MPB: Public Servant? | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

MPB: Public Servant?

Photo by Courtesy MPB; Kristen Brenemen

Max Breazeale checked his transmitters at station WMAH in McHenry Sunday night before Hurricane Katrina ripped the Gulf Coast asunder. From frequency control to power supply, he made sure everything worked and was dry, safe and secure. A military vet, he double-checked everything just like he did when he was a Navy avionics tech, then he turned the station's Kohler generator on and left.

Breazeale didn't want to get caught in the 120 mile-per-hour winds or the trees and roofs those winds might thrust his way. He headed north to Jackson, getting to a friend's house before the brunt of the storm.

The next morning, before Katrina even hit Jackson, he got a call from Mississippi Public Broadcasting's master control. His UHF and his FM transmitters were off the air.

That was about 10 a.m. the morning Katrina swallowed towns whole and terrified the Deep South. Breazeale was anxious to fix his transmitters, almost chomping at the bit to make repairs. He didn't leave Jackson until well after the eye of the hurricane had passed. It was about 3 p.m. on Aug. 29, 2005, when he starting driving south on U.S. Highway 49.

Weaving around fallen trees, pieces of houses and absolute chaos, he made his way to Stone County and tried to get as close as he could to TV Tower Road McHenry.

He couldn't get that close.

When he got to McHenry, it was about 8 p.m., and it was pitch dark. Parking his van on the side of a little dirt road, he got out with a flashlight and walked about a mile and a half to the station. He climbed over fallen trees and into the new holes their roots had left. Finally, he arrived at the station only to find that he couldn't see the transmitters at all.

"Everything was dark," he says. "First thing I was worried about was water."

With the limited beam from his flashlight, he checked out what he could of the rest of the station. He figured the wind must have choked the generator. He managed to get it going again. It wasn't until daylight that he could make visual contact with the transmitters. Once he decided it was safe to do so, he turned them on. The radio waves flowed. "My TV and FM were the first back on the Coast," he says.

Breazeale became supervisor of WMAH in March 2005. MPB offered him the job when the old supervisor left. Before that, he managed the impressive microwave system that links eight TV stations and 16 radio stations, all overlapping to cover the whole state as well as the metropolitan areas of Memphis, Tenn., Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans, La. After working in Jackson for almost 10 years, Breazeale jumped at the new opportunity. He considers Katrina his on-the-job welcome.

MPB had recently replaced the old transmission hard lines with Heliax, a thinner line with a copper jacket that was more susceptible to heavy winds. Breazeale had no way to repair the now shredded lines. When a tower crew showed up a couple of days later, they didn't have a way to fix the Heliax lines, either. They had lots of equipment and parts in their trucks that they camped out in on WMAH's front lawn, and they had experience and expertise. Ordering parts was not a reality in the days following Katrina's colossal hissy fit. They looked at all the tools before them and found something to repair the ripped Heliax hangers.

"They used duct tape," Breazeale says.

He didn't even go home to check the condition of his apartment in Gulfport. He slept on a couch at the station where he knew he had a running generator and water from a pump, although the shed protecting it no longer existed. WMAH ran on generator power for two months

About a month after Katrina, the Mississippi Business Journal reported Breazeale's determination to get MPB on the air. The blog post made Breazeale out to be a heroic cowboy.

Breazeale doesn't get that. He says he was being a responsible man, doing his job. The paper also reported in its blog that he went against MPB policy when he decided on his own to return to his broken site.

This pisses him off.

"I was dedicated. I did my job. All of us in tech services did our bit for God and country," he says.

"When I got called to Jackson to a meeting for recognition for what I did, Marie Antoon (then MPB executive director) made the comment I disobeyed orders by going down there. That is not true. There was no policy. And the eye wall had already passed. I took the initiative to fix my transmitters," he says.

He still supervises WMAH Channel 19 for MPB. The staff in Jackson still praises his efforts. Before he came to work for ETV in 1996, he worked at commercial television station WJTV in Jackson for four years. That was his first real job after he got out of the Navy in 1991.

