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March 2005
Not Just Another Public Television Station
By Casey Jacobus

In 1965, U. S. President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed his “Great Society” during the State of the Union Address; the first U.S. combat forces were sent to South Vietnam; the Beatles sang “Help” to 55,000 screaming fans at Shea Stadium; Malcolm X was assassinated; and the Watts Riots shook Los Angeles.

In Charlotte, the school system unveiled its school desegregation plan; Charlotte College became The University of North Carolina at Charlotte; General Tire announced a new plant for the area; and WTVI went on the air. Its first broadcast on August 27, 1965, began at 7:00 p.m. with “What’s New?” (a children’s show) followed by a concert of folk music featuring Joan Baez and Pete Seeger.

WTVI began as an instructional arm of the local Board of Education. In 1982, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Broadcasting Authority assumed WTVI’s license, and the station took on a broader community-oriented role. Today WTVI serves 13 counties, 11 in North Carolina and two in South Carolina, and over 330,000 households. Its mission is to support that community through unparalleled educational, cultural and civic programming and services.

As WTVI celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, it will also celebrate its second year under a new president and CEO. Elsie Garner came to Charlotte in June 2003, taking over the helm of WTVI from Hal Bouton, who had guided the station over the past twenty years. Garner came to Charlotte from Tampa, Florida, where she spent much of her professional career at public television station WEDU.

“I thought Charlotte would be a wonderful place to live and work,” says Garner. “I was attracted by the sense of community that pervades it. My passion is to use the media as a means of helping the community explore and understand itself.”

Garner was born to missionary parents in Peru and spent her first twelve years growing up in South America. Her family eventually moved to Tampa where she went to school. Weeks after graduating from high school, Garner went to work at WEDU.

She started out writing press releases, on-air spots and creating daily logs, but a few years into her career, she returned to South America for seven years. Her husband Bob ran a school in Bolivia. When they moved back to Tampa, she remembered that Leroy Lastinger, president of WEDU, had told her to call him if she ever wanted a job. She did and the rest is, as they say, history.

“I’ve done just about every job there is to do at a public television station,“ says Garner. “The only thing I haven’t done is engineering.”

During her 30-year career at WEDU, Garner served as COO and interim president, while raising four children and earning an interdisciplinary degree from The University of South Florida.

 

It’s Not Like All the Rest

While WTVI is one of three public television stations that broadcast in the Charlotte market, it is very different from the other two in that its only mission is to provide services solely to the Charlotte region. The Mecklenburg County Commission established WTVI precisely for that purpose. This, according to Garner, underscores the station’s mission to serve the community.

“We are more than a T.V. station,” she says. “We are a nonprofit organization providing education and service through T.V.”

WTVI extends its on-air programs through print materials and community activities. These are designed to encourage individual or community participation in finding solutions to national and local issues of concern. For example, the station participates in Ready to Learn, a national literacy initiative born from an alliance between PBS and the U.S. Department of Education. Ready to Learn (RTL) targets pockets of underserved children across the nation.

WTVI airs over 11 hours of educational children’s programming each weekday and provides free community workshops, children’s books, teaching materials and the English/Spanish language PBS Families newsletter to area parents, teachers and organizations that work closely with children. RTL workshops and materials tie into the content of quality programs like “Sesame Street,” “Arthur,” “Clifford” and “Reading Rainbow.”

Through its RTL initiative, WTVI serves over 13,300 at-risk children in 350 childcare facilities. Over 3,500 parents, childcare providers and early childhood professionals have participated in WTVI’s RTL workshops, and over 40,000 books – all free and new – have been distributed to children in the WTVI viewing area. The U.S. Department of Education has twice named WTVI as one of the top five RTL stations in the country.

WTVI has also developed an outreach campaign to enhance the message of its upcoming documentary “Hometown Stories: African Americans.” Using workshops and Web activities, it hopes to promote further understanding on how race impacts the people in Charlotte and to encourage participants to develop skills to identify racial and cultural differences in their schools and/or neighborhoods and deal with them.

 

Changing the Channel

One year after arriving in Charlotte, Garner directed a radical programming change at WTVI. After careful market research, which included a telephone survey of donors, a random poll and discussions with local leaders, WTVI began offering a different mix of PBS programming and local shows. It stopped carrying PBS fare like “Masterpiece Theater,” “Now with Bill Moyers” and reruns of “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” and according to Garner, “put on what the viewers said they wanted.”

While WTVI continues to air some PBS shows like “Nova,” “Mystery” and “Antiques Roadshow,” it has added several British comedies to the lineup including “May to December,” “Yes, Prime Minister” and “To the Manor Born.” But the major strategic move it made was to expand its local programming.

