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    Public TV CEO will step down

    Stephen Rogers, who is also president of WEDU-Ch. 3, says cost-cutting had nothing to do with his decision.

    By ERIC DEGGANS

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 12, 2001


    TAMPA -- WEDU-Ch. 3, which already has laid off nearly one-third of its staff and halted production on its only locally focused public affairs show, now faces another loss: its president and CEO.

    photo
    Rogers
    Stephen L. Rogers announced his resignation Wednesday after 10 years with the Tampa public television station. He expects to stay in the job until December.

    Since mid April, the station's financial woes have prompted layoffs of 18 people from a 62-member staff. The cutbacks included the production staff and host of the public affairs programs Tampa Bay Week and Dialogue.

    But Rogers said cost-cutting had nothing to do with his decision to step down.

    "I've been in public television over 37 years ... and when you're the CEO, it's not a job, it's a way of life," said Rogers, 59, who added that he surprised the station's board members with the announcement. "We're slimmed down, and well-positioned to face the future. ... Now is a good time to hand over the reins."

    Rogers became WEDU's third president in 1991, after 17 years at public TV station WPBT in Miami. Under his administration, WEDU focused on nationally aired shows to spur viewer memberships -- ending the antique furniture auctions once used to raise money.

    But a steady decline in membership renewals in recent years has meant budget shortfalls. Last August, Rogers went on the air to ask viewers to help erase a $350,000 budget deficit.

    This year, the station's board of directors insisted that a planned $8-million budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 be cut by $2-million, according to chairwoman Susanna F. Grady.

    Controversy over the station's cost-cutting reached the public last week, when station officials told host Syl Farrell his long-running public affairs shows would go on hiatus for the summer.

    Once the news broke -- including a commentary by longtime Tampa Bay Week panelist and St. Petersburg Times columnist Howard Troxler on Friday -- the station received 150 calls of protest.

    Now WEDU has proposed a last-ditch effort to raise $100,000 needed to produce those shows for another year: a live, hourlong Tampa Bay Week broadcast at 9 p.m. Friday to spark viewer donations.

    No matter how much money is raised -- and even bank-busting pledge programs such as The Three Tenors don't do that kind of business -- the shows couldn't return until October.

    By then, Farrell says, he'll probably have another job.

    "I cannot say to my mortgage company, 'I'm going on hiatus for two months,' " said Farrell, 56, who made $35,000 annually as host and producer of Tampa Bay Week and Dialogue. "I'm not angry. But I think the powers that be here were surprised at the concern in the community."

    So, how public is a public TV station with no local-issue shows?

    "It's a real Catch-22," said WEDU spokeswoman Heather Mudrick, noting that WEDU officials have held public meetings in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota to determine what programs local viewers might support. "How can we afford to be more local, which is part of our mandate, when we're just trying to keep our station running?"

    Grady blames digital TV. The federal government has required all public television stations to begin broadcasting digital TV signals by May 2003, which means WEDU must spend about $12-million on new facilities.

    So far, they've raised nearly $8-million and hope to start broadcasting digitally by May 2002, though the fundraising has diverted efforts that could have helped the general fund, Grady said.

    "It's disheartening," Grady added. "This larger community will step up to save sports arenas and the Aquarium. But they have not stepped up to save the heart of the cultural aspect that goes into our homes."

    Rogers, who was paid $135,448 in fiscal year 1998-99 (the most recent figures available), said WEDU's toughest times have passed.

    But Farrell wonders why WEDU officials waited so long to take action, given that he had been suggesting a live Tampa Bay Week fundraiser for years.

    "I appreciate the effort ... but why couldn't they do this when the idea was first floated?" he said. "Now, I'm sincere about doing something else."

    Recent coverage

    Public TV silences a public service (July 6, 2001)

    Shortfall forces WEDU cuts (July 3, 2001)

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