Lynn Editorial: The potential of Vt. PBS and its $56 million windfall

St. Albans Messenger Editorial – February 20, 2017
by Emerson Lynn

The roof above the Vermont PBS station in Colchester must have been raised from its moorings last week, at least metaphorically.

It was last week that the public broadcast station received $56 million for one of its broadcasting licenses at a federal auction conducted by the Federal Communications Commission. Normally, the licenses sell for about $12 million. It’s a windfall of almost unimaginable proportions for the small Vermont station, which is a good thing. The services provided by the station are important, yet the funding sources upon which the station depends are less than secure. The Trump administration has been hinting it may end its support of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. If that happens, Vermont’s PBS station would lose an estimated $960,000 annually.

As steady as Vermont’s appropriations to the station have been, it’s never a guarantee the money will continue to flow as it has in years past. Currently, the station is slated to receive $271,000 from the state.

With $56 million in the bank, Vermont PBS has an enormous cushion. The station has annual expenses of about $6 million. It could put the money in a no-interest savings account and have enough to fund the station for almost a full decade without needing anyone’s help. The station could invest the money in an index fund and if the fund performed no better than historical averages, the $56 million would protect the station for a generation.

That is the good news.

The challenge is that it’s often easier to manage in times of scarcity than in times of excess. If the public perceives that its help is no longer essential, the giving will stop, or slowed to a trickle.

The station’s challenge is figuring out how it becomes something that offers more than “Downton Abbey.” It’s also an intensely competitive business with cable television spawning PBS look-alikes with regularity, and You Tube being the provider of countless local video creations.

Providing something of value to local donors is what creates the worth going forward, and that means figuring out how to create local interest broadcasting/information at a professional level. In Vermont, that would seem particularly doable given the state’s small population and the station’s large bank account.

The options are mind-bending.

Today’s circumstance is also a first for the station. Its historical lament has always been the rub between the high cost of production and the annual tribulation of asking Vermonters to reach into their pocketbooks for help. That lack of resources has been deeply limiting, which, in turn, has kept the station below what its management has believed possible.

That no longer has to be. But the year ahead has to be one in which the vision is set for long-term goals, and those goals need to be collaborative in nature. It’s human nature to be reflexively singular when given an advantage, to develop something that’s one’s own, to the exclusion of others, to build a castle in one’s image.

Vermont’s PBS station could build its castle with last week’s $56 million windfall. It could create something all of its own and not have to worry about paychecks bouncing.

But what it produced would most likely be less than what it could be if all the collaborative risks were explored. This is not the time for Vt. PBS and its board of directors to be restrained in their imaginations. It’s not a time to look inward. It’s the time for the station to build its brand, to collaborate with others, and to think creatively like it never has before.

The $56 million –lots and lots of pennies from heaven – could end up being pivotal for the station and for the people of Vermont. It would be a minor tragedy if that is not the case. At the very least, it insulates us from the political vagaries coming from Washington, and the state’s limited budget, giving us a public broadcasting station of considerable worth.