Critics Question KQED's Direction

THE modern earth-brown building dwarfs the surrounding red-brick warehouses and factories. Hanging over the side like a movie-house marquee are large silver letters reading "KQED."

The three-story, one-square-block building is home to San Francisco's public television and radio station. Critics charge that the office and studio complex is far too expensive for a public station and say it is a sign that management has lost touch with the station's community base.

This year KQED ran a $1 million deficit, its largest in history and eliminated 9.5 percent of its work force. The financial problems have accelerated long-standing criticism from community groups. A dissident slate won two of nine seats in last week's elections for the board of directors.

"KQED has lost track of its original purpose," says Sasha Futran, a freelance journalist who won a seat on the board. She says corporate underwriting and a big-business orientation by management have undercut the station's credibility. "We need to put the public back in public broadcasting," she says.

Station President Tony Tiano defends his station's policies. He says revenues have remained flat while costs have skyrocketed, and corporate underwriting is the only way many programs stay on the air. "Ours remains one of the best public stations in the country," he says.

Critics agree that KQED faces tough financial problems but disagree with management's solutions. Ms. Futran points to the new building as a waste of funds. All costs for the building ran just under $25 million, according to KQED figures.

"We could have spent that money on local programming," says Futran, "not on a fancy addition like the atrium."

The controversial atrium, located in the middle of the building, features skylights and a two-story-high curving wall. It cost about $100,000, according to KQED management.

Greg Sherwood, KQED director of communications and a former board member, says the station has benefited greatly from the larger space for the radio station and the ability to have all operations under one roof.

WHEN the decision was made in 1986, he says, the board could not have foreseen the drop in real-estate values nor the impact of the recession. Now the station must not only pay off an $18 million debt for the new facility, it is also having trouble selling the old building because of the market.

Critics also say KQED-TV has eliminated almost all local programs in favor of nationally syndicated Public Broadcasting System programs and old movies.

Spencer Michels worked for KQED for 13 years as a television producer and has an office there as a correspondent for the "MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour."

Mr. Michels points out that, over the past 12 years, the station's nightly news broadcast was canceled, as was a weekly news magazine, "Express." The station, he says, does not even do the occasional documentary without outside financing.

"We used to have a lively public-affairs department," says Michels. "Today we have half-hour talk shows and some cooking programs." Referring to station management he says, "They don't think they're a community TV station anymore. They're a corporation interested in lots of other things."

Mr. Tiano says the news programs were canceled because of their high costs. Locally produced documentaries also cost a lot and got low ratings, he says. "The budget won't support that very high cost and very low impact."

KQED has also come under fire for producing its program guide as a slick magazine. San Francisco Focus features ads for high-priced clothing, perfume, liquor, and restaurants, and it prints program listings as a small section at the end. According to station figures, 28 percent of KQED members choose not to receive the free magazine.

Communications director Sherwood says that Focus's format was a "pragmatic decision" to raise much-needed revenues for the station. He says that during the 1992 fiscal year Focus earned $376,000.

The questions surrounding KQED are not likely to go away soon. Although those who disagree with the station's direction hold three seats on the board, many of the remaining 24 members appear to support management's views on key issues.

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