Spokane Journal of Business

KSPS plots future course under new license holder

GM Stokes vows to keep tight focus on program quality

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Gary Stokes, new general manager for Spokane public broadcasting station KSPS and former executive director for the Friends of KSPS, says he will focus on maintaining the quality of the station's programming following its recent license transfer from Spokane Public Schools to the Friends of KSPS.

KSPS, which is located at 3911 S. Regal and serves Eastern Washington, North Idaho, parts of Oregon, Montana, British Columbia and Alberta, employs 30 people here, says Stokes.

The Federal Communications Commission transferred the license and operation of KSPS to Friends of KSPS, effective Sept. 1. The transfer comes after more than a year of negotiations between the school district and the TV station's nonprofit fundraising partner. The transfer process began in 2012 when Spokane Public Schools decided that its funds would be better spent on K-12 education, Stokes says. Now, KSPS and the Friends of KSPS will essentially become one entity.

"This is the first time we will be on our own; we're thinking of ourselves as a very experienced startup," says Stokes. "We're trying to figure out what our new business will look like."

He also says that in the future, KSPS would like to expand on some of its popular local shows, such as "Northwest Profiles" and "Health Matters," while still maintaining its neutral nature.

"We would really like to be that ultimate information source you can go to for unbiased discussion and discourse," Stokes says.

KSPS also offers programs from the national Public Broadcasting Service. KSPS is a dues-paying member of PBS and pays about $1 million annually to have access to national PBS programs, Stokes says. This puts KSPS in the top tier of membership, and enables them to have access to the full program lineup, and to run shows at the same time as the national PBS channels.

Another hope for the future, he says, is for KSPS to grow its presence in the educational community. Stokes says that KSPS has many documentaries that could be useful to people who wish to know more about local history, or that could be used in classrooms.

As part of the agreement with Spokane Public Schools, KSPS also will be ramping up an internship program with local high schools that would allow students to learn about the television industry, he says.

"We've been making television here for 50 years," Stokes says. "We need people who want to learn how to make it for the next 50 years."

KSPS was started in 1967 and had been licensed to Spokane Public Schools since its inception. The Friends of KSPS has raised more than $40 million to support the station since being founded in 1972, and it was the natural choice to assume the license and operation of the station. In the past, the Friends of KSPS has been in charge of fundraising, while Spokane Public Schools managed the production, engineering, and technical operations of the station. Now, the Friends of KSPS will be responsible for every facet of running the station.

Funding, Stokes says, is the biggest challenge KSPS faces now that the transfer has occurred. The station is funded entirely by donations from viewers and members of the Friends of KSPS. The organization, he says, has an annual budget of $5.8 million.

"We've got loyal supporters, but we've got to grow that base," Stokes says. "We need to turn viewers into casual donors, and casual donors into serious donors."

Stokes also said he would like to have KSPS hold more fundraising events, such as "Downton Abbey" screenings and meet-and-greets like the one held at the studio a few weeks ago with children's television character Daniel Tiger. Stokes says more than 500 children and parents attended and were able to have photos taken with the character, play games, and tour the station.

"Not only were the kids able to get a picture with Daniel Tiger, but they also equated that experience with the station itself," says Stokes. "We got some junior supporters there."

Stokes had served as executive director of the Friends of KSPS since August 2011, and previously had served as the vice president of development at Alabama Public Television in Birmingham, Ala. He has replaced former KSPS General Manager Claude Kistler, who officially retired on Aug. 31 after 46 years at KSPS, 33 of them as general manager. Kistler, however, will remain at KSPS for a time, helping Stokes with the transition.

Kistler says for the future, he would also like to see the station expand its educational programming for children through those of senior age.

"We can be a conduit for lifelong learning and education," he says.

Kistler acknowledges there has been some disruption for employees who were receiving benefits through Spokane Public Schools, but says that the positive aspect of the transition is the unification of the two organizations.

"In the past, we've basically had two organizations," Kistler says. "The biggest benefit to this change is that the organization will have a single purpose, single leadership, and a single vision."

Katie Ross
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Reporter Katie Ross covers manufacturing, hospitality, and government at the Journal of Business. An outdoor enthusiast and snowboard fanatic, Katie is a recent graduate of Gonzaga University.  

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