By Amy Silverman
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It's a sign of the times. Every big newspaper in the state, from the Arizona Republic on down, is now running local articles with "Cronkite News Service" under the byline. That sounds professional, right? But the "news service" is actually the work of J-school students. TV stations are increasingly picking up the school's broadcast work, too.
As Renzulli told the station's advisory board last week, he's heard Cronkite students doing on-air reports on Phoenix's NPR affiliate, KJZZ. "If they can use 'em, by God, we can use 'em!"
Despite all that free student labor waiting at Cronkite, Eight has a rocky road ahead. The station has two big hurdles: its fundraising model and its content.
Of the top 25 PBS stations, only two others are affiliated with a university. The rest are mostly run by non-profit corporations, charged solely with making PBS work in their market.
In economic times like these, there's benefit to the ASU umbrella. (If cash gets too tight, there's always the possibility of a temporary loan from the university.)
In the long term, though, I'm convinced that the station's status as an ASU program has led to many of its problems.
Eight does not have its own board of directors, charged with ensuring its financial health. The Community Advisory Board, which I got to sit in on last week, is filled with smart people, but it's strictly advisory. Several members I spoke with said they aren't even given annual budgets!
Worse, they aren't allowed to raise money for the station. No one is — all fundraising must go through the ASU Foundation.
There's reason for that: You certainly don't want fundraisers for one ASU program hitting up wealthy donors even as another ASU program buzzes in on the second line, asking for money. But with all the ambitious, expensive programs the university has launched under Crow, it's easy to see Eight relegated to poor-stepsister status.
Sometimes, the station seems to deserve it. These are intensely competitive times for any media outlet; you simply can't air the same kitschy stuff you did in 1970 and expect to attract donors — or an audience.
I'm genuinely worried about the future of Eight, and not because the cost of the move, or that $13 million annual budget.
No, my fear is about viewers. As in, will there be any in 10 years?
At the community advisory board meeting last week, Herb Paine, executive director at the Arizona Humanities Council, challenged Eight's top brass to think carefully about the station's pitch. Why, he asked, is PBS worth saving?
The response struck me as glib.
To see why the station is important, urged marketing director Kelly McCullough, "you simply need to look at TV Guide."
A few minutes later, a board member unwittingly asked a great follow-up question. What is Eight airing during its next pledge drive?
"Music shows," McCullough said. "Yanni, for one . . ."
I only wish I were making that up. The fact is, whether Eight is broadcasting from Tempe or the school that Cronkite built, Yanni simply isn't going to cut it. And if Eight needs me to tell it that, well, it's got much bigger problems than simply the price of its movers.