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AETN, Now Arkansas PBS, Looks to Turn CornerLock Icon

7 min read

If you’re heading to Arkansas’ public TV headquarters in Conway, your GPS can tell you exactly how to get to Sesame Street.

At the corner of Donaghey Avenue stands the newly named Arkansas PBS, until recently the Arkansas Educational Television Network.

But the network, pushing its traditional TV role into the digital age, is also at a crossroads of identity. Executive Director Courtney Pledger hopes she’s turned the corner after more than a year of staff turmoil, a split with its fundraising foundation and audits that rebuked leaders for flouting state rules.

“Those issues have been resolved, absolutely,” Pledger told Arkansas Business last week in an interview in her bright, airy office on the second floor of the studio complex on the University of Central Arkansas campus.

Instead, she insisted on talking about the future.

“AETN had faced big changes going from analog to digital [broadcasting], but what we face today is a tectonic shift,” she said, reflecting on the rebranding.

“We did some analysis and came up with strategies, because public media has been focused on TV for so long, but we are so much more than that now.”

Pledger announced the new Arkansas PBS branding for Valentine’s Day, stressing the network’s traditional service to the state and its partnership since 1970 with the Public Broadcasting Service, which surveys have found is one of America’s most trusted sources of information.

“PBS has been side-by-side with us as a partner, and in our branding, ever since the beginning,” Pledger said.

Mom Calls It PBS

“The branding is good,” said Elizabeth Michael, a Little Rock public relations professional who has partnered with brand specialist Martin Thoma.

“When my mother called me up recently to tell me to turn on something on public TV, she said, ‘Turn on PBS,’” Michael recalled. “She didn’t say turn on AETN.”

The new logo for Arkansas PBS.

“Branding is important,” Pledger said, “because obviously we survive partly on fundraising. We’re grateful to the state for supporting us with operations and staffing, but we acquire everything that we air, and we hope to make more and more locally produced programs.

“All that is based on fundraising, regardless of what your name is,” Pledger continued. “But we felt that Arkansas PBS would be something easily recognizable and digital-friendly.”

Grants and gifts from donors supplement about $6 million a year in state money to round out the network’s $13 million budget.

The Arkansas PBS branding will adorn all network channels: Arkansas PBS Create, Arkansas PBS Kids and Arkansas PBS World, as well as digital platforms like Arkansas PBS Passport and Arkansas PBS LearningMedia.

The rebranding comes on the heels of a temporary standoff with the state’s educational TV foundation, now the Arkansas PBS Foundation.

After AETN threatened to cut its services contract with the foundation, whose primary responsibility is raising money for the network, a compromise in November restored Pledger to the foundation’s board, which had voted her out and removed her as the foundation’s executive director.

That action came after Pledger’s firing of a three-decade foundation employee, Mona Dixon, a year ago. Before the rift, AETN and the foundation had traditionally shared a top executive.

Questions Unanswered

Pledger deflected questions on the firing, which Dixon appealed, along with questions about the search for a new foundation director. “You know, those issues are the foundation’s territory,” she said. “They are, as we all know, a very separate entity. They are linked to us, and we work closely, but at the same time they are separate.”

Pledger referred questions on Dixon’s dismissal case to S. Lynne Rich, chair of the foundation board and a professor at UCA. Rich said she couldn’t comment on personnel matters, but reaffirmed the foundation’s commitment to raise money and “support Arkansas PBS’s mission of enhancing lives.”

Dixon’s attorney, John D. Coulter of McMath Woods in Little Rock, did not respond to a request for an update.

Morale has improved at the network since last year, Pledger said. She attributed what critics have called high turnover (about three dozen departures in Pledger’s three years in a 100-person staff) partly to hiring driven by needs for different technical skills.

“We have skilled ourselves up in here, and we’re able to go out like ESPN with our production truck and present our state high school championship games,” Pledger said.

