You wouldn’t know it from the bland story the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did Monday about a merger between Milwaukee Public Television (Channels 10 and 36) and its Friends group, but this is really a hostile takeover by Milwaukee Area Technical College, which runs the stations. The MATC board has been at odds with the Friends group for more than a decade and wants to crush it. A lawyer hired by MPTV has written a letter to the Friends spelling out the details of the takeover.
The stations were chartered by MATC back in the 1950s, when public TV was a sleepy province of mostly educational programming and many stations were run by colleges or school systems. By the late 1990s community-run nonprofits like the Friends were running public TV stations in 23 of the 25 top markets in America. MATC didn’t want this, but it needed donations from the community and the Friends group was created as a separate nonprofit to do this. The Friends raise more than $5 million annually with on-air auctions and the like, providing a big chunk of the stations’ operating expenses.
MATC liked the funds but wanted no interference or suggestions from the Friends as to programming. Leaders of the Friends, meanwhile, were frustrated by the dismal audience numbers for most of the original programming by MPTV. Why, they wondered, couldn’t MPTV create more programming that compared to what a community-run station like WGBH in Boston produced?
In the late 1990s, the Friends produced a report urging that the stations be taken over by a community-run board. MATC shot down the idea, but the disagreement created tension between the college and Friends. In 2007, a consultant, Lewis Kennedy Associates, was hired to examine the station’s operation and the relationship between the station and the Friends group. Its report, released in June 2007, also recommended a governance change to a community-run board. This was followed by the recommendations of a task force led by Poynter Institute leader and former Channel 6 anchor Jill Geisler, which recommended a compromise of sorts: A nonprofit would take over day-to-day operations of the station.
In part, the idea behind the governance change was to free the stations from interference from MATC. Back in the early 1990s, then-MATC president Barbara Holmes fired 10/36 general manager Tom Axtell on the thinnest of pretexts. His successor, Bryce Combs, was pushed out by MATC. Both had been proponents of the governance change.
In 2007, as this magazine reported, then-MATC president Darnell Cole got so intrusive he was ordering which shows and on-air personalities should be used on the stations. “There really is no separation between the college and the station,” claims John Bernaden, a former Friends board member and president.
Governance change has also been seen as a way to shake up the moribund station so it begins to serve a wider audience. “You need to serve your community,” says Bernaden. “The public stations that survive will be the ones that do programming relevant to their community.” He points to the job public radio stations have done in this regard. WUWM 89.7-FM has radically changed its programming in the last decade, adding more local coverage and interview shows with a broad audience appeal.
Not much has changed at 10 and 36 over that time. “They still run Lawrence Welk reruns,” Bernaden notes. Not surprisingly, he says, many regular donors to the Friends group are elderly.
MATC claims the takeover is necessary for legal reasons. A lawyer for the college and the stations, former U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic, wrote a letter to the Friends claiming the relationship between the Friends and MPTV was “potentially in violation of provisions of the Internal Revenue Code and other federal laws.”
Potentially is the key word here. Biskupic notes that the Friends group has created an endowment and bought a building. But the endowment goes back many years and spins off money to benefit MPTV. He notes that the Friends bought a building in Brookfield, but Bernaden says the building was purchased to handle the public TV auction, which needs room for 3,000 volunteers and an area for storage. And since when it is illegal for a nonprofit to have an endowment or buy a building? Biskupic’s letter offers no evidence that any money is being handled unethically.
The irony is that once MATC takes over the Friends group, the employees of the nonprofit will become college employees, with higher salaries and benefits, leaving less money for programming. Worse, the change is likely to badly hurt fundraising. Private donors will give to nonprofits, but are less likely to give directly to a tax-supported college. More control for MATC will mean less money for MPTV.
MPTV general manager Ellis Bromberg told the JS that “these are amicable talks,” and both the college and the Friends think MATC’s takeover is best for the station and its donors. Friends board president David Stroik wouldn’t discuss the issue, but there is good reason for this. The proposed agreement has a gag order:
“Neither MATC nor the Friends shall issue any press release (or make any other public announcement) related to this Agreement. … Neither party shall make any critical, negative, or disparaging public statement or announcement about the other party, its personnel, operations, activities, conduct of its activities or management.”
It’s the gag order that particularly gets Bernaden’s goat. “Ellis and his crew were trying to very quietly and slickly take this over,” Bernaden complains. “So then they can pretend to the public that nothing has changed.”
Kenneth Starr’s Legacy
The death of Kenneth Starr, who served as the Milwaukee Public Museum director from 1970 to 1987, was a reminder of how much the museum has changed since he left. Starr was a scholar with a doctorate in Asian archaeology who had served 17 years on staff at Chicago’s Field Museum before he came here. This was an era when museums were about scholarship more than show biz.
Milwaukee, however, had a national reputation for creating entertaining exhibitions but was weak on scholarship, with just one Ph.D. on staff when he arrived. Starr built up the curatorial staff, increased the number of Ph.D.s to 12, improved the museum’s scholarly publications, and leveraged that scholarship so the museum began to win significant grants from the National Science Foundation, including a huge grant to create its vaunted Rain Forest exhibition.
Alas, while all this improvement was going on, Milwaukee was steadily losing middle-class residents and tax base to bedroom suburbs outside the county. The county board began to pressure the museum to raise more private donations so government support could be reduced. But Starr was basically a scholar who didn’t like fund raising and who found it painful dealing with politicians. The latter, he once told me, is “slow and grinding and at times demeaning.”
Starr was wary of the kind of glitzy programming that could have brought in more visitors and more revenue. “A museum is not a theme park,” he once scoffed. And he fought the board’s suggestion that he cut back the number of curators.
When he retired at age 64, his letter of resignation said he was doing so “while I still have … a measure of my personal and professional integrity.”
Ironically, a county report later found that under Starr the museum’s attendance ranked third-highest among all the country’s natural history museums in market penetration. But by then the museum had moved toward a different model, with less county control and funding, and an increasing emphasis on big traveling shows that draw huge audiences. In retrospect, the Starr era may have been the museum’s high point for scholarship and national impact among its museum peers.
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