- Tim Newcomb
It's not unusual for journalists from other media outlets to stroll through the doors of Vermont PBS. The station's flagship local news program, "Vermont This Week," features three different state reporters every week, and the station accommodates other members of the fourth estate when it hosts candidate debates during election season.
But on a Friday morning in mid-February, reporters convened at the Colchester studios for a press conference Vermont PBS called in order to discuss an unusual topic: itself.
The announcement was cryptic, but at a time when media outlets across the country are struggling with declining ad revenue, unexpected press conferences aren't usually a positive sign.
Instead, the station dropped a bombshell — of good news. Participating alongside dozens of other stations in a Federal Communications Commission auction, Vermont PBS had sold one of its four broadcast licenses for $56 million.
In a small state like Vermont, that is an eye-watering sum. It's nine times more than Vermont PBS' annual operating budget of $6 million, and more than double the combined assets of the state's leading nonprofit news orgs, Vermont Public Radio and VTDigger.org.
The windfall positions Vermont PBS as the most financially secure media outlet in the state. If it wanted — and it doesn't, according to president and CEO Holly Groschner — the station could afford to buy several of Vermont's daily newspapers.
So what is the channel best known for "Sesame Street," "Downton Abbey" and other nonlocal shows going to do with all that dough? Will it make the best use of its big break?
"I think that Vermont PBS for the last 25 years has been sleepy," said Bill Schubart, an author and media observer who has chaired the boards that oversee VPR and VTDigger, among other roles. "I think it has relied on an aging viewership ... and it's not a long-term strategy."
Schubart said he hopes the station uses the money to bolster its news offerings, through original productions and collaborations, and is cautiously optimistic that Groschner is up to the challenge.
"She will explore with her people and with possible partners a technical architecture and a content strategy that brings her into the news business," Schubart said.
The station's leaders say they recognize the enormity of the opportunity — Groschner pledged, "more local content, more studio-made content, more community content, more content" — but at the moment, they are still light on specifics.
"We have a huge obligation to the community to give them a place where they can get truthful information and come together," Groschner said. "My obligation isn't just to the money or to the station, it's to serve the culture and economy of Vermont. And the underserved."
Vermont PBS was one of dozens of television stations across the country to participate in the ongoing FCC airwave auction. In response to the boom in mobile internet usage, the U.S. government is encouraging the reallocation of radio signals on the airwave spectrum from broadcast to wireless carriers.
AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are among the wireless heavyweights forecast to spend as much as $60 billion buying up signals. A former FCC chairman called it a "once-in-a lifetime" chance for stations like Vermont PBS.
As news of the huge sale prices has spread, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, Free Press, is pressuring stations across the country to invest the proceeds in meat-and-potatoes local journalism.
"It's important because we've seen over the last 10 years thousands of local news jobs being lost, and as a result people aren't getting the news and information they need to participate in local civic life," said Tim Karr, spokesman for the organization, which has one million members and has opposed media consolidation.
Free Press has focused its lobbying efforts on New Jersey, which expects to reap $325 million from the spectrum sale. It is urging the state to set aside a good chunk of that money to produce local news and support local journalists.
Vermont PBS, Karr said, could consider doing the same thing in any number of ways: "better resources for requesting public records, more local journalists to watchdog the local statehouse and city halls.
"They could create their own consortium of local news organizations," Karr continued, "and maybe partner with a couple universities and create some sort of a fund that would support not just their own work but the work of others in the community."
But that would be a big departure for Vermont PBS, which claims 17.6 million broadcast and website views in 2016, down from 18.2 million in 2015. The station doesn't employ any full-time journalists, and its shelf of locally produced content is pretty bare.
In addition to "Vermont This Week," the only other program it produces that airs with regularity is the half-hour "Outdoor Journal." In 2013 came the light-hearted "Makin' Friends with Ryan Miller," in which the Guster front-man, who had recently moved to the state, tried to, well, make friends. VPBS occasionally runs locally produced documentaries and short-run shows, such as the six-episode food program, "The Local Motive," produced in partnership with Skinny Pancake and other area businesses.
Groschner said there are no plans to hire any news professionals, but she is open to collaborating with other media outlets.
