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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 16, 2018 9 months ago

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Taking over a rival's business sounds nice — and can be lucrative. That doesn't mean it's easy.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

In more than 40 years of public broadcasting nationwide, including three stints where she was president, CEO or executive director, WEDU President Susan Howarth has seen a lot.

But nothing in Howarth's nonprofit experience prepared her for what happened last year when Tampa-based WEDU was offered the chance to take over the programming of area rival public station WUSF-TV. The unique opportunity wasn't without it risks, from upset customers to ballooning programming costs to a host of logistical issues.

WEDU went forward with the plan. WUSF, affiliated with the University of South Florida, officially went off the air Oct. 15 — though WEDU agreed to maintain temporary “placeholder” channels to help ease viewers' transition to the new home of their favorite programs.

WUSF, meanwhile, will continue to broadcast its full schedule of radio programming at 89.7 FM. In letting the federal government auction off its share of the TV broadcast spectrum, the university received $18.7 million.

The first issues WEDU faced were from loyal WUSF-TV viewers who were unhappy about the university's decision to fade to black. The station had been on the air since 1966 — nearly as long as WEDU, which celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2018. News articles about the change were greeted with hundreds of angry comments, many bemoaning it as the latest attack in an ongoing, broader war against public broadcasting.

Howarth, 65, has heard the concerns of viewers and says WEDU will provide the full range of programs that WUSF-TV used to air, with the only exceptions being a movie package and a couple of locally produced segments, such as “University Beat.” Anyone who calls the station with programming inquiries, and isn't already a WEDU donor, will receive a free, three-month subscription to the members' magazine that includes the WEDU programming guide.

“We will also sign them up for our weekly e-newsletter, which has all sorts of information about where to find the programs,” Howarth says. “We feel confident that we'll have everything that anybody would want.”

Aside from winning over WUSF-TV viewers, adding shows like “Midsomer Murders” and “Father Brown” wasn't as simple as pushing a few buttons in the WEDU control room in downtown Tampa. Howarth and her colleagues had to scramble to purchase new equipment — a $300,000 expenditure, she says.

For a station with an operating budget during the depths of the recession that was $5 million, that's a hefty chunk of change. Even more so when factoring in the $2 million annual fee WEDU pays for the right to broadcast popular PBS programming, such as Ken Burns' and Lynn Novick's recent documentary series about the Vietnam War.

“PBS programming and membership, it's really essential,” Howarth says. “I would love to not have to pay as much. But on the other hand, we'd be fooling ourselves to think that that's not the core piece of what we provide.”

The station's fortunes have improved significantly since 2010, when Howarth took over. Thanks to the improving U.S. economy and greater consumer confidence, which in turn leads to more corporate sponsorships and donations from the public, WEDU's operating budget is now up to $9 million. Its endowment is at $17 million.

Though WEDU receives state and federal funding, Howarth says she operates the station like a for-profit. As a community licensee station, as opposed to one that's tied to a publicly funded university like WUSF-TV was, WEDU can make nimble decisions based on immediate needs instead of waiting for the Legislature to be called into session and approve or turn down its requests.

Even with Howarth's for-profit mindset, WEDU's margins can fluctuate from year to year. According to its fiscal year 2016 statement, the most recent available, the station had revenue of some $11.2 million versus more than $9.5 million in expenses. In 2015, it had $13.76 million in revenue and $9.55 million in expenses. And now, by adding most of WUSF-TV's programming, the station faces an additional $300,000 to $400,000 hit to its annual budget.

(This story was updated to reflect the correct names behind PBS's Vietnam War documentary.)

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