Unless additional funding is received, public-access channel URTV — and the WNC Community Media Center of which it's a part — will cease operations in September, according to a May 24 memo addressed to the city of Asheville and Buncombe County. Both city and county officials say the nonprofit is receiving funding as it always has.
"This letter is to inform you that with the current level of funding, WNC Community Media Center cannot operate beyond September, 2010," the memo reads. "The entire access community greatly appreciates your support in the past and looks forward to working with you through the difficult transition period to state franchising."
The memo also cites four factors in the decision to shut down: "1. Responsible financial planning needs financial stability. 2. Staff consideration. 3. The inability to sign long-term operating contracts. 4. Powering down is complex and must be done in stages."
Asked about the situation, Executive Director Pat Garlinghouse reports: "We're out of money; we'll be out of money as of August. The factors that led to it … we're underfunded."
Best known for URTV, which currently hosts about 35 locally produced shows, the Media Center also offers Web radio and film-editing facilities.
"Essentially, it's a lack of financial resources to continue operations past that point in time," says Lauren Bradley, the city's director of administrative services. The channel hasn't asked the city for additional funding, she reports.
County Manager Wanda Greene says Buncombe's role in funding URTV hasn't changed: "We get [the money], we get it distributed [to URTV.] Around 2005-06," she continues, "the city got a block of money and gave it to URTV to use for capital, and the county got a block — it was over $300,000 — and gave it to them to use for operations. I think that money has run out, and they haven't adjusted."
According to county records, URTV received payments of $24,568 in August of last year and $24,079 in December. Another payment of $7,966 is on its way this month.
Now, Greene asserts, the channel will simply have to adapt. "It's tough, but if you really want to do it, you find a way."
Garlinghouse, however, tells a different story. "We were expecting $100,000, as we've been getting every year," she says, adding, "You can't operate with no money. That's the only factor right now: Public access has to be subsidized. They have the money to give us."
Shifting funds, conflicting accounts
In 2007, the URTV memo notes, $100,000 of the $300,000 from the county was set aside "to accommodate the transition period to state funding. This amount is being used for FY 2010 expenses," and meanwhile, an "extreme reduction in expenses [was] made during FY 2010."
A change in state law that took effect last October shifted PEG funds — collected from cable subscribers specifically to fund public-access, educational and government channels as part of franchise agreements with city and county governments — from local to state control. But URTV has still been receiving about $30,000 a year in PEG funds from the city, says Bradley, and during 2008 and 2009, the channel was actually getting more funding than before, as it received both local and state PEG funds. At the beginning of this year, the city extended its agreement with URTV for 90 days and then, in April, renewed it for another year.
During those negotiations, Garlinghouse informed the city "that they were in need of additional financial resources and that they had planned to seek other revenue options for their needs," notes Bradley.
Buncombe County's agreement with URTV expired in February and hasn't been renewed, though Greene says the county continues to disburse one-third of the PEG funds it receives to the channel, as it did before (the remaining funds go to the local education and government channels; the city distributes 60 percent of its PEG funds to URTV). The county did, however, reject a request by the channel for an additional $200,000.
But Garlinghouse cites the lack of long-term agreements as a factor in the closure. "We have fixed expenses: We have rent, we have insurance — all things we're required to do," she explains. "We have taxes, we have salaries. From day one we've done a bare-bones budget. When I got here, they weren't going to make it to 2010. Even though the city's renewed our contract, I know that money won't last, so I can't [make financial commitments for] a year."
And though the county's proposed budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year includes $1.5 million in cable-franchise-fee revenues, Greene says those aren't PEG funds, which come from a separate fee paid by cable subscribers.
She also says the county never received the May 24 memo and that the first she heard about URTV's impending closure was when a number of people spoke up during the public-comment portion of the Board of Commissioners' June 1 meeting, some calling on the county to bail out the nonprofit.
"We're expecting to get the same amount this year we got last year — and [URTV] will get the same share," Greene reports. But as the economic downturn continues, she notes, the number of cable subscribers could drop, reducing PEG revenues. The commissioners will consider the situation in more detail at their June 15 meeting.
Garlinghouse, however, says she's discussed the Media Center's financial situation with Greene on multiple occasions — most recently a couple of weeks ago — along with some of the nonprofit's board members, informing her about its plight and the possibility of closure.
"The producers are probably going to be at the next meeting; they're going to be a little upset," she predicts, adding later that if the community wants to see URTV survive, they need to "scream and yell to their representatives — that's the only thing that can be done right now."
Asked if the Media Center is seeking private funds, Garlinghouse replied: "Where would you suggest? There aren't any. Public access has to be subsidized. We need $20,000 a month. Do you even imagine that's possible? I don't think so."
A history of controversy
The public-access channel has seen some controversy in recent years, focusing on Garlinghouse and her allies on the board of directors. Supporters, including a number of URTV producers, said the management had instituted much-needed reforms and better operating procedures. But detractors (including two ousted board members) accused management of violating state open-meetings law, financial mismanagement and a general lack of transparency.
But the memo also sounds a positive note, stating, "The Media Center's record on this accord is a model that you can match with any major operation in the country. The general community integration period for public access is three to five years. Asheville and Buncombe County has accomplished this in three!"
And Garlinghouse maintains that, money troubles aside, the Media Center is doing better than ever. "This organization right now is so smooth, so solid and flawless, that we could pick it up and take it somewhere and the producers could run it by themselves," she reports. "That's because of the community. Yes, I brought the structure, but if the community didn't buy into it, it wouldn't be here — and they bought into it hook, line and sinker."
David Forbes can be reached at email@example.com or at 251-1333, ext. 137. With additional reporting by Jake Frankel.