategic vision to weather the challenges. They’re investing in things like the website, and that’s probably a good move.”
As for the mood at the station, Horsley said the layoffs are “painful and definitely disconcerting.”
Myrland will only be officially in charge for half of the fiscal year that begins on July 1. He announced his retirement today to the KPBS staff after voiceofsandiego.org inquired about his departure Sunday.
Myrland, 55, who’s served as general manager since he was appointed to an interim position in 1992, said he will resign at the end of the year but stay on through 2009 as a consultant.
He plans to retire with his wife Susan, an artist, to their home in Palm Desert. “I feel strongly that people like me should move on while they’re ahead,” he said. “I’m feeling like we’ve accomplished a lot in this organization. I want people to remember me fondly or at least as someone who didn’t stay past their welcome.”
During his tenure, KPBS greatly expanded its radio news operation, began simulcasting its radio programming in the Imperial Valley and converted its TV station to a digital signal.
Over the past year, Myrland was at the helm as the station drew fire over its programming cutbacks and faced an investigation by City Attorney Michael Aguirre.
Prior to joining KPBS in 1991, Myrland was director of marketing for Public Radio International. In the 1980s, he co-wrote a book called “The Official Silicon Valley Guy Handbook” and helped create a musical takeoff on the satiric “Valley Girl” song.
Now, he plans to write a novel. “I want to do with something with an unreliable narrator,” he said, “and speak about the difference between truth and fact.”