Public Broadcasting Makes It in the Mall

Learningsmith helps fill stations' funding gaps while offering customers educational products

TOUGH financial times and cuts in funding pushed nonprofit WCNY of Syracuse, N.Y., to launch a retail store last month that offers a wide variety of educational products and will give the station a financial boost.

The Syracuse Learningsmith store follows four successful units cosponsored by WGBH in Boston and two units with WETA in Washington.

Richard Russell, general manager and chief executive officer of WCNY, says that income from the Learningsmith store will help fill the gap left by state cuts in funding.

Over the last two fiscal years, state assistance was cut by half, resulting in a loss of $1.1 million per year - nearly 40 percent of WCNY's budget.

Mr. Russell projects income from the store will be $50,000 to $60,000 in the first year. ``It's not going to turn things around,'' he says, but the store will make public broadcasting more visible and attract new WCNY members.

The concept was pioneered two years ago. In partnership with retailer Marshall Smith, Boston's WGBH put up one-third of the capital to open a Learningsmith store in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Offering a variety of educational products, Learningsmith has grown into an eight-store chain - all but one of the stores run in conjunction with public broadcasting.

Mr. Smith, who founded Paperback Booksmith and recently sold Videosmith, a video rental store chain, says, ``I had this idea of a store that wasn't fully grown.... It would be a retail venture that had educational materials of all media.''

The partners signed a license agreement that allows Learningsmith to use WGBH's name, which gave ``instant credibility'' to the stores, Smith says. Learningsmith returns royalties to support the station. WGBH also owns stock.

Learningsmith is ``really an extension of our educational mission,'' says Karen Johnson, director of publishing and merchandising at WGBH. ``The average video store doesn't carry a lot of science documentaries.''

The demand for educational products has created a need for this kind of store, says Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television in Cambridge, Mass. ``It's difficult to find educational toys and tapes in this era of discount mass marketing,'' she says.

And though WGBH will not reap great financial benefits from the stores, ``We recognize that there need to be other ways of distributing educational material,'' says Andrew Griffith, WGBH vice-president for finance and administration.

Mr. Griffith predicts the station will earn up to $300,000 from the four Boston-area Learningsmith stores this year. This makes up only about 1 percent of WGBH's budget, but Griffith says smaller stations will see greater financial returns.

WGBH's membership role has held steady at 186,000, while other public broadcasting stations have suffered, says membership spokeswoman Roberta MacCarthy. Between 10 and 30 new members sign up at the store each month, she says. Pledges make up about 60 percent of the station's operating budget.

Public broadcasting products, such as program-related videos, software, and books make up about 10 percent of the merchandise. But all the products are learning-oriented in the same way that public broadcasting programs are, Smith says.

The stores are set up with 11 ``Discovery Centers,'' or subject groupings, from ``Tower of Babel'' (languages) to ``Quarks to Black Holes'' (science) to ``Socrates' Sandbox'' (preschool). Materials include books, videos, puzzles, software (including CD-ROM), cassettes, toys, and science kits. Customers experimenting with these educational ``toys'' are just as likely to be over 40 as under 14.

``I was in the Chestnut Hill store ... and I looked in one of the alcoves and there was this elderly woman,'' Smith recalls. ``I thought she looked a little confused, and I said `Can I help you ma'am?' And she said `Oh, no! I'm having a wonderful time!' ''

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