She seems far more excited about empowering residents to generate their own content, aka citizen journalism. She suggested Vermont PBS could pay for fiber connections to connect studios across the state so locals could hold forums or discuss programs the station airs, such as its forthcoming documentary about pollution in Lake Champlain.
- Holly Groschner
"The new model for the new time is: The community creates the stories," Groschner said. "The goal is to envision a world where Vermonters have a platform where they're engaging in content about things that matter. In the past, broadcasting was one-way. Today, we envision a world where two-way conversations happen. We need to find a way to create a forum for Vermonters to participate."
When asked to provide an example of a station that has done what she imagined, Groschner said, "There are none."
But Groschner's ideas sound a lot like what Vermont public access television stations have been doing for decades. Jess Wilson, executive director of the Burlington station Regional Educational Television Network, said Vermont PBS reached out before the spectrum sale was announced and pledged to use some of the money to collaborate on more projects.
"The more the better is the way we would look at it," Wilson said.
Founded in 1967 and originally owned by the University of Vermont, Vermont PBS reaches into New Hampshire and New York and has a sizable following in the Montréal area.
Those viewers turn to it for more than just news and syndicated programs, Groschner pointed out.
Vermont PBS partners with Vermont Head Start to teach parents of preschoolers in low-income areas how to use PBS content as a learning tool. The station broadcasts a statewide high school poetry contest and airs footage from Burlington's Discover Jazz Festival to bring first-rate music to viewers across the state.
"We serve different segments of the population with different services and products," Vermont PBS Board chair Patricia Gabel said. "Those viewers captivated by 'Downton Abbey' and the well-resourced content we get from the BBC and other places think of us in one way. The families who can't afford childcare for their children but want to have education programming watch different parts of our broadcast and online offerings. They think of Vermont PBS in a different way."
Groschner said station officials forecast that the $56 million is more like $50 million. That's accounting for the engineering and equipment upgrades required to preserve its coverage area. Planning and executing the sale came with a cost, too. More difficult to calculate — but Vermont PBS is doing it — is the anticipated reaction of private donors, who comprise 80 percent of the station's revenue. Groschner and company are concerned those donors might feel less generous as a result of the windfall from the sale.
The money won't get deposited into the station's coffers until the end of the year, but that won't delay plans to hire a handful of digital producers, technical experts and marketing employees, Groschner said. The board also intends to bring on a consultant to shepherd a six-month public feedback process that will include a series of public meetings. The goal is to have recommendations ready by November.
By that time, the station will also have a better idea of what it can expect from Washington, D.C. Roughly $1 million — or 16 percent of the station's budget — comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the federally funded nonprofit that provides money to public media outlets across the country. President Donald Trump has proposed eliminating federal funding for CPB.
Vermont PBS gets 4 percent of its annual revenues, or $270,000, from the state. Gov. Phil Scott proposed in January to level fund the station. But after the February spectrum sale announcement, he said he wanted to re-evaluate the appropriation — and perhaps cut it altogether.
On Monday, the Vermont House Appropriations Committee approved a budget that would eliminate the state's contribution. The House is likely to vote on the matter
Groschner has testified in the Statehouse to preserve state funding and participated last week in a press conference with other local groups, including the Vermont Arts Council, Fletcher Free Library and the Shelburne Museum — all of which might lose funding under Trump's spending plan.
"We are here for you. Please be here for us," Groschner said during the press conference.
She argues that governments should still feel an obligation to support the station's mission and that the spectrum proceeds should not have to be spent filling holes in the annual operating budget.
Groschner, who earns $122,000 a year, was serving as general counsel for the Vermont Telecommunications Authority when she was hired in December 2014 after the ouster of her predecessor, John King. The CPB fined the station $15,000 for holding secret meetings to discuss allegations against King, which divided loyalties among the station's 37 staffers.
Presiding over a more peaceful time at Vermont PBS, Groschner said that being the "steward of the FCC proceeds" is perhaps the most important challenge of her career.
"If it was sleepy," Groschner said of Vermont PBS, "it's now woke."
Disclosure: Mark Davis is an occasional paid guest on Vermont PBS' "Vermont This Week."Correction, April 2, 2017: An earlier version of this article noted that New Jersey had reaped $325 million from a spectrum sale. That is, in fact, the amount the state is forecast to receive, but the final number is not yet public.