South Florida NPR station staves off takeover by school board

Erin Clark
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Mar 14, 2017 10:58 AM
South Florida NPR station staves off takeover by school board

A dispute between South Florida’s NPR-affiliate and the Miami-Dade County Public School Board has raised questions about fiscal mismanagement and the role of the school system in moderating WLRN’s news content. 

Normally, a school board wouldn’t have any say in what a local news station produces.  But in the case of WLRN, the school board is the licensee for WLRN’s radio and television stations.

The Federal Communications Commission initially issued the WLRN radio license to Dade County schools in 1948.  The station is currently managed by South Florida Public Media, which employs the news personnel, and funded by Friends of WLRN.

The Miami-Dade school board disrupted the long-standing balance between MDCPS, as the license owner, and the WLRN reporting staff in January, when the school board sent WLRN a new operating agreement. Under its terms, WLRN’s reporting staff would need to be re-hired as school district employees.  

In addition, the proposal reminded the non-profit groups Friends of WLRN and South Florida Public Media that WLRN is a registered trademark of the school board, and thus its brand perception reflects on the board. It exhorts them to “always present the brand in a positive manner.”

It’s a move that has been characterized by other local news outlets as a “power grab,” and sharply contested by advocates for WLRN and independent reporting. However, between revelations of financial misconduct and fears of a loss of journalistic freedom, both sides are left looking a little worse for the wear.

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MAKING WAVES: A long-standing relationship between the Miami-Dade school board and the local NPR affiliate has been rocked by missteps on both sides.

Frank LoMonte, former Florida journalist and current executive director of the Student Press Law Center, told Watchdog that any type of direct elected official control over a news organization creates the potential for abuse and overreach.

School authorities are notoriously image-conscious, and the temptation may become overwhelming to use the board’s authority to influence the tone of news coverage,” LoMonte said. “Schools need rigorous and independent journalistic oversight because they’re so hugely influential and they spend so much money.”

WLRN receives significant funding through Corporation for Public Broadcasting grants, as well as from corporate and individual donors and underwriters. In fiscal 2015, CPB allocated $1.25 million to WLRN-TV, nearly $500,000 to WLRN-FM, and an additional $200,000 to Friends of WLRN.

Contributions from Friends of WLRN are significantly higher.  For 2015, WLRN-FM reported grant and subsidies revenues totaling close to $9.2 million.  Nearly 85 percent of that was funneled in by Friends of WLRN.  For WLRN-TV, approximately $2.1 million out of six million in revenue came from Friends in 2015.

The school district also contributes funding to WLRN out of the money the school board makes from leasing extra broadband capacity. The school board’s contribution is earmarked for salaries, benefits, and facilities upkeep, although the amount the district contributes is in dispute.

According to LoMonte, changing the WLRN model to one in which it was under the school board’s direct control would weaken the station’s journalistic integrity.

“The potential for journalists to be intimidated into shading their coverage, even implicitly, is significantly greater when the paychecks are coming from government officials than from a charitable foundation, even one with an ideological agenda,” he said.

School authorities are notoriously image-conscious, and the temptation may become overwhelming to use the board’s authority to influence the tone of news coverage.”

— Frank LoMonte, former Florida journalist and current executive director of the Student Press Law Center

“Most nonprofit journalism organizations have a wide range of donors so that no single one is dominant, but in this arrangement, the school board would have a potentially dominant level of authority. It’s not just indirect influence, it’s direct influence.”

The South Florida journalism community shared LoMonte’s concern over the editorial content of a school-controlled station, with immediate outcry from local papers.

“At a time when he most needs the public’s good will, [Superintendent] Carvalho risks outraging citizens who depend on public broadcasting — especially local public radio — to help tell the stories of our communities, our governments and our lives,” the Sun-Sentinel wrote in a February opinion piece.  

Extenuating circumstances

Watchdog did not hear back from the office of the superintendent or from the Miami-Dade County Public Schools communications team. However, Carvalho told the Sun-Sentinel that influencing the tone of coverage was not the school board’s motivation.

