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WQED's lost soul

| Sunday, July 12, 2009

For the past three years, I have shared the WQED-TV set with my friend Jim Roddey on a little political debate show called "Roddey v. Mistick." Jim and I have enjoyed the sometimes gentle, sometimes heated repartee that we hope has made some sense of the issues facing our region.

This column, however, will surely put an end to my role there. With the recent layoffs at what was once the crown jewel of Pittsburgh's nonprofit community, it has become clear that the station must chart a new path if it is to keep its place in the hearts of our people.

To be sure, money is tough all over and nonprofits are feeling an especially harsh sting in this difficult economy. Nonprofits that were once the beneficiaries of substantial tax dollars from the state have seen those annual funds dry up as the state deals with its own fiscal squeeze.

Our region's incredibly generous foundation community has also become victim to the world's economic woes and that may be at least part of the reason why they have not been forthcoming with bailout funding. But there have also been rumblings for many months that WQED no longer enjoys the confidence of the foundation community.

Some detractors point to colossal mistakes as the beginning of the demise of the station. "The War That Made America," a $14 million miniseries that was produced by WQED Multimedia, never caught on or generated the return that was anticipated.

Other folks around the station point to the day that Fred Rogers died as the day that WQED lost its soul. And if the way that the recent layoffs were handled is any indication, the soul of Mister Rogers is sorely missed at WQED.

With six executives making six figures-plus -- and Duquesne Club memberships included for some -- the station's layoffs include a janitor, a mailroom clerk and a part-time graphic artist who is a single mother. The top executives continue to live in the lap of luxury while those employees who are least able to take the hit are the ones who were targeted.

One producer was given the ax while he was on the road, filming a show in Philadelphia. And, in all cases, the bad news was never passed by those in charge -- a faux p as, at the very least, in a small organization that touts itself as the WQED family.

This may no longer be a rank-and-file town, but we still have that sense of fairness and equity that was nurtured over generations. Forget about the absurd notion that WQED can be saved on the backs of the lowest-paid employees in the building. No one could take that proposition seriously.

Instead, ask yourself what it says about a public charity when it acts like Bernie Madoff or AIG or any of the robber-baron corporations that have coddled the rich and cast adrift the poor. For my money, the janitor should be the last guy to go.

To the small but loyal audience that shouts at Jim and me along the street or grabs our sleeves at the grocery store to pick a side on this issue or that, we can do nothing more than simply thank you for skipping the "Seinfeld" reruns and tuning in to "Roddey v. Mistick."

Now that I have effectively ended my public-television career, I anticipate little public mourning and have no personal regrets. As my mother, Molly-O, always said, "Josie, you have a great face for radio."

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