His politics lean conservative, and he doesn't agree with a lot of what he considers liberal views on PBS, NPR and MPB.
"Commercial and public broadcasting are two different animals. At commercial stations, when you're off the air, you don't make money," he says.

Still, he thought MPB had a moral obligation to cover the storm and the basic news people needed to survive: where to get water and food, where families went, where to go for help, what to do next. He thought instead of airing morning children's programming, MPB should have at least piggybacked news broadcasts from commercial television stations. Breazeale suggested that MPB bring its own shiny broadcast van down to Biloxi or Gulfport so he could transmit a reporter's coverage. MPB didn't do that, and it frustrated him. It irked him more when he saw a few monthss later that the MPB van did make it down to the Coast for an expo.

"In my opinion, we did not do enough for the people on the Coast," Breazeale says.

The Power of Radio
MPB did what it could with what it had. What it had was radio. MPB staff kept 24-hour news coming in a ravaged state. They worked hard during the worst natural disaster the nation had ever seen. That's how they see it.

The staff and the Mississippi Authority for Educational Television board, which oversees MPB, worry about budget-cuts from legislators suspicious of MPB. They emphasize the importance of MPB during emergencies. They stress its usefulness as an economic-development tool to support business and industry and promote tourism. They remind everyone that MPB is an educational institution in its own right.

Many legislators clamored this year that an elitist, outside movement was forcing liberal ideas into the heads of innocent Mississippians. Many legislators confused MPB with National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System, using the acronyms interchangeably. A fear of educated ideas, a fear of a desire for something different, a fear of the unknown scared many legislators.

In January, Rep. Rita Martinson, R-Madison, introduced a bill to cut MPB funding by 20 percent and eliminate all funding for the state agency by 2017. She said the bill was a chance to address MPB's poor management and liberal content.

In February, Gov. Haley Barbour put MPB on notice. Within five years, he wants the public broadcasting network to become self-sufficient with no money from the state. This year, half of MPB's $15.4 million budget came from the state. The transition to all-private funding will hurt if it's even possible.

"In fact, your plan should be to eliminate all state support in five years and rely on advertising, sponsorships and production revenue," Barbour wrote in a February letter to the board.

"You would have to have $400 million in an endowment to get $16 million a year. We will never, ever be self-sufficient," said Bob Sawyer, board chairman and an investment adviser from Gulfport. "I'm being realistic."

Across the nation, conservatives lashed out about public broadcasting this winter. Internal problems at NPR didn't help its image. NPR fired journalist Juan Williams after he remarked on Fox News that he was scared of Muslims. Then, right-wing activists released a heavily edited video showing Ron Schiller, an NPR fundraising executive, apparently calling Tea Party members racist. Schiller also quipped that NPR would be better off without federal funding. Although an investigation revealed that he was talking about other people's opinions, not his own, the damage was done. The timing couldn't have been worse.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted March 17 to withdraw all funding for NPR. Many of the lawmakers who voted this way claimed that NPR is liberal, although NPR and PBS news shows often interview more Republicans than Democrats, more whites than minorities, more men than women.

Meanwhile, the MPB board—an all-white board—voted this winter to repair towers and maintain its microwave stations throughout Mississippi. Tech services keeps some broadcasting equipment at Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. MEMA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency both rely on MPB. Just two months after Katrina, MPB agreed to let the Mississippi Office of Homeland Security use their tower network as the backbone of its statewide alert system.

"This partnership is poised to facilitate a thorough coverage of the state during times of crisis," reads a Nov. 9, 2005, statement from Homeland Security.

The board noted this February that MPB gets no funding from MEMA.

Emergency responders
Shirley Mixon, now director of content and a programming director in 2005, went to work at noon the Sunday before Hurricane Katrina hit. She drove into the campus on Ridgewood Road knowing she had a busy 12-hour emergency shift ahead. MPB had a plan in place: announcers, producers, phone operators reported for duty.

