Public Broadcasting Increasingly Businesslike; Competition Forcing Stricter attitude.(BUSINESS)

Article excerpt


TV host Louis Rukeyser is kicked off the air after a nasty spat with his Maryland Public Television bosses.

National Public Radio employees march in a picket line to protest management.

Advertisements for PBS programs pop up on commercial stations.

This is public broadcasting?

It is in an era of big media competition. Increasingly, public broadcasters are acting more like their private counterparts - paying closer attention to ratings and research, doing more promotion, taking a harder stand against employees in labor disputes - all in an attempt to be more efficient and competitive.

"Public broadcasting is trying to be more responsive to its listeners, and some people perceive that as being more businesslike," said Ken Stern, executive vice president of National Public Radio Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides commercial-free news, music and cultural programming to more than 600 radio stations across the nation.

NPR and the Public Broadcasting Service, a commercial-free network owned and operated by about 350 television stations, are the nation's dominant nonprofit broadcasters.

The public-broadcasting industry receives roughly $2 billion in annual funding; about 30 percent of that income is taxpayer money from federal, state and local governments.

Yesterday, NPR and a union representing 80 of its technical employees met with a federal mediator to resolve a 3-year-old labor dispute. The talks are scheduled to conclude today.

The main sticking point is whether to allow the nontechnical employees to do some of the work now handled by NPR's recording engineers.

NPR has agreed to give its technical employees a three-year, retroactive pay raise, but management and the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians union have been unable to agree on the size of the raise.

Last month, the employees staged a protest outside NPR headquarters in downtown Washington. Employees wore T-shirts that read "NPR: The Sound of Experience Fading Away" during the demonstration, which was described as peaceful.

"There is a feeling that [management] is more concerned with the bottom line than they used to be. There is a lot of criticism that public broadcasting is becoming more like a business," said Mark Bejarano, an NPR electrical engineer involved in the negotiations. …