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Clearing the Static: West Virginia Public Broadcasting Dealing With Challenges

Photo by Steven Allen Adams West Virginia Public Broadcasting Interim Executive Director Butch Antolini, right, reviews his documents for his first Educational Broadcasting Authority meeting.

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Public Broadcasting — the organization tasked with “Telling West Virginia’s Story” — faces numerous challenges, but leaders of the organization and the state board overseeing it intend to face those headlong.

Butch Antolini, the new interim executive director for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, likened the organization to an “octopus” when briefing the eight-member Educational Broadcasting Authority during its quarterly meeting Wednesday morning at the Culture Center in Charleston.

The EBA hired Antolini in October.

“There are many facets involved with the operation,” Antolini said after spending six weeks getting to know WVPB employees and inspecting the multiple offices across the state.

“I’ve been working to wrap my arms around this octopus, if you will. And I’m excited about the opportunity.”

Antolini is the former communications director for Gov. Jim Justice and served former agricultural commissioner Walt Helmick in a similar role. Before turning to government communications, Antolini was the general manager and executive director of Beckley Newspapers, publishers of the Beckley Register-Herald. He also has an extensive history leading newsrooms across the state.

Antolini, in an interview after Wednesday’s meeting, said his past experience in government and news is helpful in his new role but he is still learning about all the things WVPB does.

“It’s a big job and it is challenging because there’s so many different facets of the operation that you have to learn,” he said.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting consists of three TV stations and 12 FM radio stations, as well as multiple digital channels available on most cable networks. WVPB has been a mainstay in the state for more than 50 years.

WVPB includes an award-winning news division; popular programs, such as West Virginia Morning, Appalachia Today, Us and Them, and The Legislature Today; the internationally acclaimed live music program Mountain Stage with new host Kathy Mattea; and numerous radio, TV, and documentary programming.

Its primary goal is educational programming, which it does in cooperation with the state Department of Education and Higher Education Policy Commission. This includes Education Station, a video program that helps supplement regular course work for students; the Read for the Record program; and documentaries, such as a recent report on the Communities in Schools program.

Antolini said he wants WVPB to focus more on its core educational mission, including bringing back the Homework Hotline, a service that helps students with homework questions. The program was discontinued more than a decade ago.

“I can tell you today, we’re exploring the re-establishment of this program and we’ll be speaking with our partners at the West Virginia Department of Education to get it on the fast track,” Antolini said. “If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught those in education one thing, it has made it abundantly clear we need to effectively connect with our school kids and help them in as many ways as we can. Assisting them with their homework is one big way we can achieve this goal.”

But to get to that goal, WVPB needs to staff up urgently. Antolini said there are 10 vacancies at WVPB, including a director of education. As of Wednesday, there is only one part-time staff member in the education division. Some of the other vacancies include positions for a digital content director and webmaster, a statehouse reporter, and a chief engineer.

The current chief engineer, David McClanahan, is retiring after working for WVPB since 2013. Antolini said one of the major issues facing WVPB is the age of its towers and tower equipment across the state. Not only do the towers help transmit the radio and TV broadcast signals, but the towers also serve state and local emergency services.

“We’ve done a lot of significant upgrades that are out there, but there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done,” Antolini said. “You also need to figure out how you’re going to maintain the buildings and the security around the sites and just general upkeep. We’ve got a lot of work to do in that area.”

The Federal Communications Commission is reimbursing WVPB for tower improvements. The EBA could also see some of the state’s portion of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF). Both bills include funding for broadband infrastructure projects, including fixed wireless connectivity.

‘We’re certainly going to be looking at wherever we may be able to obtain the funds to help us do this, because it’s critical,” Antolini said.

While independent, WVPB receives the majority of its funding – 37% — from state taxpayers through the general revenue budget. Another 26% of WVPB funding comes from fundraising.

To that end, WVPB is supported by two groups: the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation and the Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. The foundation handles major gifts, grants and awards, while the Friends of WVPB handle annual membership donations. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting also provides grants to WVPB, as well as other federal sources and private philanthropy.

“There’s a lot of relationship building that goes on with that,” Antolini said. “You may see one, but you don’t typically see two that are out there that help support what we’re doing.”

The EBA is the governing board consisting of appointments by the Governor and non-voting members, such as state education and higher education officials. Five out of the eight members of the Educational Broadcasting Authority were appointed in the last six months by Justice.

New appointees include Huntington attorney Stephen Taylor Hood, former Beckley Register-Herald publisher Frank D. Wood, lobbyist and broadcaster Tom Susman, Charleston lobbyist Danielle Waltz, and Republican political consultant Greg Thomas. The appointment of Thomas and Waltz over the summer raised the most controversy, particularly with Democratic lawmakers.

Waltz has been a long-time advocate for the new Intermediate Court of Appeals, long sought after by the West Virginia and U.S. Chamber of Commerce groups whom she lobbies for, according to the West Virginia Ethics Commission. Waltz also lobbies for EdChoice, a pro-charter school group. West Virginia expanded its public charter school pilot project during the last legislative session, with the first charter schools approved last month and slated to start next year.

Thomas, also a registered lobbyist, has advised multiple state and federal lawmakers during their re-election campaigns, as well as the Republican caucus in the state Senate. Thomas has used his social media to criticize news reporting including by WVPB, something that Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, asked him about during his confirmation hearing June 24.

“I look at your social media, and I don’t think you like the media very much,” Baldwin said to Thomas during questioning, citing examples of Thomas’ social media. “Why do you want to be on the EBA if you can’t stand the media?”

“Taxpayers have a right to have a voice on the board of something that uses taxpayer dollars,” Thomas responded. “It certainly has a mission that is important and I’m looking forward to hearing more about what they do and how they do it. Hopefully, we can improve upon it.”

Antolini’s hiring by the EBA has also come under fire in some circles. Antolini replaces Chuck Roberts as WVPB executive director after the EBA fired Roberts in October. Roberts, who came up from WVPB’s production division, was promoted from chief operating officer to executive director at the end of 2018, replacing Scott Finn who left to run Vermont’s public broadcasting organization.

Antolini was communications director for most of Justice’s first term, though most of the communication director duties started to fall on current Communications Director Jordan Damron in 2018 and 2019. Antolini worked behind-the-scenes on the Executive Branch Communications Hub at the Department of Commerce’s headquarters in Building 3 on the grounds of the Capitol Complex. He left that role in March of this year.

The hub provides press release-writing services, video production, and other promotional materials for state agencies. Between 2018 and 2020, Antolini’s salary increased by 7.6%, from $101,195 to $108,910.

“We had a communications hub set up over there through the Governor’s Office, and I was moved, over to Building 3, where I was working on different projects for the Department of Transportation and for the Department of Commerce,” Antolini said. “There was a lot of video stuff that was going on, and then various releases that would be out from time to time.”

Bill File, the chairman of the EBA, praised Antolini during Wednesday’s meeting.

“We appreciate you accepting this challenge,” File said. “I think you’re off to a great start and we really appreciate the effort you’re putting in.”

As for the future, Antolini would like to drop the “interim” in his title, intending to apply for the executive director position when the EBA advertises the opening.

“If the good Lord blesses me with the health, I’d love to be at West Virginia Public Broadcasting for the next decade and see what happens after that,” Antolini said. “If I’m there for a decade, obviously I’m doing the job right.”

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