Broke

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.

Out of cash: Executive Director Pat Garlinghouse at a URTV members' meeting. The station now faces closure in September unless it can muster more funds. photo by Jonathan Welch


"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 dforbes@mountainx.com or at 251-1333, ext. 137. With additional reporting by Jake Frankel.

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10 thoughts on “Broke

  1. Typical Garlinghouse, buy my story “hook, line & sinker.” Don’t ask questions.

    Well I have many questions.

    #1. Why has URTV consistantly spent well above their yearly funds from the franchise fees? No other public access in our $150,ooo to $200,000 range of support, in the country has done so. Key in “public access” or “community television” on foundationcenter.org. to view 990s. Comparable stations are Madison, Wi., Pacifica, Ca., Durham, NC. Greensboro, NC.

    #2. Why have Board members who have hard questions as per spending and adherence to NC statutes governing non profits, been run off?

    #3. Just because Ms. Garlinghouse cannot manage with the funding allotted, why should we the people, lose our public access? URTV aka WNCCMC and public access are not permanently bonded. URTV is a private non profit, contracted to manage our public acces station. Another entity may very well be able to manage, on less money and mayne offer better services. What right does Ms. Garlinghouse have to decide we will lose our station. The channel is still available, and the $150,000 annually is still coming, (according to Wanda Green). If Ms. Garlinghouse and her “Ceremonial Board” cannot manage on this amount they must turn over the keys to another entity who can.

    Many Public Access stations are combined with either Government or Educational channels…who is to say we cannot do this? It would be great training for UNCA students to participate in managing and running a station.

    Bottom line let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    I’m not buying this information Ms. Garlinghouse is throwing out…nope, not “hook, line & sinker.”

  2. “the city extended its agreement with URTV for 90 days and then, in April, renewed it for another year.”

    The 90 day extension granted by the City of Asheville was a tentative extension of an existing agreement. Further extensions were to be contingent on specific improvements in management; specifically, regulatory compliance and operational transparency.

    The one-year extension was granted under a new city council with no evidence of any improvement and every promise of continued mis-management, malfeasance and opacity.

    Now URTV is flat-ass broke and cannot fulfill its end of the agreement for even the one-year extension and comes to the public with hat in hand for a bailout.

    The county should not make the same mistakes our new city council has made. They should actually review the causes of URTV’s insolvency and the their viability going forward under current management.

    If URTV is to survive, and I hope it does, it can only do so “under new management.” I hope to see a sign to that effect hanging on their front door by September.

    TIM PECK
    ………………………………

  3. Just Me

    Government sourced funding is always short. It rarely covers the full need of the service it funds, even less so the full actual cost of doing business and being accountable (admin staff & expenses)- as is stringently required. And yet, many non-profits in Buncombe County contracted to provide a governmental service continue to scrape by year after year: pay staff, offer benefits, and keep their books in good order.

    I don’t know the ED in this article, but she sounds, um, surprised about this.

  4. Just Me

    You know, sometimes the right person is hired for the wrong position. From everything I’ve heard about these issues, I bet the current Executive Director would have made an excellent Program Director. And somebody else would have been much better suited to the balancing act of politics, funding issues, financial management, and service development required of an ex. director.

  5. But this cannot possibly be a surprise to any City or County official who ever looked at their own agreements and the original six-year budget crafted in 2006. That budget showed deficit spending each year until the money set aside to establish the facility was depleted.

    What has always been needed is additional fundraising–just like every other public access station in the nation. Pat Garlinghouse’s assertion that URTV has no “product” and cannot garner contributions from the public or grants from funders flies in the face of PBS, NPR, Pacifica Radio, and most other public access organizations.

    The PEG money URTV receives has never been enough to run the station. Fundraising was always necessary yet was never earnestly pursued. And, knowing that, why was money spent to launch UR Radio?

    But this goes back to before Garlinghouse was even hired. The original manager, Kurt Mann, begged the URTV board of directors to hire a development director and was refused (before he was fired by that board). The excuse was that they couldn’t afford to pay anyone to bring in money.

    Anyone who has ever had any nonprofit experience knows full well that an organization can’t afford NOT to have a strong development person who will more than pay for their own salary.

    Another function of any nonprofit board is to do fundraising themselves. I’m not sure if they’re still resistant but board members four years ago never did much in the way of seeking contributions.

    Take a look at the URTV website [www.urtv.org]. There is a “donate” button but it takes you to a PayPal page with absolutely no mention of why you should contribute your hard-earned dollars to the institution.

    We would not be in this mess if those overseeing URTV had made a commitment to seeing the station survive past this year and had taken they’re role as stewards seriously. Oh, wait. A few did and were drummed out of the organization.

  6. The present ED was hired due to her glowing resume touting how expert she was at fund raising and managing strong minded, producer types who flock to public access. But no funding to speak of has been done since her arrival. Her way of managing strong minded individuals is to run them off if they annoy or bother her in any way.

    As for her alleged ability to manage…it appears she has managed public access into the ground. For shame!

  7. 4.” Powering down is complex and must be done in stages.”
    now that is some bs.. just hit the breaker…
    “they bought into it hook, line and sinker.”
    i think that about sums it up…
    just like they spent $500,000 on studio-A ,and i spent $3,000 on studio-B, i could run that place on what they get,and put money back in the bank..
    that is 500 to 3,and studio-A is obsolete already….
    OMG wake up..
    can i have my show back now ????

  8. Johnny L House Jr

    Oh yeah, give me $500,000 (with no oversight) or I’ll power down your public access. Who is buying this, hook, line and sinker?

  9. Jenny

    Is anyone asking why it is so expensive to run? All of the productions that I see could have been created in the 1990’s in a basement.
    Anyone with some broadcast and computer skills could run the show.
    What is going on with the money???

  10. johm blackwell

    many of us have been concerned from the start,that urtv needed to work toward the future,but were hushed or run off by those who were just out to use up all the money they could get their hands on…
    do you think that people involved will now listen to reason,and to the folks who have been saying something was wrong from way back?? and can i have my show back?? i will be glad to tell you how to keep urtv open,and running..
    i know many who would be glad to contribute time,and money to see that urtv was run right…
    the best of these were run off ,from the get go,by the new ed..

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