Mixon's 12-hour shift stretched longer, well into Monday morning. She didn't leave the MPB studios until close to noon, about the same time Katrina reached Jackson. She drove home through the storm and collapsed on her bed.

"You just don't know the half of it," she says.

Mixon and her crew talked on the air to heads of state agencies, reporters from The Weather Channel, helicopter pilot Coyt Bailey of WLBT and anyone else who had useful information. Announcers encouraged people to call if they were stuck in traffic, or knew what to do with pets or to tell others where a hotel was open in northern Mississippi.

"We had people call us from Memphis saying, 'We haven't heard anything about Ocean Springs.' So we get on the phone and ask Ocean Springs police for an update," Mixon says.

The staff fielded calls, sorting a monsoon of information coming in. Watching wire reports and keeping an eye on four TV monitors, producers followed as much news as possible from all sources and got the most important calls on the air.

MPB radio had a pretty small news department. A few other employees had a news background. Secretaries, graphic artists and accountants screened calls, checked information, referred people to producers and kept the flow of information streaming.

A couple of days after the storm, Mixon took a call from Long Beach. An elderly woman said she and her husband were trapped in their house.

"She was terrified. No one had come, yet. Her husband was ill. They had no way to get out," Mixon says. MPB had been the woman's only source of information. After she took the woman's contact information, Mixon hung up and called the authorities.

Soon after that, a guy from Alabama called, looking to find a way to make a difference and help someone no one else could. Mixon gave him the elderly woman's information.

"I never heard back if he found her," she says.

Katrina made it pretty obvious that MPB needed a reporter on the Coast. Two years after the storm, they hired one. But in the immediate wake of Katrina, no one could cover Mississippi's Coast. A couple of weeks later, MPB contracted with veteran broadcaster Gary Michiels of Biloxi.

Before he got that phone call to tell post-Katrina stories, Michiels survived his own hell. Destroyed houses between his home and the beach formed a barrier that protected him and his wife. He helped save stranded people in the water only to watch one of them die the next morning.

He got the call from MPB about covering the Coast on a contract basis. After working in commercial radio for years, he found a refreshing, professional attitude at MPB. He gathered reports all day, packaging segments and thinking about the next story of recovery and about how tough people on the Coast were.

Working for MPB was a "remarkable experience," he says. He told stories about tough people with emotional scars, families with kids who had nothing left but a concrete slab, and the faith-based organizations staking tents before MEMA or FEMA got to town.

"Six weeks after the storm, communications were down. No Internet, no phone, no street signs left, no landmarks. It was extremely difficult. Restaurants were gone. We had martial law," Michiels said.

After two years of telling these stories, his contract with MPB ran out. Michiels, now 65, started working in radio when he was 16. He and his wife have owned and operated a commercial radio station and a weekly newspaper, The Bay Press.

"(MPB) serves a function, quite honestly, that other radio doesn't," he says. "I think they do wonderful things with their money. MPB has invested a lot of money. If MPB were out selling ads, I don't know. Maybe that's something," he says.

MPB can't sell ads, not the type of commercials you see on television or hear on the radio. Legally, as a member station of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a sponsor message is limited in what it can say. It can't use adjectives to say how great it is or how bad a competitor is. It can't tell the audience to go to a department store sale or buy a new car. The understated nature is central not just to keep funding from certain sources, it's also conducive to maintain a tone of calm objectivity.

Calm hasn't always been the best word describing public broadcasting in Mississippi. When Mississippi Educational Television, known to a generation as ETV, went on the air Feb. 1, 1970, national embarrassment came quickly when "Sesame Street" wasn't allowed to air in the state because some thought the integrated neighborhood portrayed would cause too much trouble at home. After a month of sharp criticism from inside and outside the state, Mississippi ETV changed its policy. Mississippi preschoolers were allowed to see Big Bird and Kermit, yellow and green, together on the same screen.

Thirty years later, MPB cancelled the award-winning radio show "Fresh Air" when comedian Louis C.K. mentioned in a self-deprecating remark that he left his shirt on while he had sex. Judy Lewis, then executive director of MPB, insisted numerous people had complained to her about the content of "Fresh Air" and this sexual reference was the last straw.

