A Life in Public Broadcasting

A Life in Public Broadcasting

He could pass for a Connecticut Yankee. He’s been here 34 years, after all. Yet a wisp of Dixie lingers in his rich baritone. And when he starts in on public broadcasting, and its glorious future, he sounds like a Southern preacher warming to the Hereafter.

Jerry Franklin, who grew up on a farm in Metter, Georgia with six siblings and without a TV set, has left an indelible mark on public television and radio. Indeed, Connecticut Public Broadcasting, Inc. (CPBI) is vastly different from what it was in 1985, the year he took over as president and chief executive officer: Viewers and listeners have increased exponentially; WNPR radio (90.5 FM) went from classical music to news/talk programming in 2006 and last year passed WTIC (1080 AM) to lead the regional ratings for that format category; CPTV introduced the world to Barney, that lovable, anatomically incorrect purple dinosaur; and in 1993 CPTV became a sports broadcast pioneer by starting its 18-year run televising UConn women’s basketball games.

CPBI, which has garnered scads of awards, including two national Emmys, has 100 employees, a $22 million annual budget and a $50 million endowment. It has added a non-broadcast educational component that serves Hartford high school students as well as armed service veterans (Franklin served in the U.S. Air Force). Not bad for a country boy who grows roses and raises cattle.

June 30 will be Jerry Franklin’s last day at CPBI. The appointment of his successor, Mark G. Contreras, dean of Quinnipiac University’s School of Communications, announced in January, takes effect March 5. Franklin and his wife, Ida, plan to divide their time between their farm in Georgia and Connecticut, where a daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter live.

Q: How did you get into the media business?
A: We didn’t have a TV when I was young; we’d go over to neighbors’ houses to watch. So my mother made a homemade TV set from an old cardboard box and a scroll of brown butcher paper that you could turn with a broomstick handle, and that was our TV. She’d draw stick figures on the paper and turn the scroll and I was the host. It was the Franklins’ TV, and kids would come over and watch the show. I was 6 years old. … I knew in the 10th grade what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to get into broadcasting. I had a high school speech teacher who told me, “I think you could make a good radio and television broadcaster, if you can get that cornbread out of your mouth and learn to speak the Queen’s English.”

Q: I assume you could have made more money in commercial broadcasting?
A: I do sometime wonder what it would have been like to have stock options and a bonus that matched my salary, but I was attracted by the freedom in public media. I worked for one year at a commercial television station. The pay was greater but the handcuffs are tighter…here in public television if we wanted to do women’s basketball, or do something with the Hartford Symphony, or take a chance on a silly purple dinosaur, we didn’t need the permission of advertisers. We do community service and that is intoxicating to me.

Q: How did you weather the loss of UConn women’s basketball in 2012?
A: The loss devastated us for a year or two. It was the No. 1 show in all of public broadcasting. But we have been successful in shoring up our financial position, and our ratings are at an all-time high. We looked strategically at our schedule and built local initiatives around national programming — the credit for that goes to Joanne Whitehead [CPTV’s senior director of television programming and operations].

Q: What was another significant challenge CPBI had to overcome?
A: In 1987 the stock market had crashed and the banks were in trouble, and we had a $1 million line of credit. I got a call from a man from the FDIC who was auditing our bank and he told me we had to pay our loan back in 30 days. I told him that we’d already spent it and we didn’t have another $1 million to give him. … I went to see [then CEO] Ed Budd at the Travelers and, long story short, they lent us the money and he said, “Pay us back when you can.”

Q: How did the media get from Walter Cronkite to being labeled the enemy of the people?
A: It’s painful, absolutely painful. To be labeled an enemy of the people, I wanted to cry almost. Certainly the media has changed. … But I am a great believer in editors, a news entity without an editor and a fact checker is not much of a news entity. We have lost a lot of that. And that is sad … but I am optimistic from a public media standpoint. I really think this is our time. I am optimistic that some of these wealthy people have made it their life’s mission to save some selected newspapers. … Public media stations have a role to play that is more relevant than they have ever played. They have to figure out a way to take advantage of places where there are depressed newspapers around the country. That presents an opportunity.

Q: What is the biggest challenge facing your successor?
ABold text: He will have to run two businesses, to appeal to two audiences: the legacy business of radio and television, the hundreds of thousands of people who turn on CPTV at home every day; the other audience is younger, they pull out their smartphones and scan 40 or 50 options of what to watch or listen to. We have to make certain that we are visible in that digital world, reaching a younger audience. Younger people are not going to watch a 90-minute documentary; they want a three-minute nugget on the same topic. You have to appeal to both audiences.