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Milwaukee PBS Responds to Changing Times and Threatened Budgets

General Manager Bohdan Zachary on public TV’s enduring mission

May. 2, 2017
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“Devastating.” Bohdan Zachary, general manager of Milwaukee PBS, responds without hesitation when asked about Donald Trump’s threat to eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Drastic budget cuts that might result from the Trump budget could threaten an important Milwaukee legacy. The city’s two PBS stations, WMVS-10 and WMVT-36, brought “Sesame Street,” “Monty Python” and “Masterpiece Theatre” to our city; they host “PBS NewsHour” and “BBC World News”; and produce a raft of local shows with beloved stars such as John McGivern (“Around the Corner”) and Joanne Williams (“Black Nouveau”).

According to Zachary, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting provides $2.5 million toward Milwaukee PBS’ annual operating budget of $11 million. “The topic of potential budget cuts is under discussion nationally as well as locally—and also applied to National Public Radio. For some public stations in smaller markets, the cuts to CPB would mean the end. Many stations receive more than half of their budget from the CPB.”

Although Milwaukee’s two public stations, their licenses held by Milwaukee Area Technical College, spent many years quietly building a multi-generational and increasingly diverse audience, they were born in controversy. The Hearst Corporation and other commercial broadcasters fought doggedly through the early 1950s against public television in Milwaukee. The city’s socialist mayor, Frank Zeidler, finally overrode their obstruction with the support of many community groups and the administration of Milwaukee Vocational School, as MATC was then known. Channel 10 finally went on the air in 1957, followed by Channel 36 in 1963.

Strictly educational programs filled the stations’ schedules in their early years, including a course designed to teach adults how to read and write. The call letters preserve their origin: MVS stands for Milwaukee Vocational School and MVT for Milwaukee Vocational Technical. They were little watched by the general public until “Sesame Street” debuted in 1969. Through the ’70s and ’80s, public television gained the reputation as the sophisticated person’s choice for TV by airing acclaimed British mini-series such as “Brideshead Revisited” and “The Jewel in the Crown” along with programs based on Agatha Christie and other British murder mystery authors. Rigorous news reporting and analysis arrived in the form of “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report,” ancestor to “PBS NewsHour.”

 

Public Under Attack

Since the Reagan era, PBS and NPR have been under attack by Republicans who claim to detect “bias” in public broadcasting’s news coverage. Underlying their assault is an ideological agenda, identical to Hearst’s objection to Channel 10 in the 1950s, which seeks to privatize the entire world. Some have also argued that nowadays, with cable, satellite and Internet channels, the public has sufficient choices without public broadcasting.

“I believe that public television continues as always to deliver on its mission to entertain, inspire and educate at no cost to the viewers,” Zachary says in response. “Public television is supported by taxpayers at the rate of $1.35 per year.” He believes taxpayers are getting their money’s worth. “We are an eye onto the world and an eye on the community we serve—and we are now serving multiple communities on air, online and in the community.” 

Last November, Milwaukee PBS debuted “10thirtysix,” a half-hour news program hosted by Portia Young and focused on Milwaukee. They have also been collaborating more actively on developing news stories with their radio counterpart, Milwaukee’s NPR affiliate, WUWM. “Dave Edwards and I are in this together,” Zachary says, referring to WUWM’s general manager. “We did a half-hour special together after the events at Sherman Park last summer. We are in the early stages of looking back at that story one year later.” 

Recently, Patricia Gomez, host of “¡Adelante!,” the only weekly Spanish-language news program on any PBS station, reported on a South Side immigrant family whose children were born in the U.S. but whose parents are undocumented. “The family wanted to tell their story on camera,” Zachary says. “They want everyone to know who they are and what they’ve contributed to our community. I had Patricia ask them several times: ‘You know if you go on camera, everyone will know who you are?’ And they said, ‘Yes, we have to do this.’” 

It’s the sort of story Zachary wants to follow up on, and often, the quickest way to do that will be through Milwaukee PBS expanded online presence. “At other times, we will begin to tell stories online and fold them into our television programs,” he adds.

 

Working in a Great Community

Among a growing number of community events, Milwaukee PBS has organized workshops with parents and kids to draw on the lessons from public broadcasting’s award-winning children’s shows on “how to tell stories, how to express creativity,” Zachary says. At a recent Milwaukee PBS public forum on parenting, audience members asked questions from panelists that included Madison pediatrician and children’s health advocate Dipesh Navsaria and MATC faculty. The event was recorded, edited, broadcast on air and made available online. “We’re looking for 21st-century ways of being a player in educational media,” Zachary says. 

A Detroit native, Zachary took up his post at channels 10 and 36 in November 2015 after nearly 20 years at public station KCET in Los Angeles. “I’d been reading about Milwaukee and thought it would be a really nice place,” he said of his career move. “I read JSOnline and the Shepherd Express online and got the sense that this is a vibrant city. After I moved here, I walked to the Third Ward, sat at Colectivo and said, ‘This is my new life.’ I’ve never looked back.”

While most of his predecessors were content to manage operations from the back office, Zachary has assumed a more deliberately public role as spokesperson for public television. His visibility has resulted in a change to Milwaukee PBS’ biggest fund drive, the annual Great TV Auction. This year the nine-day marathon is on Channel 36 instead of 10. 

“People would recognize me when I was out and say, ‘I hate it when you do the auction on Channel 10 and disrupt my favorite PBS shows!’ Our ad agency coined the slogan for this year’s auction: ‘Going, Going, Gone to 36.’” This year’s auction, he promises, will take bids on everything from locally sourced apple pie to an Art Deco dining room set. The funds raised will augment revenue from foundation grants, major local donors, corporate underwriting and members, “all of whom contribute to our ongoing work,” Zachary says. 

As for Trump’s threat to cut public broadcasting, Zachary says that his boss, the MATC board of directors, is “very supportive of whatever we will have to contend with. I’m delighted that the board believes in what we do. Conversations are ongoing about the potential dilemma of budget cuts but then, you never know on a daily basis where the wind is blowing from in Washington.”

The 49th Annual Great TV Auction runs 3-11 p.m. through May 6 on WMVT-Channel 36.

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