Miami-Dade School Board Closer To Voting On Future Of WLRN Public Media

Dec 5, 2018

DISCLOSURE: The author and editors of this article are employees of South Florida Public Media, the nonprofit that operates WLRN News.

The Miami-Dade County school board will soon take action that could determine the future of WLRN, South Florida's public radio and television stations, considering several options that include the unlikely but possible move of selling its broadcast license.

A task force convened by Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, following conflicts between his administration and the nonprofit that fundraises for WLRN, met for the last time on Wednesday. Following nearly two years of sporadic meetings by the group — named the Miami-Dade County Public Schools' Task Force to Preserve Integrity in Public Broadcasting — the school board will soon hold a workshop and then finally take a vote on a path forward. Carvalho said the consideration will come at some point in 2019.

Selling the broadcast license is one option, but Carvalho said he doesn't believe the school board is likely to go that route. Another possibility is creating a new nonprofit entity to run the radio and television stations.

What seems to be the most popular course among the task force members, who were appointed by Carvalho, is revamping an existing Community Advisory Board that provides feedback to WLRN on its programming. Community Advisory Boards for public media organizations are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.

Task force members argued the current board is not diverse enough.

Rather than recommending one of the options to the school board, Carvalho said he will offer all three possibilities — as well as the option that no changes are made — along with a "narrative" of the conversations that took place at the task force's meetings. He said that would allow school board members to weigh the pros and cons of each choice before voting.

"It's not that what exists now is terrible or broken," Carvalho said at Wednesday's meeting, "but I think that what exists now could certainly be improved."

The school district now owns the broadcast license for both WLRN's radio and television stations, which carry the programming of National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), respectively. It's not unusual for a government entity, particularly an educational institution, to act as the licensee for a public media organization, and those relationships sometimes result in power struggles, particularly over decisions regarding editorial programming and news coverage.

WLRN's award-winning news reporting team is employed by a nonprofit called South Florida Public Media, which is not under the direct control of the school district. The station's reporting, on the radio and online, includes coverage of the school district. (The author of this article reports on education in South Florida, including Miami-Dade County Public Schools, for WLRN.)

Early last year, Carvalho's administration moved to ink an operating agreement stipulating the relationship between the district, South Florida Public Media and the nonprofit fundraising arm that supports WLRN, called Friends of WLRN. The agreement would have required 19 employees on the news team to reapply for their jobs and work directly for the school district, raising concerns that the independence of the news operation would be compromised.

Carvalho's spokeswoman, Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, said at the time the district was not seeking to control WLRN's editorial side, including news coverage. A primary explanation she offered for the restructuring at the time was security concerns, because employees of South Florida Public Media and Friends of WLRN did not then have to go through the same fingerprinting and background check process as school district employees. WLRN and Friends of WLRN are located in a building owned by the school board. (It's now a requirement that anyone working in WLRN's building goes through fingerprinting and background checks.)

The move for greater control — which was criticized by Friends of WLRN, community members and other local media organizations as a power grab — followed WLRN news reporters' critical coverage of the school district, including a series of stories questioning the district's implementation of a new policy to eliminate suspensions.

Amid the pushback, the school district slowed its plans, with Carvalho appointing the task force to advise him on how to move forward.

At Wednesday's meeting — the fourth since the task force was created — Carvalho denied ever having sought influence over WLRN's editorial decision making. He commented that local news coverage from WLRN and other media organizations during his time as superintendent has been fair overall while arguing that positive news about the district has been "underreported."

There were three school board members at Wednesday's meeting, one of whom also sits on the board of Friends of WLRN, but the elected officials didn't offer any hints as to which action they prefer. They said they were advised by lawyers not to weigh in on the matter outside of an official school board meeting, even though Wednesday's task force meeting was in the "sunshine," as governed by Florida's robust public meetings and records laws.

During the meeting, school board attorney Walter Harvey gave an overview of two reports — one commissioned by the school district, the other by Friends of WLRN — with recommendations regarding how to proceed.

The school district's report, produced by law firm GrayRobinson, advised there should be robust firewalls separating WLRN's radio and television stations, particularly the news reporting team, from both the school district and Friends of WLRN. That's so there's no real or perceived influence from the school district or donors over WLRN's editorial decisions.

"It is important that public stations adopt and implement policies to maintain programming integrity, particularly news reporting, and to ensure that a licensee does not control programming to the point of favoring its own interests over those of the community," a summary of the report states. "Equally as important is that there should be a similar firewall between those that fund the stations' operations and editorial decisions."

The report commissioned by Friends of WLRN, which was done by Public Media Co., suggests that the best option would be a transfer of the broadcast licenses for the radio and television stations to a new, yet-to-be-established nonprofit that would operate and/or own the stations. The report states it's likely not financially sustainable for such a nonprofit to operate both the radio and television stations and also contemplates the option of the nonprofit obtaining only the radio station.

Task force members spent much of the two-hour meeting discussing criticisms that the programming on WLRN is not sufficient in reflecting the diversity of the community, although that is not directly related to the school board's eventual consideration of what to do about its ownership of the broadcast license.

Leonie Hermantin, an advocate for Haitians in South Florida and a consultant, said she listens to WLRN's radio station "morning to night" and argued: "It does not elevate the many voices in this community. And while I support it, it continues to be a serious concern for me."

WLRN general manager John Labonia, who is employed by the school district, defended the stations' programming during the meeting.

"In terms of attracting certain audiences, I think we do a very good job at that," Labonia told the task force. "In the totality of the programming that we provide, we do provide a balanced and a very effective service."

He said later: "WLRN, both radio and television, prides itself on its service to the diverse communities of South Florida."

WLRN's radio programming includes a 25-minute show in Haitian-Creole on Monday through Friday evenings as well as a weekly feature called "The Latin America Report," which focuses on how politics and culture in Latin America and the Caribbean affect South Floridians. The news staff — which includes the author of this article — routinely report on issues related to Latin American, Caribbean American and minority communites in South Florida.

There was a lengthy discussion during the meeting regarding the percentage of WLRN radio listeners who are considered racial minorities.

About $500,000 of WLRN's overall $12 million budget comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, according to Labonia.

Up until recently, that has included a $100,000 grant designed to support radio stations that serve large populations of minority listeners. Stations are eligible for this grant if they are operated by Native American tribes, licensed by a historically black college or university or if they have a certain percentage of minority listeners. Labonia said WLRN was the only public radio station in a major media market that has qualified for this funding; a representative for CPB did not immediately return a request for a list of the current grantees.

CPB decided five years ago to increase the eligibility threshold for the percentage of minority listeners over time, from 35 percent to, eventually, 51 percent. WLRN contested the decision, to no avail. As recently as last year, WLRN still qualified for this funding, reaching a 48 percent threshold, according to documents provided by Labonia. But this year, the threshold increased to 51 percent, and WLRN no longer qualified.

Carvalho and other task force members expressed concern that the percentage of minority listeners wasn't higher. They cited the fact that the overwhelming majority of people in Miami-Dade County are non-white.

WLRN's radio signal includes four counties, stretching from Key West to Jupiter. Some task force members questioned whether the expanded coverage area of the radio station "diluted" the influence of minority listeners in Miami-Dade County.

Representatives from WLRN stressed that although most of the organization's fundraising support comes from outside Miami-Dade, that does not influence coverage decisions. WLRN's news team includes three reporters who focus on Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties, respectively, while most of the team works on stories with relevance to Miami-Dade and the region as a whole.