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Local News

Santa Barbara Channels Embroiled in Real-Life Drama

The TV station's board of directors is the target of criticism as it considers the fate of Executive Director Keri Stokstad

Most people who take the time to view public-access cable TV probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what it takes to produce it, but if a glimpse into last Thursday’s meeting of The Santa Barbara Channels’ board of directors was any indication, there appear to be deep divisions running beneath the surface.

With a board of directors and a cadre of producers at odds over the efficacy of an executive director hired in January, the organization also has faced budget cuts as dwindling revenue has forced the City of Santa Barbara — expected to grant the station about $270,000 toward its $646,000 budget this year — to reduce the amount it contributes to the Channels every year by about 15 percent.

The City of Carpinteria contributes about $15,000 to the station’s annual budget.

Keri Stokstad — hired by the board to replace Hap Freund when he retired at the end of December 2009 — has held the nonprofit’s paid executive director slot for only several months, but a few of the directors reportedly have taken issue with the transition in the change of command.

In a closed-session meeting lasting nearly four hours on Thursday, the board discussed Stokstad’s fate as director. Having brought her behind closed doors with them for nearly an hour, the board later announced that it had elected to take no action.

Before the commencement of closed session, programmers, producers and concerned members of the public had accused board members of micromanaging staff and had defended Stokstad’s qualifications as an effective manager at the station.

“I think that if you folks switch horses in the middle of the game, you’re going to rue the day because you’ll lose a very capable executive,” said Ernie Salomon, a 13-year veteran of the Channels and host of Ernie Salomon — Live!, adding that he knew of no other board of directors made up entirely of people not directly involved in content production. “Most of these people have never even been down to the station,” he said of the directors.

Saloman said he sent a lengthy letter to the Santa Barbara City Council on Friday outlining his complaints against the Channels’ board of directors.

David Pritchett, a community activist who produces video for the Channels, said that because none of the current board members is actively involved in production of the station’s content, it’s technically out of compliance with its own bylaws.

Another public commenter, Cheryl Kelmar, said she had applied for a position on the board but claimed she was subsequently ignored by incumbents, and she questioned board members’ dedication to free speech and open programming.

“If there are people on the board who aren’t producers, you don’t have the burning gut passion for free speech,” she said, backed by one or two offhand cheers from among the spectators lining the wall behind the board’s long table. “You just say, ‘Oh, let’s come down here once a month.’”

Pritchett called the board member selection process “inherently undemocratic,” and said the station’s 250 or so members who use the studio and contribute financially to the station’s operational budget should be the ones who choose board members.

Board chairman Ted Baer, facing criticism from producers who showed up in support of Stokstad, defended himself by saying he cared very much about the free speech ethic of the station.

“I’m doing this as a charitable venture because I support free speech,” he said, adding that as the board’s chairman, it’s his job to take the heat for the board’s actions. “Producers are allowed their opinions. It’s a shame they don’t have all the facts, but I’m not at liberty to discuss what was said in closed session. I will say that in her time as our executive director, the board has every hope that she will do a fabulous job.”

The Santa Barbara Channels is only one of a handful of public and government cable TV stations, each of which has budget concerns of its own. Stokstad said a small amount of funding for such stations is provided by a franchise agreement with Cox Communications, with proportionately more coming in via municipal government contributions and donations from members of the public.

Channels 18 and 20 carry city and county government access channels, respectively, providing live and taped coverage of government meetings and various educational programs. County television manager Silvio Motta said the funding structure is quite different, though.

“Money from the franchise agreement goes directly into the county’s general fund, and is then apportioned by the Board [of Supervisors],” he said, adding that after the board’s budget recommendations, his department had to cut about 7 percent of its budget.

In addition to those cuts, the county CEO’s communications office, of which the station is part, shaved about $200,000 from its nearly $680,000 budget this year when it eliminated the public information officer position.

Noozhawk staff writer Ben Preston can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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