DISCLOSURE: The author and editors of this article are employees of South Florida Public Media, the nonprofit that operates WLRN News.
The Miami-Dade County school board expects to consider by June a new plan for the management of the WLRN public radio and television stations, and the district’s superintendent is likely to recommend stronger oversight from an existing community advisory board or a newly created nonprofit.
The school board owns the broadcast licenses for the radio and television stations, which carry programming from National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), respectively, in addition to award-winning local news reporting and documentaries. But the board currently has no say over programming, because of a policy in place to protect the stations’ editorial integrity.
While the school district owns the licenses as well as the building where the stations’ offices are housed, only some of WLRN's employees report to the school board. Nearly two dozen journalists who provide original news reporting for the public radio station are employed by a nonprofit called South Florida Public Media, a subsidiary of WLRN’s fundraising arm, Friends of WLRN.
Board members participated in a nearly four-hour workshop on Wednesday to consider options for a different management structure, in an attempt to address a conflict that emerged two years ago between the school district and the news team. In early 2017, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s administration attempted to require 19 WLRN journalists to reapply for their jobs and work directly for the school district, sparking a community backlash over concerns that the independence of the reporting operation could be compromised.
While Carvalho has since backed off from that effort — convening a task force that met over the past two years to develop options that the school board will soon consider —he has continued to express concern that the board, as the licensee, is not able to control the hiring, firing and compensation of South Florida Public Media’s employees.
"There are individuals — very talented individuals [who] do great work — but they are in a gray zone,” Carvalho said. “And I do not believe …. that the board can wash its hands and simply say that, because these individuals were hired by Friends of WLRN, under South Florida Public Media, that the board can divest itself of its responsibility under [Federal Communications Commission] regulations.”
During the workshop, school board members expressed frustration that they don’t have more control over WLRN, although some of them repeatedly stressed their commitment to the stations’ ability to maintain editorial independence.
School board chair Perla Tabares Hantman said she’s not satisfied with board members’ access to WLRN’s offices and information about the stations’ operations.
“We are responsible. We are the owners. We own the license,” Hantman said after the meeting. "We are like visitors when we want to go there. We have to ask permission from our staff to go there. I would like the board to be what the board is: the owner."
“In no way, shape or form do I want to be involved in [the stations’ programming],” Hantman continued. "I just would like to know what’s going on.”
Hantman did not cite any specific instances when she was denied access to WLRN’s offices, which are located in a downtown Miami building that’s next to the school district’s headquarters. The stations’ general manager, John Labonia, declined to comment on Hantman’s concerns regarding visiting the offices.
As for the school board’s access to information about the stations’ operations, Vice Chair Martin Karp sits on both the governing board for Friends of WLRN and the stations' Community Advisory Board (CAB), an entity that offers suggestions regarding programming. The CAB also includes two appointees of the school board.
Board member Lawrence Feldman said during the meeting he’d like to see the editorial integrity policy be strengthened to state even more explicitly that the school board will not interfere with news reporting or other decisions about content.
“We should make sure it says that we are not involved in editorial anything,” he said.
While some board members expressed interest in ensuring the stations’ content was educational, since the licenses are owned by a school district, member Marta Pérez pushed back, saying what’s “educational” is subjective.
”Who is going to define what the education is?” she said. "It could become very political."
Board member Steve Gallon III questioned how the stations could be truly independent, since their general manager, Labonia, is an employee of the school district.
“We can articulate a policy and a position relative to editorial independence all we can, but if your personnel structure is one in which the person who has the ultimate latitude for programming reports to the administration, vis-à-vis, reports to the board, I think it’s a quagmire, a conundrum and quite frankly a realistic fallacy in practice. It just is,” Gallon said.
Labonia stressed the editorial integrity policy shields the stations from interference, regardless of the fact that he works for the school board.
A consultant hired by the school district to provide advice for how to reconfigure the management structure said there needs to be a stronger firewall between the people who make programming decisions for WLRN and the fundraising arm, Friends of WLRN. Labonia argued the editorial integrity policy takes care of that, too.
Carvalho plans to prepare a proposal for the school board to consider by June, when three contracts between the district and WLRN are set to expire, including a facilities use agreement that provides WLRN space in the district-owned building. Carvalho has said he opposes two of the options that have been under consideration: selling the broadcast licenses and maintaining the “status quo.” He is still exploring two other possibilities: strengthening the powers of the existing CAB or delegating management authority to a new nonprofit entity.
Carvalho noted the district might not have the legal authority to overhaul the CAB in the way that he has contemplated, because the entity is regulated by the federally created Corporation for Public Broadcasting. According to the federal law that outlines how public radio and TV stations' CABs should work: "In no case shall the board have any authority to exercise any control over the daily management or operation of the station.”
The remaining plan, to create a new nonprofit, is what Friends of WLRN board chair Dwight Hill prefers, he said during the meeting.
“If we have to create a new entity and then subsume Friends into it, I think that would be a good solution for everybody,” he said.
It’s not clear, though, what the relationship would be between Friends of WLRN and the new nonprofit.
Hill said, regardless of the details of the affiliation, Friends of WLRN would fund it.
“If that is created, how are they going to pay for everything?” he said following the workshop. "So if we’ve just built a new car, we have to put an engine in it. And Friends becomes that engine.”