Feb 10, 2011

Influential pioneer of pubcasting Robert Schenkkan dies at 93

Robert F. Schenkkan, who worked with President Lyndon Johnson on the 1967 act that established CPB and was one of "the Six Pack" of early pubTV station managers who provided counsel on the membership design of the Public Broadcasting Service, died Wednesday (Feb. 9) in Austin, Texas, of complications of dementia. He was 93.

Top public broadcasters were quick to pay their respects. Jim Lehrer, anchor and editor of PBS NewsHour, told the Austin American-Statesman, “He was the first to understand the immediate meaning and ultimate importance of public broadcasting. He really got it. It was ‘educational’ TV when he started, and he realized it could be so much more. He also believed very strongly that if public broadcast was going to deal with news and public affairs, it couldn’t be seen as a political branch of government or special interest. He protected that from all who might have thought otherwise and did so stridently, eloquently and repeatedly.”

Schenkkan helped found Austin's KUT-FM in 1958, and KLRN in San Antonio in 1962. (KLRU broke  from KLRN in 1987 and is now the Austin PBS affiliate.)

“Only Bob could have persuaded LBJ to see that it was a good thing for Austin to have a noncommercial television station, even though it would compete with Johnson’s own KTBC,” longtime PBS news journalist Bill Moyers told the Texas newspaper. "But Bob was a visionary in his quiet-spoken way, and he had this talent for persuading people without any histrionics – because he made such sense, was so principled and sought nothing for himself from the outcome. I’ve never known anyone more dedicated to the community’s interest. . . . And others fell behind him from sheer admiration.”

He worked with Johnson on passing the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

In 1969, CPB's Ward Chamberlin turned to a representative group of station managers for advice on formation of PBS. The managers became known as "the Six Pack," according to The Vanishing Vision: The Inside Story of Public Television (by James Day, 1995). There was Schenkkan, James Loper, and Presley Holmes from the NET (National Educational Television) Affiliates Council; and Hartford Gunn Jr., Warren Kraetzer, and Lloyd Kaiser from the board of the Educational Television Stations group.

Schenkkan authored the influential paper, "Public Broadcasting and Journalistic Integrity: A Policy Statement of Public Broadcasting Service," in January 1971. While g.m. of WRLN, he was also the first chairman of the board of the ETS (Educational Television Stations) division of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters.

He protested to the White House in the final days of President Nixon’s presidency, as Nixon loaded the CPB board with partisan appointees who threatened to stop money for public affairs programming. “Bob really got his dander up, and thank God he did,” Lehrer said. “He was forceful, and he had credibility. He was a natural defender against the onslaught. Our defense against the Nixons of the world is that we’re instruments of nobody – not Nixon or any other administration.”

He always held firm to the belief that the educational aspect of public broadcasting was of utmost importance. As he told Current in 1993, "When you say something to that [station] board about education, everybody sits up a little straighter. . . . There is an enormous amount of concern out there about the education of children." He was one of three founding administrators of the College of Communication, University of Texas at Austin.

Schenkkan was born in New York to Dutch immigrant parents. He studied drama at the University of Virginia and earned a graduate degree from the University of North Carolina. He fought with the Navy at Guadalcanal during World War II.

While on leave from the service, he married his college sweetheart, Jean McKenzie, and the couple had four sons: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Jr.; Tex, an executive with the San Francisco firm Digidesign, which makes music hardware and software; Pete, an attorney in Austin; and Dirk, an attorney in San Francisco. Jean died in 1985. Four years later, he married Phyllis Rothgeb. She survives, along with her sons John and David, and two grandchildren – including actor Benjamin McKenzie of TV's The O.C. and Southland and the indie film Junebug.

Plans for a memorial service are pending.

For his 90th birthday in March 2007, KLRU and KUT hosted a tribute that gathered 150 friends and family members. Accolades poured in, including from Chamberlin and former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow. Here's a slide show of the celebration.

Advocacy journalism conference coming soon

Spaces are quickly filling for the "Advocacy Journalism in the Digital Age" conference March 1 at the Newseum. The Ford Foundation and the American University School of Communication are gathering experts in social activism, public policy and journalism to help define the opportunities and challenges created by new digital technologies. Panelists include Clark Hoyt of Bloomberg News, NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard, and Nick Clooney, director of "Journey to Darfur," tracing his trek to the war-torn country with his son, actor George Clooney. RSVP here.

PBS brings in new institutional giving director for its foundation

Karen Avery, former director of foundation relations at the Smithsonian, is the new senior director of institutional giving at the PBS Foundation, working to raise funds from foundation and corporate sectors. She will report to Brian Reddington, senior v.p. of development, who was recently shifted from oversight of the Online Giving Campaign to focus solely on foundation work. Prior to Avery's Smithsonian development work, she was assistant dean of Harvard College where she directed an initiative to raise the awareness of women's issues at Harvard, and served as a hearing officer for complaints of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Obama to back voluntary spectrum auctions in speech today

President Obama will unveil his Wireless Innovation and Infrastructure Initiative in a speech today (Feb. 9) at Northern Michigan University at Marquette, reports National JournalThe speech backs the idea of a voluntary spectrum giveback that could net the government a total of $27.8 billion over the next 10 years, $9.6 billion of which would go to deficit reductions, White House officials said. Those figures are estimates of what the government would have after giving broadcasters and others who relinquish spectrum a share in auction proceeds, and paying the costs of relocating or consolidating spectrum users into different bands.

West Virginia lawmakers take up bill on private fundraising for state pubcasting network

Legislation authorizing the West Virginia Educational Broadcasting Authority to continue soliciting donations through its private nonprofit fundraising organizations is coming up for a floor vote in the House of Delegates today. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Morgan, responds to a report issued last summer by the state legislature's auditors, who said the pubcasting network's relationships with its sister nonprofits-- the Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting Inc. and the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation Inc. -- circumvent state spending regulations and travel rules. As introduced last month, H.B. 2695 authorizes West Virginia EBA employees to work with the Friends groups and make their broadcasting studios and facilities available to them for the purpose of fundraising. It also addresses governance problems that the EBA grappled with in recent years, including the governor's role in appointing members of the EBA board and in selecting and setting compensation levels for its executive director. The House chamber just initiated today's floor session [calendar here]; live audio of the debate is being streamed here.

New Jersey Network transfer bumped to July 1

New Jersey officials expect to transfer the New Jersey Network pubcasting network to a new overseer on July 1, three months later than originally projected, according to the Star-Ledger. A spokesperson for Montclair State University confirmed it would bid on at least one, if not all, of the three proposals. Richard Stockton College, also in New Jersey, had been considering a bid but may be dropping out. (UPDATE: The Press of Atlantic City is reporting Stockton will not bid.) Sharon Schulman, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton, said Tuesday (Feb. 8) that “nothing will be turned over to us. They’re keeping the licenses.” That would make the deal more of an operational management contract than a sale, reports Shore News Today. The paper says other potential bidders include WNET, WNYC, WHYY, WBGO and production company Caucus Educational Corporation.

The RFPs seeking bidders to manage the TV network, purchase or manage the radio network, were released Feb. 4. Gov. Chris Christie wants NJN off state support due to a budget crunch (Current, July 6, 2010).

PBS Memorial Day concert work wins Writers Guild Award

Television writer Joan Meyerson has won a Writers Guild Award for her work on PBS's 2010 National Memorial Day Concert. She also won this award – the full category name is the Award for Outstanding Script Television Comedy/Variety/Music, Awards, Tributes/Specials – for the 2006 Memorial Day show. PBS has been producing the program live from the Capitol grounds for more than 20 years.