WTVI raising money to fill gap, expand

Elsie Garner
Elsie Garner

Todd Cohen

In 1965, the year Charlotte College because the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, WTVI signed on the air under a license held by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg  Board of Education.

Initially broadcasting two hours of programming a day provided on film by National Education Television, the station’s first locally-produced show was a preview of  the local high-school football season.

Now in its 45th year, WTVI broadcasts seven days a week, 24 hours a day on three channels that serve a 13-county region.

The community station wants to begin broadcasting local news reported by citizen journalists it will train.

It also wants to expand its broadcasting reach to Hickory, partner with the Salvation Army Women and Children’s Homeless Shelter to provide year-round family  literacy programming, and purchase programming such as Britain’s Antiques Roadshow and BBC nature shows.

First, however, it must fill a gap in its revenue created by a decision by the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners to eliminate funding of the station this year.

To offset that loss, WTVI in September launched a campaign to raise $1 million by the end of this calendar year.

Chaired by Carl Scheer, senior community affairs adviser for the Charlotte Bobcats, the effort has raised $305,000.

After WTVI was reorganized in 1982 as a local “authority,” or semi-governmental agency, Mecklenburg County took on responsibility for helping to fund the station.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2009, county support for WTVI totaled over $1.2 million, or more than 25 percent of the station’s annual operating budget.

But the following fiscal year, the county cut that support by 40 percent, and then eliminated it entirely for the current fiscal year.

As a result, WTVI has had to drop its contract with the Nielsen organization that tracks the station’s viewing audience.

“Right now, we’re flying blind,” says Elsie Garner, CEO of WTVI.

The station also dropped a popular weekly program called Final Edition that featured commentary on the news by local reporters; eliminated the equivalent of five full-time positions; reduced its share of the cost of employees’ health-care coverage and increased employees’ share; froze salaries for two years; and cut the salaries of Garner and three vice presidents by two percent.

Operating with an annual budget of $3.2 million and a staff of 16 full-time employees, plus roughly half-a-dozen outsourced positions and another dozen part-timers, WTVI’s three stations include WTVI-HD, which broadcasts mainly the types of programs that appear on PBS stations; Create, which broadcasts how-to programs on topics such as cooking, travel and other life-style topics; and MHz Worldview, which provides world-news broadcasts from all over the world.

WTVI generates roughly 30 percent of its revenue from membership donations, 25 percent from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 14 percent from program underwriting or sponsorships, and the remainder from earned income such as production services.

And while it cut its grant to WTVI, the county continues to provide a building to the station rent-free, as well as free maintenance.

And in the past two fiscal years, the county has purchased $2.5 million worth of broadcast equipment for the station.

In addition to buying programming, WTVI is producing original programs, such as documentaries on the history of the Blue Ridge Parkway, produced by Bruce Bowers of Charlotte, and on the roots of the banjo, produced by Steve Crump of Charlotte.

“We’re still maintaining a high level of local production,” Garner says.

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