WQED to rethink how it will serve community

Plans include civic dialogue role, SmartParent initiative

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The WQED board of directors approved an 18-month study to rethink WQED Multimedia as a presence in the 21st century at the company's quarterly meeting Thursday. The five-year plan will be implemented beginning next year.

The theme of the strategy is back to the future.

"At our core, we are a digital educational public media company, not a television station or a radio station exclusively," said Deborah Acklin, president and CEO of WQED Multimedia.

That broadening view will bring changes to how the company approaches what it means to be of service to the community: "It's an exercise in a philosophical shift, and in many ways, it was very, very invigorating."

Goals of this rethink include a commitment to the company becoming part of a civic dialogue and an emphasis on its role as a "public media accelerator" in the Western Pennsylvania community, Ms Acklin said.

The company's IQ: SmartMedia program is expanding, with a six-part series aimed at parents.

"We realized this was a role we could play. We want to help parents: how to think about access to [kids'] screen time, how to think about games, understanding how the brain of a learner, the brain of a student, has been altered in relation to that," Ms. Acklin said.

The SmartParent initiative is one of five goals for the upcoming year, she added.

WQED also is dedicated to connecting "more deeply and richly, more broadly across the PBS network," Ms. Acklin said.

The last of WQED Multimedia's strategic goals is financial sustainability. The company had a $13.9 million operating budget this year and is projecting growth, possibly a $15 million budget next year, Ms. Acklin said.

Having gone through a capital fundraiser that paid for improvements to the studio headquarters in Oakland -- which is owned by Carnegie Mellon University and has a 100-year lease through 2073 -- and the usual menu of fundraising events, WQED broke even financially and will end up $15,000 to $20,000 in the black.

"That's how much of a whisker we balance things on," Ms. Acklin said.

At Thursday's meeting, the board also screened teasers for a variety of locally produced programs, including the co-produced "American Masters" episode "August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand." It will air during the November 2014 sweeps period.

Other programs include "Pittsburgh From the Water," which is exactly as promised, and an upcoming Nov. 7 documentary about artist Elizabeth Black, who traveled across Europe as a member of the American Red Cross, sketching soldiers during World War II.

Five new members of the board were elected to three-year terms: Marcela Bohm-Velez, Michelangelo Celli, Randy Crawford, Mary Ann Dunham and William Robinson.

At the start of the meeting, while accepting the inaugural Changing Lives award, James E. Rohr joked that he once applied to be a broadcaster at WQED but lost out to Michael Bartley. WQED board chairwoman Debra Caplan described the executive chairman of PNC Financial Services Group as "a banker by trade and a humanitarian at heart."

He championed PNC Grow Up Great, a philanthropic initiative about the importance of preparing children for school.

In other WQED news

■ The station has posted eight short videos for the Pittsburgh Innovator Project on its website, www.wqed.org/pittsburghinnovators, as well as YouTube.

Featured businesses are Small Farm Central, Quantum Theatre, SolePower, Center for PostNatural History, Evive Station, Duolingo, Conflict Kitchen and Digital Salad.

This Web-based collection of video profiles features local entrepreneurs. Businesses that would like to be added to the project should visit the Innovator Project website.

■ A season without WQED fundraising? That is news.

WQED promises to eliminate on-air fundraising during "Masterpiece Classic" early next year, a period that includes the Jan. 5 return of "Downton Abbey" as well as Classical WQED-FM (89.3) during the period of Feb. 5-14.

Here's the deal: 2,014 patrons must join the "Sustainer 2014 Challenge." Sustainers are those who contribute one sum through monthly automatically renewed donations. According to station data, sustainers contribute four times the value of those who make one-time contributions.

Before the challenge began, there were 1,750 sustainers signed up, with an additional 805 since Sept. 1. The challenge ends Jan. 1.

■ WQED also is one of four PBS stations chosen to participate in an 18-month acquisition program. A British firm is involved in the study, which is funded by PBS, and has visited the station on Fifth Avenue.

"What we learn from PBS and what PBS learns from WQED will be used by other stations around the country," said Lilli Mosco, vice president of development and membership.

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.

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