by Matt Krauss
Dear VPR/Vermont PBS Board members – I listen to VPR and watch Vermont PBS and want this merger to be successful. A few changes might help meet that goal. Like any Vermont family it’s better to bravely face uncomfortable subjects rather than ignore them. Asking and answering challenging questions assure all a brighter future.
My commentary* focusing on the VPR/Vermont PBS merger was recently forwarded to you. It was published in ten newspapers including the Waterbury Roundabout (editor Lisa Scagliotti) and The Chester Telegraph (editor Cynthia Prairie). The civic dedication of these small, independent, local, and financially constrained newspapers allowed many thousands of Vermonters to assess the merits of the proposals. Indeed one of those who read the Commentary in the Caledonian-Record was a fellow board member.
What would the outcome be if those ten newspapers, or all Vermont newspapers, suddenly decided for financial reasons to cancel the publication of letters and commentaries and reallocate the funds? Yet in all honesty, isn’t that what VPR did when it cancelled its Commentary Series? Is it reasonable to expect VPR/Vermont PBS to have a comparable “letters and commentaries” space open to all Vermonters? Can we agree that freely communicating over the public airways without gatekeepers will help democracy thrive in Vermont?
VTDigger published the Commentary and in 2020 published 860 commentaries. They are an online competitor of yours, but felt the expense and effort was their civic duty. What should we be saying in defense of VPR/Vermont PBS when such a robust and equal effort is absent? You have expressed a goal of filling Vermont’s news reporting void. That’s a laudable goal. Will you match that effort with an undertaking to fill the shrinking open public discourse space?
Almost all Vermont media, especially those locally owned and operated, are in a perilous situation. Your friendly competitors in the Vermont media have faced layoffs, cutbacks, unfilled positions, pay cuts, and downsizing. VPR said that they had not suffered any layoffs.
Last year you requested $874,000 of COVID-19 funding. The legislature asked for your proposal, but some questioned the judgement surrounding the nature and size of this submission. Specifically, you requested equipment replacement that wasn’t COVID-19 related. Can you understand how this request may have been seen by other media companies suffering the terrible effects described above? Perhaps we can agree that certain items in the Legislative submission were inappropriate given the nature of the funding?
When your request was pared down to $100,000, VPR had millions in cash, millions in reserve and millions in restricted endowments. Why didn’t you just say, “We’re in good shape, we don’t need it, we’ll be fine, give it to someone worse off?” The board of directors is responsible for direction and oversight. Is it reasonable to inquire if the board of directors reviewed and approved this list for the Legislative committee?
It’s fair to acknowledge that this merger would not be taking place without many hours of hard work and good planning by staff, board members and others. It’s truly a momentous achievement and worthy of our thanks. The programs you offer are high quality and very well produced. Many Vermonters hear your news and watch your programs. No one begrudges your success. As the largest non-profit media organization in Vermont, your preeminence is unrivaled.
Being the biggest might bring additional demands for more leadership on behalf of your industry. We acknowledge VPR’s mission of being an essential and trusted independent voice for news and information. Will you bring additional creative suggestions and ideas to help small, locally owned and operated media companies? Will you forge a closer partnership with the Vermont Press Association (VPA) and your fellow Vermont Broadcasters Association (VBA) members seeking collaborative new solutions to Vermont media’s plight? Could you bring together a diverse delegation of Vermont media and ask the Vermont House and Senate to hear the industry’s plight and their legislative survival suggestions? Perhaps you could ask them for the creation of a modest study group.
Other states embrace a ‘dog eat dog and I got mine’ attitude. That’s not how Vermonters view the world. We extend a helping hand and voluntarily pitch in when times are tough helping those in need.
Your board members and employees said I raised good questions which is very much appreciated. After serving eight years in the Vermont House and Senate, I came to admire and respect Vermonters demand for full involvement in issues that are of interest to them. They want to explain problems, propose solutions, and be involved in the implementation of those solutions. Please count me with that group. Can we agree that this is the Vermont way to address concerns? The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates our public airways, encourages viewers to write directly to a stations’ management regarding broadcast service. This is my second approach to VPR and candidly during the first time I’m not sure my ideas were welcomed. Perhaps I was mistaken.
What formal roles might best permit loyal customers with concerns to be fully engaged as described above? Or would you prefer they advocate for change from outside the organization? Vermonters want the best for you and the on-going merger. I hope this letter is received in the spirit it was offered. I’m looking forward to further mutually beneficial conversations beginning at the March 17th meeting at 2:15 PM.
*Commentary also available at the Rutland Herald, the Valley Reporter, Times Argus, Vermont Daily, True North Reports, and the Greenfield Recorder. The author is a Stowe resident and former Vermont legislator.