After outraged fans wrote emails and called MPB incessantly, "Fresh Air" returned to a much later time slot, 9 p.m., and carried a warning about its "adult content." Through a Freedom of Information request, the Jackson Free Press found MPB had no records of complaints about the show. The request yielded hundreds of emails from fans of the show and supporters of MPB who politely pointed out they gave money every year to the Foundation for Public Broadcasting specifically so they could hear host Terry Gross interview authors, scientists, Pulitzer and Nobel prize winners.

One listener—a schoolteacher—said she had never heard anything inappropriate on "Fresh Air." Another listener assumed "inappropriate" referred to stories about gays and lesbians. Many asked for an explanation of what "inappropriate" meant. Others asked for specific examples and instances of "inappropriate" content. One called the decision "the act of a right-wing ideologue." Several said they were embarrassed and ashamed that Mississippi once again attracted ridicule from the rest of the nation.

"I kind of love the irony in how stories of the 'Battle of the Bulge' are all over your Internet page," a listener wrote. "When Louis C.K. talks about his, 'Fresh Air' has to be canceled."

"I found no 'gratuitous discussions on issues of an explicit sexual nature' in this interview or in any previous show," a journalist wrote. "Rather, I found the interview revealed the subject's humanity and vulnerability by touching on issues of aging, body image and intimacy."

"Are you guys going to schedule any book burnings later this summer?" another listener asked. "Got any plans to demand the removal of books from bookstores?"

Think Radio
Jay Woods was washing dishes in the back of a restaurant in Oxford the fall semester of his junior year at Ole Miss. It was a brief stint in the early 1990s, but he wanted to save up money for a semester abroad in Europe. His mind was all over the place, thinking about school, dreaming about Europe.

Then, the radio in the kitchen grabbed his attention in the calmest tone. A man read an essay about fall, describing various colors of falling leaves, the musty scents and the cool breezes. Woods stopped washing dishes and looked at the radio. He listened harder and was positively amazed.

He had watched educational shows on PBS growing up, but he outgrew them years before. He forgot about public broadcasting until that fall epiphany at the sink when he heard NPR for the first time.

"I found it could actually feed my brain," he said. "I could listen to smart people discussing interesting things. It became another classroom for me."

He graduated from Ole Miss, went to law school, then practiced law in Memphis. After eight years, he left his law career and came back to Mississippi to do something completely different—landscaping. When he found out that MPB was hiring a contracts and grants administrator, he says he saw an opportunity to part of an organization he deeply admired.

Now, as acting executive director, he defends MPB against critics from all sides: from the conservatives who think the network espouses an overly liberal viewpoint and from the liberals and progressives who suspect the state agency bows to the whim of a right-wing governor and anti-intellectual Legislature. On top of that pressure, he is searching for ways to move toward becoming self-sufficient like the governor directed in February. He's frustrated that some legislators and critics don't understand MPB's budget. At a large round table in a glass corner of the MPB building in March, Woods sat back in his chair, then leaned forward and sat back again explaining it all.

"There's a misconception that we use state money to purchase programming from NPR and PBS," he said.

He drew a box at the top of a legal pad and wrote "CPB" in big letters. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private, not-for-profit corporation Congress created 1967, gets money from Congress. CPB gives that money to member stations. Woods draws lines radiating from the CPB box in the middle and extending to various public broadcasting networks and stations around the country. Member stations use that money from CPB to purchase programming, usually from PBS and NPR, but other places, too.

In fiscal year 2011, CPB gave MPB $1.85 million. That's only about 14 percent of MPB's total budgeted revenue of $15.4 million. Of the $1.85 million from CPB, MPB spent about $1.4 million on PBS television programming and about $350,000 on NPR radio programming.

"We are buying iconic shows from PBS: 'Nature,' 'Frontline,' 'Antiques Road Show,' 'Washington Week,'" Woods said. "From NPR, there's 'Morning Edition,' 'Here and Now,' 'All Things Considered.'"

