Jun 13, 2012

Exclusive: Dismissals at Alabama PTV linked to concerns over proposed broadcast of videos from religious right

Two top managers at Alabama Public Television were fired from their jobs June 12 with no explanation of the cause for the immediate dismissals.

The Alabama Educational Television Commission came out of an executive session Tuesday afternoon and ordered veteran pubcaster Allan Pizzato and his deputy Pauline Howland to clean out their desks and leave APT’s headquarters in Birmingham.

“All I can say is that it was an irreconcilable difference in opinion of the future direction of the station,” Pizzato told Current. “I serve at the pleasure of the board. They want to take it in a different direction, and that’s up to them.”

Pizzato had served 12 years as executive director of APT, a statewide network governed by a board of seven political appointees.

Howland, deputy director and chief financial officer, described the firings in an interview with Current and said she was "baffled" by the dismissals. But she also recalled how Pizzato had asked staff in April for advice about a series of videos that AETC commissioners wanted APT to air.

The videos featured David Barton, an evangelical minister and conservative activist whose publications and media appearances promote his theories about the religious intentions of America’s founders. He frequently appears on political commentary programs hosted by conservative Glenn Beck.

The American Heritage Series, a 10-part DVD series offered by Barton’s Texas-based organization WallBuilders LLC, “presents America's forgotten history and heroes, emphasizing the moral, religious and constitutional foundation on which America was built.” Christian broadcast networks Cornerstone Television and Trinity Broadcasting Networks air the series, according to the website.

AETC Commissioner Rodney Herring, an Opelika-based chiropractor, had provided the series to APT for broadcast consideration. Herring joined the commission last year and was elected board secretary in January. As of late Wednesday evening, Herring did not return a voice message from Current.

AETC commissioners serve staggered 10-year terms, a provision that was intended to protect the state network from political meddling, said former APT director Skip Hinton, who now heads the National Educational Telecommunications Association. Each commissioner represents one of Alabama’s seven congressional districts. Alabama’s governor nominates commissioners and the state Senate approves the appointments.

Herring was appointed by former Gov. Bob Riley, a Republican, in early 2011, according to Howland.

She participated in the staff review of Barton’s series. The programs “talked about how our government forefathers were very religious men,” Howland said, “how the country was founded on religious principles, and how we need to go back to that.” The content “was very much advocating that position,” she said.

Pizzato and his staff had “grave concerns” that the videos were inappropriate for public broadcasting due to their religious nature, Howland said.

Pizzato declined to discuss the videos, or how he responded to the commission’s request that APT schedule them for broadcast.

The commissioners had planned to discuss broadcast of Barton’s series at the end of their meeting, but dropped the agenda item after firing both directors, Howland said.

“It’s our job to protect the license,” Howland said, “and provide the best advice we can to the commission, whose members are usually not broadcasters.”

APT is among the public TV networks that have taken big hits in state funding during the recession. Its state appropriation has dropped 50 percent since 2008. Last summer APT shut its state capital bureau, suspended production of its political roundtable, Capitol Journal, and laid off 19 staffers. APT also scaled back operations at its Huntsville station and ended production of its music series, We Have Signal. A revamped Capitol Journal returned in January 2012. — Dru Sefton

UPDATE: For Current's full story behind the Alabama terminations, posted June 24, click here.

Longtime "Sesame Street" writer dies

Judy Freudberg, who wrote for Sesame Street for almost 40 years, died June 10 of a brain tumor, according to Hollywood Reporter. She was 63. Freudberg won 17 Emmy Awards for her work on the pubcasting series, and collaborated with Tony Geiss on Sesame Street’s first feature film, Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird (1985), and on two animated movies for executive producer Steven Spielberg: The Land Before Time (1985) and An American Tail (1986). Freudberg joined Sesame Street in 1971, during its third season, as a script typist and began writing for the program four years later.

Three trophies put WNYC atop pubmedia's Murrow winners

WNYC led public media in the 2012 national Edward R. Murrow Awards announced June 12 by the Radio Television Digital News Association.

Among 17 pubcasting entities receiving Murrows for excellence in electronic journalism, the New York station won three trophies for two of its nationally distributed shows — Studio 360 and Radio Rookies.

Three pubcasting outlets received Murrows in two categories: BBC World News, which won in the division for radio networks; Boston’s WBUR, a winner among large-market radio stations; and WITF in Harrisburg, Pa, scoring a double in the small-market radio division. Alabama Public Radio also stood out among small market radio stations, taking a Murrow for overall excellence.

Public stations winning national Murrows in large- and small-market radio divisions excelled during an earlier phase of RTDNA's annual journalism contest -- the regional Murrows awarded in 13 multistate contests this spring.

Public media news outlets won national Murrows across four divisions.

