Unless additional funding is received, public-access channel URTV — now known as the WNC Media Center — will cease operation in September of this year, according to a notice sent last week to the city of Asheville and Buncombe County. Both city and county officials claim that URTV 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 May 24 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 lists four factors in the decision to cease operations: “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.”
“Essentially, it’s a lack of financial resources to continue operations past that point in time,” the city’s Director of Administrative Services, Lauren Bradley, tells Xpress. Since the memo, Bradley says, the city’s not received a call for additional funding from the channel.
As for the county, County Manager Wanda Greene says Buncombe’s funding of URTV hasn’t changed: “we get it, we get it distributed [to URTV].” She adds that “around 2005-06 the city got a block of money and gave 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.”
As for URTV’s future and financial situation, Greene asserts that the channel will have to adjust. “It’s tough, but if you really want to do it, you find a way.”
Bradley also says that despite changes in state law that shifted PEG funds — gathered from cable company subscribers by city and county governments to fund public access channels — from local to state control, URTV’s still received funds (about $30,000 a year) through the city and during 2008 and 2009, received more funding than before. At the beginning of the year, the city extended URTV’s operating agreement 90 days and then, in April, renewed it for another year.
The county’s agreement with URTV expired in February, and they haven’t renewed it, though Greene says that they continue to disburse a third of the PEG funds the county receives to the channel, as before (the city distributes 60 percent of its PEG funds to the channel). The county did, however, refuse a request by URTV for $200,000 more in additional funding.
The county’s fiscal year 2010 budget shows $1.5 million in cable franchise fee revenues. However, Greene says that these are for county operations and are not PEG funds, which come from a separate fee charged to cable subscribers.
During the negotiations over that renewal, Bradley says that URTV Executive Director Pat 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.”
However, Greene claims the county never received the memo and that the first news she received of URTV’s upcoming closure came Tuesday night at the regular board of commissioners meeting, when a number of people spoke on the issue during public comment, including some calling for the county to give URTV the funds needed to avoid closure.
Of the funds, Greene says “we’re expecting to get the same amount this year we got last year — and [URTV] will get the same share.” But as the economic downturn continues, she adds, cable subscribers could drop, decreasing PEG funds. The commissioners’ next meeting, on June 15, will include a detailed report about the URTV situation.
The memo from URTV says that in 2007 $100,000 was set aside from the initial five-year endowment “to accommodate the transition period to State funding. This amount is being used for FY 2010 expenses” and that “Extreme reduction in expenses were made during FY 2010.”
The memo adds that “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 3-5 years. Asheville and Buncombe County has accomplished this in 3!”
So far, URTV representatives have not answered calls for comment.
The public-access channel has been the subject of some controversy in recent years, focusing on its management, especially Garlinghouse. Supporters of management, including a number of URTV producers, asserted that they brought much-needed reforms and better practices to the channel. However, a number of detractors, including two ousted board members, accused the management of a lack of transparency — including violations of open meetings law — and financial mismanagement.
— David Forbes, senior reporter