At the state level, Woods stresses economic development and education. Much of MPB's economic-development push promotes its health programming. Woods passionately explains how vital it is to address Mississippi's metabolic crises of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. "Ed Said," "Battle the Bulge" and "Southern Remedy" are popular programs that tackle health issues. It seems a stretch to call health programs "economic development," but this is what Woods and the MAET board say.

"Job Hunter," a show produced with support from the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, is another economic-development show. And most of the cultural programming produced in the state promotes tourism umbrella, a buzzword Legislators and potential sponsors understand. Last fall, MPB got $30,000 from the Mississippi Development Authority to produce more tourism-related programming. That was part of the money BP gave Mississippi following the April 2010 oil disaster that kept many vacationers away from the Coast.

Education, the third component in the MPB survival strategy, goes beyond "Sesame Street" and other children's programming. Much of the educational work the network creates never winds up on the stations or even on its website. A lot it is done for public schools, from letting teachers get continuing education credits at a bargain price to giving classrooms ready-made curriculum materials. MPB offers the Interactive Video Network for public schools and a community-based preschool literacy program.

What Self-sufficient Means
The MAET board voted March 8 to allow the MPB staff to experiment with a new approach to its pledge time for television and drive time for radio. An outside company might handle the membership drives, while foundation employees spend more time selling big sponsorships. This was the board's early response to Gov. Haley Barbour's request to come up with a five-year plan to make MPB self-sufficient.

"We are just not sitting back waiting for a handout. That is not our attitude at all," Woods said. He emphasizes that finding an outside firm to handle membership drives is only a test so that the staff and board can compare "apples to apples." If successful, it may lead to new business models that could bring in more money through underwriting.

"It does not mean the foundation is going away in any way," Woods said.

Clare Hester, a lobbyist representing the foundation, said HB 1495 gave MPB level funding for the coming year at $11.8 million. Legislators don't like national broadcasting programs, Hester told the board in March, but they do like Mississippi-centered programming as well as public safety and emergency alerts for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

"MEMA wouldn't exist without us. If you don't think we are important, go to MEMA and look at the cameras set up," Chairman Bob Sawyer said at the March board meeting. "MEMA uses us and doesn't offer us anything."

"No one in state leadership has questioned the quality of our local programming. No one has questioned our ability to do a good job," Woods said.

The controversy among legislators regarding MPB is ideological and philosophical differences in how it is funded, Woods said. "That's our major goal, to educate them."

Some critics point to cable networks such as The Learning Channel, Bravo TV and A&E as sources of the same arts and cultural programming as public broadcasting. While those networks did start off with lofty intentions, they now have given in to market pressures and air reality programming such as "Strange Sex," "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" and "Gene Simmons Family Jewels." Woods has charts showing that these are the shows on cable during the same time slots as award-winning PBS programs such as "Nature," "Masterpiece Theater" and "NOVA."

Of the $7.5 million MPB got from the state this year, $5.9 million came from the general fund, Woods said. Of that $5.9 million, 98 percent went to salaries. The other 2 percent went to MPB educational services. If MPB has to cut, the only place to do it is in the staff, he said. While MPB has 131 positions, 15 are vacant. Woods said that was a voluntary choice that saved $400,000. He couldn't use the money for anything else at MPB—it's money that on paper goes back to the state.

Woods compares MPB to LeFleur's Bluff State Park. It's a respite in the middle of the city, a beautiful preserve that patiently waits. Even if people only visit it occasionally, they like having it nearby.

They Do It in Oregon
Mississippi is not the only state looking to end funding for public broadcasting. Governors in Idaho, New Jersey and South Carolina found a model they like for a completely private public broadcasting network: Oregon.

Steve Bass, president and CEO of Oregon Public Broadcasting, warns all of them to step back and recognize this is Oregon. Things are different here, he says.

Oregon Public Radio became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 1993, although the state provided some funding for 10 more years. In 2002, during a fiscal crisis, all the state funding for OPB was cut "almost overnight," Bass says..

