Depending on who you talk to, URTV is either facing imminent shutdown or adequately funded through next June. In the space of a few weeks, representatives of the public-access channel have given widely conflicting accounts of its financial status.
“We’ll be out of money as of August,” Executive Director Pat Garlinghouse stated early last month (see “Broke,” June 9 Xpress).
Yet mere weeks later, Bob Horn, vice president of the nonprofit’s board, told the Asheville City Council: “We weren’t having funding issues ourselves; we just needed the money owed to us. … We calculate we can continue on until this time next year.” (See “Asheville City Council,” June 30 Xpress.)
How to account for that discrepancy remains unclear. In early June, Buncombe County rejected a request from the channel for an additional $200,000. And on June 15, independent URTV producers showed up at a Board of Commissioners meeting to ask for more support from the county. But the commissioners pointedly refused to pony up, beyond delivering the PEG funds the station was already entitled to. (Generated by a charge on cable subscribers’ bills, those funds are earmarked for public, educational and government channels.)
And in late June, County Manager Wanda Greene reports, the county did transfer about $48,000 in PEG moneys to URTV (now an arm of the WNC Community Media Center). That, however, was only a fraction of the amount the nonprofit said it needed to survive.
Except for an interview shortly after the news broke concerning the channel's dire financial straits, Media Center management and board members have repeatedly declined to comment on the financial woes.
But Greene, who was willing to talk, says county staff has sat down with the channel's management and board members several times and that “They really took a hard look at what they have and how to run the channel on that. That's what a lot of nonprofits and organizations are having to do these days.”
Garlinghouse, however, had previously told Xpress, “From day one we’ve done a bare-bones budget,” and Operations Manager Jonathon Czarny reports that for now, URTV is not planning to cut back on the scope of its programming.
A “financial crisis”
The county also conducted an audit of the station’s operataions. Released July 12, it found “no indication funds have been spent inappropriately,” but went on to say that the station is facing a “financial crisis.”
“At the current spending levels and anticipated declines in major revenue streams,” the audit concluded, “the organization is likely to exhaust its financial resources midway into fiscal year 2011.” (URTV is on a July-to-June fiscal year, meaning the money would run out in January — roughly six months sooner than what Horn reported.)
Tim Flora, the county’s internal auditor, reviewed the channel’s financial statements for the last five years, analyzing its revenue and spending trends as well as its bylaws and operating agreements with the county and the city of Asheville. He also met with URTV management and board members.
Financial issues aside, however, the audit also found that the nonprofit had fallen short of satisfying the state’s open-meetings law (see sidebar, “Mistrust and discontent”).
According to the audit, the Media Center needs to develop an action plan to address the financial situation, “with details addressing how revenues can be increased and/or expenses reduced.”
Included in the audit is a response from URTV board President Jerry Young, who asserts that “Monies allocated for operating URTV originally were not sufficient for traffic, demand, community participation and contract compliance. … It is only through stability and product development that a public access operation can begin to pursue outside funding.”
However, Young goes on to say that “The Media Center … pursues outside grants, program service fees, commodity sales and donations to supplement funding. Such monies have increased each year and will sustain operations through FY 2011.”
And Garlinghouse, asked by Xpress last month if her organization was seeking private funds to ease the money crunch, replied: "Where would you suggest? There aren't any. … We need $20,000 a month. Do you even imagine that's possible? I don't think so."
Grass roots to the rescue?
Amid the budget controversy, URTV has seen an outpouring of support from its producers and fans, who've shown up in force at recent meetings of the Buncombe County commissioners and Asheville City Council.
Those efforts appear to be helping. Although the commissioners declined to provide additional funding for the station, the county did pay Waynesville-based telecommunications consultant John Howell to meet with URTV board members on July 13, Greene reports.
"His goal was just to help them do some brainstorming about what kind of funding options there might be out there, or if there's anything they can do on their budget," she explains. And last week, the county also took a step toward renewing the station's contract, which expired in January, by recertifying the operation as a qualifying PEG channel.
Supporters have also mounted an online fundraising campaign (http://ashevillemagazine.com/saveurtv/speak-up.htm). The site includes testimonials by several producers, including Virato, who started the campaign and hosts VIRATO LIVE!
"URTV is one of the richest assists of this area, with a balance of political, religious, and artistic programming, showcasing the authenticity of our talent rich community," he writes. "Surely this asset is as worthy as being the Beer Capital of America!"
Interestingly, the site also includes less positive comments by former URTV board members Richard Bernier (who was dismissed by the board after a messy dispute over the station’s management and transparency issues) and Nelda Holder (whose critical commentary on the station appeared in a recent issue of Xpress).
Full stream ahead
Meanwhile, at least for the time being, the Media Center is continuing its efforts to expand the scope and quality of its services, says Czarny, the operations manager.
As an example of the center's growing niche in the community, he points to this year’s Youth Video Camp (July 19-22), where young people can learn media skills and produce broadcast-quality videos.
"There's a lot of places where kids can go canoeing or hiking or do Outward Bound kind of stuff, but there's not really anywhere else they can be exposed to production techniques and have access to our type of facilities," notes Czarny. "It's part of our design to reach all sorts of populations in our community, whether it's underprivileged or underserved children or seniors."
Czarny also maintains that services such as advanced production workshops, webcasting and the new urRadio station are well worth continuing.
"We've had to look at meeting the community needs — assess what they are and then meet them," he reports. "Those are the kind of things the community wants."
And countering critics who say the station should downscale its operations, Czarny argues that offering a wide range of services helps bring in money to augment the PEG funds.
"The classes and getting more people using the facility and giving more people avenues of expression and forums to do that, that's how we subsidize that gap," he explains. "These services aren't taking money away from us — they're providing income. … If we cut the things that are making us money, what are we going to have left? We can't just throw away what we've built for 14 years."
David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at email@example.com.