Radio networks: WNYC’s Studio 360, a coproduction with Public Radio International, for feature reporting and use of sound, and Radio Rookies, writing; BBC World Service, hard news reporting and news documentary; American Public Media’s Marketplace, investigative reporting; and NPR, website.  

Large-market radio stations: WBUR, investigative reporting and use of sound; KUT in Austin, Texas, continuing coverage; WCPN in Cleveland, feature reporting; WUSF in Tampa, Fla., news documentary; Mississippi Public Broadcasting, news series; and WFAE in Charlotte, N.C., writing.  

Small-market radio stations: WITF in Harrisburg, Pa., news series and sports reporting; Alabama Public Radio, overall excellence; WBOI in Fort Wayne, Ind., feature reporting; KUNC in Greeley, Colo., investigative reporting; WUFT in Gainesville, Fla., hard news reporting; WSLU in Canton, N.Y., news documentary; and KSMU in Springfield, Mo., writing.  

Local online news operation: The Lens New Orleans and the G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism in New Orleans, investigative reporting; and the Texas Tribune in Austin, website.

The national Edward R. Murrow Awards have recognized outstanding electronic journalism since 1971. This year’s winners will be honored at the RTDNA Awards dinner in New York on Oct. 8.

Editor's note: This blog post has been amended to include information omitted from RTDNA's announcement of national Murrow winners: Studio 360 is a coproduction of WNYC and Public Radio International.

JPR Foundation, SOU reach "tentative resolution" in standoff over leadership

It appears that Southern Oregon University and the fundraising organization for Jefferson Public Radio made progress in their mediation talks held last week. In a statement, SOU said, “The JPR Foundation and Southern Oregon University are pleased to announce the tentative resolution of issues related to the ownership and operation of Jefferson Public Radio, subject to final approvals of their respective governing entities. Additional information will be made available once such final approvals are obtained.”

Ron Kramer, executive director of both the foundation and the radio station, told the Medford Mail Tribune that he was not a party to the agreement that was reached.

Previous story in Current: “Did Kramer overreach in Oregon?”

Ahoy, NPR journos!

Public Radio at Sea, a cruise that's "a celebration of the exceptional programming and beloved personalities of NPR," sets sail next March.

"Presumably," notes, "karaoke, comedy acts and belly flop contests will not be part of the itinerary."

NPR journalists including All Things Considered host Michele Norris will be onboard the "all suite, all balcony" ship, which will visit ports in China, Vietnam and Thailand.

“This isn’t like going to a radio station event where you hear [PBS NewsHour host] Jim Lehrer talk for 20 minutes and then go home,” Kevin Corcoran, president of Artful Travelers, which helped organize the event, told “You’re sailing with these people for two weeks; it creates this level of intimacy where you get to know them and understand what makes them tick.”

“It’s an opportunity for fans to get to know our journalists, how they do their work and what that experience is like,” said Dana Davis Rehm, NPR spokesperson. “The hope is that they’ll step forward and be more generous in the future.”

Alabama PTV appoints interim director after departure of Pizzato

Allan Pizzato, executive director of Alabama Public Television for the past 12 years, has left that position. A press release from the station provides no details.

The Alabama Educational Television Commission (AETC) announced Tuesday (June 12) the appointment of Don Boomershine as interim director. Boomershine is a past president of the Better Business Bureau for Central Alabama, v.p. of the Metropolitan Development Board, and v.p., national division of SouthTrust Bank. The announcement also said Boomershine "appeared regularly for 25 years" on Alabama television and radio stations, and received the Outstanding Broadcaster Cooperation Award from the Alabama Broadcasters’ Association.

In the announcement, AETC Chair Ferris W. Stephens said the board thanked Pizzato "for all of his years of service as director of APT.”

Last year, Alabama PTV endured programming and staff cutbacks due to state funding losses. Its weekly political roundtable, Capitol Journal, had been suspended in June 2011 but returned to the air in January 2012.

Pizzato had been elected to the board of the Association of Public Television Stations in January.

As expected, FCC decides to sunset analog/digital viewability rule

The FCC is officially ending its viewability rule, which required cable operators with analog/digital systems to deliver must-carry TV stations in both formats, reports Broadcasting & Cable. Broadcasters wanted  the FCC to extend the requirement another three years, but the cable industry backed the FCC proposal to sunset the rule. Cable operators must still provide dual carriage for a six-month transition period and give customers 90 days' warning before ending analog transmissions. If too many consumers complain, the FCC may reinstate the requirement.

The National Association of Broadcasters "remains concerned" that the decision "has the potential to impose negative financial consequences on small local TV stations that are a source for minority, religious and independent program diversity across America," said Dennis Wharton, NAB spokesperson. Those stations had protested the end of analog signals.