OPB has a $32 million operating budget, about 10 percent of which comes from CPB. Operating money comes from individual contributions, corporate sponsorships and foundation grants.

"The audiences in the Portland metro area are the largest in the country," he says. "Our FM has the largest share in country, 7.5 percent. Our TV has a large and loyal audience."

He stresses 2.1 million people provide this economic engine, mostly educated people who grew up with a dedication to public broadcasting in the Portland area and the Willamette Valley, west of the Cascade Mountains. "Oregon on the other side of the Cascades is rural in a western sense—only about seven people per square mile," he says.

It's not that Oregonians are doing well financially. Bass said that the GDP of Oregon is only 91 percent of the national average. "And we have fairly high unemployment. I'm very thankful this transition happened 20 years ago and not now."

The success comes from generations of support. OPB began as a single radio station. It started in 1922 as a physics experiment at the state's land grant college, now Oregon State University. The successful experiment then became part of the state extension service. Since then, OPB has faced several reorganizations, the most recent one in 1993. When it became a private organization, the OPB foundation became its license holder. In 1993, the state funded $3 million of OPB's budget. As that changed and lessened, the staff was cut. OPB saw a 60 percent turnover the first year through downsizing, department elimination and shifting personnel. Bass wasn't there at the time, but he has studied what happened.

"They had a print shop with three or four employees. From a government point of view, it made sense. Government agencies are loath to cut departments and personnel," he says.

If OPB contracted to an outside print shop, this line in its budget that could be cut. Taking care of printing needs in-house made sense to the agency at the time.

Bass has been at OPB four years now. Before that, he worked in Nashville, Tenn., overseeing the conversion of a public radio station to a private one.

"It's not quite so easy in the South," he says. "The audience is not as strong. There's less audience to build on."

Converting an entire network like MPB would be more problematic, Bass said.

"My impression is Governor Barbour is looking for a transition. It's not like New Jersey," Bass said. "New Jersey tried to turn (its public broadcasting network) into a private entity in two months. You can't do that."

Bass was surprised to hear that MPB would let an outside firm handle its membership drives, even as a one-time experiment. He said he had never heard of a public network doing that before. And producing videos for other state agencies isn't going to save the network, he says.

"I don't know if it's lucrative," Bass said. "Outside production is not a revenue source for us. It's very, very minimal."

The key to MPB surviving might be the Foundation for Public Broadcasting in Mississippi, which could hold the license for the stations and be the formal owner. Bass knows it's not easy. People are reluctant to give money to government-funded operations.

"In Nashville, first we had donors who are often reluctant to make a donation. If they give $100,000, they are afraid the school (that owned the radio station) would just reduce the budget by the same amount. It doesn't propel the organization forward," he said. "Second, the organization itself is more cautious. It's a zero-sum game. If you raise a lot of money, your budget gets cut."

The solution from a fundraising perspective, according to Bass, is to "have a license holder that values the organization, that says 'we are with you through thick and thin.'"

If the Foundation for Public Broadcasting in Mississippi is to be MPB's champion, it will have to go after more big sponsors and keep the dedicated ones it already has, like Sanderson Farms Inc., the chicken-processing company.

Mike Cockrell, chief financial officer for Sanderson Farms, wrote a polite and carefully worded email to MPB after he learned "Fresh Air" would return, but at a later time and with a warning about its "adult content."

"As one in the camp who enjoyed having the program running on low volume on my desk in the afternoon, I will miss it. However, I understand the reasoning completely," he wrote Aug. 9, 2010.

He mentions visiting his grandchildren in Colorado for a week. He missed public radio. The signal was spotty at best. His son, who grew up in Mississippi listening to Garrison Keillor on "A Prairie Home Companion," has to download podcasts of the show to enjoy it.

"We take for granted that we can drive anywhere in the state of Mississippi and never lose a signal," he wrote. "I wonder if the rest of the world knows we have the best public radio system in the country?'

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