The network began broadcasting high school championships in four sports two years ago. “People come up to our booth to thank us for doing these championships and featuring these students’ athletic and academic accomplishments.”

Pledger also helped launch the Arkansas Citizens Access network, livestreaming coverage of state government proceedings. Digital efforts have doubled, and AETN has produced programs for national PBS distribution, including “State of the Art,” which featured diverse artists at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.

“Andrew Bicknell is our chief technology guy, and that’s a field that’s all changed now,” Pledger said.

“It used to be you had an RF [radio frequency] chief engineer,” she said. “Now you still need that, but you also need somebody who understands new technology and internet protocol and all of these things at once.”

In pushing for change, Pledger made some foes and sometimes struggled to comply with state rules.

Her problems with Dixon, who claims she was a victim of retaliation and has demanded a settlement, involved the use of foundation funds rather than AETN money for one of Pledger’s projects: hiring North Carolina filmmaker and public media executive Rachel Raney, with a goal of developing more local programming.

Pledger ordered payments to Raney to come out of foundation funds, something that Dixon said normally required foundation board approval.

Dixon, who had declared herself a whistleblower to Rich, the foundation board chair, sees her firing as retaliation for reporting her concerns to the foundation board. Allies of Pledger anonymously suggest Dixon was working to undermine the new boss.

Beyond the rift with the foundation, Dixon’s firing led to an anonymous open letter from current and former AETN employees accusing Pledger of forcing early retirements, retaliating against subordinates who questioned her and holding some employees in “open contempt.”

The letter also cited Raney’s $36,000 contract as an example of Pledger’s “repeated attempts to misuse funding.” It also noted “incorrect practices” found in a legislative audit of 2018 spending.

‘Follow the Guidance’

The audit included several findings that the network strayed from state procurement law and ran afoul of guidelines for keeping records on Pledger’s use of a state-owned vehicle. A later state audit called for AETN to pay back more than $400,000 in state grant money that was ruled “misused.” The audit led to the Arkansas Department of Education labeling AETN as a “high risk entity.”

The governor told Arkansas Business in October that he expected Pledger to take a lesson from the audit. “I know Director Pledger will follow the guidance given,” he said.

“Staff and leadership have been working through the ADE [Arkansas Department of Education] procedures and policies line by line to create crystal clear rules moving forward, to serve our children and educators,” Pledger said at the time. “AETN is developing more checks and balances systems to prevent any future errors.”

Pledger sees much of the network’s internal turmoil as a result of natural resentment of a new leader jolting a sleepy network awake.

“Change is a challenge,” she said. “You guys are a forward-thinking business publication, and one thing that businesses understand is that you must adapt or die. Coming in and facing the problems public media is facing right now, there’s a need for new skills, new training, and we’re emphasizing all kinds of professional development. What’s the point of public media if you’re not really relevant?”

The network, with with 87 employees and six more at the nonprofit foundation, had a $5.73 million state appropriation last year, of which $3.7 million went to salaries.

Pledger’s salary is $125,000 a year, modest for a state agency director.

“What we’re doing moving forward is more Arkansas-focused, but in partnership with all the wonderful things that PBS brings,” said Pledger, who was hired by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in March 2017 to revitalize AETN. A former film producer and executive director of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, Pledger is pushing a new vision focused on digital storytelling and distribution, broader appeal and fresher local content.

The rebranding effort won’t affect the entities’ legal names, Pledger explained. “We are still the Arkansas Educational Television Commission; that’s our legal name and who we are as a state agency,” she said. “Arkansas PBS is simply a front-facing brand,” and part of a nationwide branding push for PBS-affiliated stations as the service nears its 50th anniversary. Along with the new name, Arkansas PBS got a new logo, drawn from a template, with “Arkansas,” the PBS symbol and the letters PBS.

“I think there’s a very supportive atmosphere here now in terms of taking us into the future,” Pledger said. “But we do have to adapt; we definitely have to change.”

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