Early this spring, Gov. Sonny Perdue made a quiet stir in the state Capitol with his selection of former CNN executive Teya Ryan as the head of Georgia Public Broadcasting.
The governor broke two unspoken rules along the way. First, the five previous people in charge of bringing Ken Burns or Clifford the Big Red Dog into your home had been state bureaucrats.
The idea of putting an experienced broadcaster in charge of a state-owned network of nine public TV stations, 18 radio stations, an educational video arm and a web site actually qualifies, by Georgia standards, as revolutionary.
But it was the second violation that left Republican lawmakers, in particular, irate. Perdue passed over several GOP-credentialed nominees pushed by GPB’s board of directors — which has the formal authority to make the appointment — to get to Ryan.
Resentment was exacerbated by the fact that, in a world bisected by Fox News and that other cable news network, the woman once in charge of CNN programming hails from the wrong side of a vast ideological divide.
Ryan, 54, inherits an arm of state government that has lurched, at the worst of times, between excess and incompetence.
A lavish $50 million, state-of-the-art headquarters on 14th Street, paid for with state lottery funds, was a near-scandal when it opened in 1997. Two years later, Gov. Roy Barnes fired the top GPB executive — a former state school superintendent — and sacked the authority’s entire board after a deficit totaling millions of dollars was discovered.
The state auditor was brought in to run the operation. But uncertainty became a fact of life at GPB. For two years before Ryan’s arrival, the authority had been in the hands of a pair of “acting” administrators.
“I thought that this was such an enormous opportunity, and I suppose — although I’m just learning about the background — an opportunity lost in some ways,” Ryan said in an interview last week.
Any cheering from GPB’s employees at the thought of an experienced TV veteran at the helm has been tempered by the state’s fiscal crisis. Since March, 29 employees have been laid off or encouraged to retire, the empty work stations making GPB’s spacious digs seem cavernous.
Many of the cuts preceded Ryan’s arrival, some didn’t. Overall, GPB’s $30 million budget has shrunk by 10 percent. (The state’s current annual share has been trimmed to $16.4 million.)
Morale was not helped when GPB board chairman Lowell Register of Macon attempted to explain Ryan’s selection. “We have 175 people in Atlanta and we don’t know what all of them do,” Register told Current, a newspaper that covers public broadcasting.
Said Ryan, last week: “I don’t think the board needs to know what every single person does. But the people who run this place better know, and I do know.”
Six weeks into the job, Ryan is still sorting out where she will take GPB. Her conversations with the governor, she said, have been “full of thought and broad-ranged thinking.” But Perdue has given her no specific directions.
Though she realizes that ratings aren’t everything, Ryan says she wants to instill a “commercial discipline” into an under-performing, state-owned network that, in terms of size and potential audience, ranks only behind public TV systems in New York and Los Angeles.
In the meantime, some public affairs programming has been placed on hold. “Over the next year you’ll see some very creative initiatives,” the executive director said.
Ryan is experienced with makeovers. Her transformation of CNN’s Headline News, spicing it up with graphics and younger anchors, was judged a success within the industry.
But an attempt to strengthen CNN’s evening line-up with ex-CBS co-anchor Connie Chung earned her little but ridicule. And as a result, the word “beleaguered” was attached to Ryan’s name when she left CNN in 2003.
One of the questions the new GPB executive kicks around in her head these days — a long string of questions, really — revolves around the retreating state of journalism. That newspapers are shrinking is no secret. But commercial TV is pulling back as well.
“I think we’re asking the question, what is the fiduciary and social and cultural responsibility of a PBS station in this kind of news environment? Where do we shore up?” Ryan asked. “Do we create a stronger journalism department? Do we pick that up?
“Here’s the problem: How do we afford it all? Just because we’re here, doesn’t mean we have the money. But there is no doubt we have to figure this out,” she said.
Ryan has no answers yet. Just the questions.
It’s a cliche, but stay tuned.
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