Station Break

Beset by budget problems, bereft of substantive local programming, Channel 8 finds itself at a crossroads. Perhaps it's time to put the "public" back into Houston Public Television.

"Instead of having the budget discussion, Jeff pulls his chair around, as they teach you in management school, and said, 'Well, I've got some bad news for you,' " Korshak recalls with a laugh. Layoff talk had been in the air at KUHT for months, and Korshak says she was planning to leave the station because of her concerns over its changing direction. But she hadn't planned to depart that soon.

"Yvonne is my age, and both of us had passed 55, which is early retirement," she says. Menuet, a recovered breast cancer patient, immediately wondered whether she would continue to receive health insurance. Clarke had told both women he could not help them with their benefits, "which was dead-out wrong, as it turned out," remembers Korshak, who says that she and others were not offered early retirement, a common corporate courtesy before layoffs.

The callous handling of the layoffs contrasted sharply with the university's generous golden parachutes provided to university president Jim Pickering, System chancellor Schilt and a host of other administrators ousted in the recent turnover of the school's bureaucracy.

"Hindsight is always 20-20," says Clarke. "There's little doubt that having it to do over again, it might have been done a better way. We did it under the guidelines that we had and the restrictions we had and the manner in which we were allowed to do it. And we did the best we could."

Clarke did okay. After the layoffs, he received a $4,000 raise, which boosted his salary to $86,500 a year. A few other favored employees also received small raises.

A number of production staffers were waiting that morning in 1994 when Korshak came out of her meeting with Clarke, because she had been expected to announce the projects that had been approved for the coming year's budget. She said nothing, but Clarke's secretary began paging one person after another on the station's PA system, and word quickly spread that it was an invitation to the firing squad. The total reached a dozen, and it was over.

Clarke later promised the remaining staff that if there were any further layoffs, "I'll be the first to go."

Actually, two more producers with documentary experience, Sue Davis and Rick Canter, were laid off the following year. Davis, now an assignments editor at all-news Channel 51, produced several highly regarded documentaries during her tenure at Channel 8, including Shades of Truth, a riveting exploration of the fatal shooting of a black youth by an Asian storekeeper in southwest Houston.

Davis is currently being paid by Channel 8 as a consultant to edit a special on a conference of former world leaders held last year in Colorado Springs. ACT chair Patricia Laurent singles out that production, which is being funded by the conference organizers, as the premiere local offering the station plans for this year.

While UH System officials and Clarke told the media the layoffs were necessitated by a cash crunch, former manager Bauer says he left a financially stable operation that had never run a deficit. In fact, Bauer says he hoarded enough ACT contributions to build a $2 million contingency fund. He wonders how, in just three years, the station came to rest on the financial ropes.

Both Korshak and Menuet believe uncontrolled spending by Clarke on unbudgeted projects, such as a lavish music production at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, tapped the surplus. Menuet recalls several cases in which the development budget was raided by Clarke to cover deficits in his administrative budget.

Clarke blames the station's money crunch on an inflated staff budget he inherited when he took over, along with the same harsh economic environment that forced other public television stations to retrench early in this decade. As for administrative overspending, he says that funding shifts within the budget may make it appear that his expenditures went up in the last several years, but audits confirm that the station is spending less in that area. In fact, he says the current year will show a small operating surplus.

Whatever caused the financial hemorrhaging that led to the layoffs, the decline was swift. In 1991, Channel 8's budget included nearly $3 million in short-term investments listed among its operating fund assets. By 1993, the figure had dropped to $1.3 million. By 1994, the investments had been totally liquidated, with nearly $1.2 million transferred to cash on hand. At the same time, the decline in community support, which was cited as the culprit for the station's financial troubles, actually seemed inconsequential. Public contributions to the station totaled $4.3 million in 1991; three years later, the total had slipped to just $4.2 million.

In a series of memos in 1994, Ed Whalen, then the System's vice chancellor for finance and administration, warned fellow administrators that Channel 8 was headed into the red. Consistently over-optimistic revenue projections by Clarke had left Whalen alarmed.

"Income to date is about $2.5 million, an inflow of $416,000 a month," Whalen wrote in one pungent missive to Felder, the UH administrator who supervised station operations. "To meet Jeff's target of $5.6 million for the year, the money is going to have to start coming in at a rate of $517,000 a month. Once again: how's it going to happen?" In the same memo, Whalen noted that the station would be receiving another bill it could ill afford: the university had decided to start charging KUHT $20,000 a month for electrical services it previously had provided for free.

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