WTVI airs local public affairs programming like “Carolina Business Review,” a business program; “Final Edition,” a longtime Friday roundtable; and “Healthwise,” a medical call-in show. It carries the Mecklenburg County Commission meetings live, and during election years, it broadcasts the League of Women Voters debates. The station has also made good use of its state-of-the art production facilities, producing documentaries that focus on Charlotte’s history and people.

Last October, WTVI produced “The Mecklenburgers” in partnership with Mecklenburg County. This “info-comedy” series of five programs was intended to let Mecklenburg County residents know what their tax dollars pay for. Program topics included HIV Education, Latta Plantation, Land Use and Environmental Services and Literacy. Two new episodes of “The Mecklenburgers” are scheduled to air in spring 2005.

WTVI has responded to the growing diversity of the Charlotte community with its first ever Spanish-language public affairs program, “Charlotte Hoy.” Taped in Spanish and hosted by prominent figures in the Latino community, the series features segments of interest to the region’s Latino neighborhoods and includes a report on weekly news headlines from around the world.

“My Americas,” an English-language travel show highlighting Latin American countries, airs before “Charlotte Hoy” on Sunday mornings, comprising a block of programming geared towards the Latino community.

“WTVI is conquering new territory with ‘Charlotte Hoy,’” says Garner. “Few broadcasters in the Charlotte region have programs that are entirely devoted to serving the Hispanic audience. We are excited to be one of the first.”

 

Striving for Excellence

Not only has WTVI expanded its local production, it is winning awards for its programs. The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences recently bestowed an Emmy on WTVI producer/director Stuart Grasberg for his work on the “Out of Ashes: The Story of McColl Center for Visual Art” documentary, which debuted on WTVI in November 2003. The documentary chronicled the 1984 fire that destroyed an Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in uptown Charlotte and the church’s rebirth as an artist community fifteen years later.

In total, WTVI has won four Emmy Awards for projects including “Chihuly in Charlotte,” “Nickels from Heaven” and a public service announcement spot. “Chihuly in Charlotte” documents the transportation and assembly of the famous artist’s exhibits when they came to Charlotte in 2000. And “Nickels from Heaven” recounts the experience of the first African-American solders designated as U.S. paratroopers, nicknamed the “Triple Nickels.”

WTVI has also won 12 Telly Awards since accepting its first in 1996 for “Exposures of a Movement,” which told the stories of four African-American photographers whose work focused on the Civil Rights movement. Eight of those awards were received last year when the Telly Awards created a special competition to honor the best television programs from the past twenty-five years. Another documentary, “The Queens Cup Steeplechase,” won WTVI producer/director Frank McGough honors for “Best Documentary” at last year’s third annual Southern Exposure Film Forum, a local film festival. The film describes the history of steeplechase racing, the founding of the Queen’s Cup Steeplechase and how the Queens Cup race benefits the Catawba Lands Conservancy.

Of course it’s much more expensive to produce shows than to lease them. Garner says that while an hour show might cost the station $100 to lease, it could cost anywhere from $20,000 to $200,000 to produce. She is always looking for partners for WTVI’s programs. Mecklenburg County helped underwrite “The Mecklenburgers,” and various county departments and agencies will use the programs as education tools in classrooms, seminars, conferences, and so forth. Bank of America provided a grant to support “Charlotte Hoy.”

WTVI is teaming up with the Rotary Club of Charlotte to produce a two-part documentary titled “How I Survived War and the Rest of My Life,” which takes a firsthand look at war and its heartaches and triumphs through the eyes of World War II veterans from the Charlotte region.

“Public TV always runs on a shoestring,” says Garner about the high cost of producing documentaries. “We’re creative about using our resources. And our viewers have been very loyal. They appreciate that we’re giving them something different from our competition and that we’re giving them quality programming.”

Like other public stations, WTVI relies heavily on its viewers for funding, but one of Garner’s goals for the station is to establish an endowment that will provide continuing support for the station.

“We need a steady income stream, such as a very large endowment, to shelter the station from the ups and downs of the local economy,” says Garner. “That would give us more financial stability.”

Garner has other goals for her tenure at WTVI. She says she wants to leave behind her “a legacy of people, financial stability and achievement.”

“I want to see a big album of letters from people whose lives have been changed by our programming,” she says. “I want to hear about children who have learned to read or been inspired to become artists or musicians by watching WTVI.”

Not that Garner has any plans to leave the station anytime soon. Drawn to WTVI by its dedicated staff, world-class production facilities and the mission of service to the community, she plans on staying awhile.

“I’ve sworn I will leave public television when it stops being fun or I stop learning things,” she laughs. “I’m having a lot of fun and learning lots of new things in Charlotte.”

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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