“This started out as a detection of egregious financial issues that led to the discovery of this shadow entity, created by Friends, not known to us … that has been engaged in financial dealings that spooked the federal government and will result in financial fines because of a series of hidden transactions and misreporting,” said Carvalho.

By “shadow entity,” Carvalho is referring to South Florida Public Media, the non-profit created by Friends of WLRN, itself a non-profit entity that handles fundraising and staff payment. South Florida Public Media is the body that has employed WLRN staff since 2009. Prior to that, WLRN staffers were paid by the Miami Herald, with whom WLRN still shares work space in Doral. According to the Herald, the current arrangement is supposed to “serve as a firewall to protect journalists from being influenced by school administrators or the station’s donors.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this arrangement of multiple overlapping entities has opened the door to financial missteps. In 2014, some of the salary information for Friends of WLRN, which officially manages the station, came to light. The director of corporate marketing at the time, Michael Peyton, was making $400,000 a year.

An unnamed WLRN employee told the Miami New Times that many donors aren’t aware of how their money is being spent.

“It disappears into the great Friends black hole. I guess it goes into Michael Peyton’s pockets and God knows where else,” the staffer said.

WLRN again caught heat in January of this year, when an audit revealed that it had misreported sales revenues, leading to bigger grants from CPB. Dwight Hill, volunteer chairman of WLRN, told the Herald that WLRN will likely have to refund as much as $900,000 in grant money.

John Labonia, station manager at WLRN, declined Watchdog’s request for comment.

Reasonable doubt

The financial missteps underscore that the school district’s stated concerns were not without foundation.

“Under FCC laws, the licensee is responsible for the conduct of the station,” Charlie Firestone, vice president of the Aspen Institute and executive director of their communications and society program, told Watchdog. “So if there was financial wrongdoing going on, they have the chance of losing their license altogether.”

Firestone acknowledged that a license revocation is a rare event, but stressed that the license is too valuable a commodity to put at risk. “They are essentially publishers, so they need to be aware of what goes out over their station and exercise broad control.”

Firestone said that how the school board chooses to exercise its control is important if it wants to avoid potential First Amendment concerns.

“On the other hand, putting [WLRN employees] under the school compensation system would minimize the ability of the station to bring in the kind of talent that most public broadcasting systems these days have at the high level.”

The Sun-Sentinel echoed that concern.

Who would be crazy enough to pursue a story about drop-outs, detentions or, God forbid, unappetizing food in school cafeterias?” the Sun Sentinel asked. “We hear that last story, reported by a Miami-Dade schools intern under the supervision of a WLRN editor, made the district see red.”

Chicken or egg

Untangling the motivations for the school board’s proposed renegotiation — fiscal concerns or displeasure with some of WLRN’s coverage — is difficult, but the Herald reported that the school district was reconsidering its relationship with WLRN before the January audits.

Discussions about revamping the WLRN-school board agreement have been floating around for years.  Last fall, with the relationship still frayed from 2014’s financial revelations, school officials took exception to WLRN’s reporting on topics affecting the school.

Officials criticized content, such as an article on school lunches and another investigating if the school district has fulfilled promises to tamp down on out-of-school suspensions. They also took issue with production values, such as camera work in an interview with Carvalho that cast the superintendent in poor light.

“Blaming the whole thing on Mr. Carvalho’s mood just doesn’t cut it,” read an email to one senior TV director. “Everyone has good days and bad. The aim here is to make his recording sessions something he looks forward to and from which he departs in a better mood, not a worse one.” 

Regardless of what precipitated the proposed reshuffle of the WLRN-school board relationship, the community reaction has tempered the school board’s quest for editorial control, and negotiations between Friends of WLRN and the school board will move forward.

Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, chief communications officer for Miami-Dade schools, called the proposal merely “a first step in trying to come up with something that is mutually beneficial for both of us.”