San Diego San Diego State University had an image problem, and its president, Stephen Weber, would do almost anything to fix it. It wasn't a new problem, of course. The former teachers' college on the east end of town has long played second banana to the academically prestigious University of California campus in La Jolla. SDSU has also taken plenty of heat in the national media for its reputed lack of intellectual rigor. Playboy once proclaimed it one of the country's top-ten party schools, and over the years a series of high-profile alcohol- and drug-poisoning cases have highlighted -- deservedly or not -- the university's reputation for underage drinking and date rape.
So when Weber took over as president in 1996, one of his biggest priorities was better public relations. He quickly realized, university documents show, that the most effective weapon in his arsenal was KPBS, the SDSU-owned public broadcast operation encompassing both a TV and FM radio station. Supported by state-tax dollars, federal-government grants, and viewer contributions, the stations, with their powerful broadcast signals and coveted slots on local cable systems, are the only choice in the region for most of those seeking to tune to public radio and television programs.
That monopoly has always been a key to the unquestioned power of the KPBS stations, which raise millions of dollars each year by telling local viewers that their money is needed to purchase the popular national programming, such as Masterpiece Theatre and Nova, at the core of the KPBS schedule. That lure has allowed the KPBS budget to burgeon to more than $14 million this year, according to figures released by the stations last month. As revenue grew, so did station aspirations -- as well as increasing demands by SDSU president Weber that the operation be used to service the university's economic and political interests.
Weber began his tenure as president by leaning heavily on KPBS management -- which had enjoyed a period of semi-autonomy from university interference -- to propagandize more heavily on behalf of SDSU. For a time, Weber seemed partially satisfied that the stations were following his desires, including making regular on-air mentions of the station's SDSU ownership, but he continued to push for more.
In the summer of 1999, Weber wrote to KPBS general manager Doug Myrland. "I was delighted to hear about your efforts to increase the visibility of San Diego State via KPBS," Weber wrote Myrland in a memo dated July 30, 1999. "As you know, I have long thought that this is a positive, symbiotic partnership and one that can incorporate and advance our mutual success.
"I had mentioned to you that there were two things that struck me, as a layman, that would be particularly helpful:
"First, a changing 'tag line' to be inserted behind 'A broadcast service of San Diego State University....' You mentioned that it would be helpful for you to have a single person represent the university in providing those tag lines. I have talked to Tere Mendoza, and she tells me that Sara Muller Fraunces, Associate Vice President for Marketing and Communication, would be the obvious person with whom to coordinate. (In that regard, it might make some sense for you to have a preliminary discussion with Sara so that you both understand each other's needs in setting up those tag lines.)
"Second, some way to include San Diego State in the logo, which appears on the lower right-hand screen throughout your broadcast. I was very pleased to hear that that is your intent. Here again, as you begin your work on your graphic designs, I hope you will touch base with Sara. Please consider her San Diego State's contact with regard to both appropriate tag lines and design elements."
But the Weber push for greater SDSU influence conflicted with a KPBS strategy of attempting to portray itself to viewers and potential donors as an independent operation made up of "members," whom it solicited during its monthly pledge drives. Thousands of viewers actually thought they "belonged" to the station and even sported automobile license-plate frames boasting of their KPBS "membership."
Once they realized that KPBS was a creature of San Diego State -- under the control of its president, Steve Weber, rather than a nonprofit corporation with an independent board of trustees -- many donors, especially large corporations and those with loyalties to other academic institutions, such as UCSD, shied away from contributing. It was not in the station's best interests, according to these managers, for SDSU to exert such obvious authority over programming and station identity.
Old-time staffers, sources say, fought a good fight against Weber's incursions into what they regarded as their turf, but by the fall of 1999, university documents show, the president had grown impatient with the staff's foot-dragging and stepped up the pressure on Myrland. Weber expressed his frustration in a memo to station management.
"I know that we have made a good deal of progress with KPBS and its increasing recognition of San Diego State, and I know that Doug is working on redesigning the logo and other things that will help with that identification," said Weber's September 9, 1999, memo.
"Recently, however, there was an instance that I think could have been helpful to that recognition process, had KPBS so chosen. At the gala previewing the upcoming KPBS series on the border, there was literally no recognition of San Diego State or its relationship with KPBS. In fact, there were almost no San Diego State people in attendance (and there were many from UCSD).
"I know how hard it is to change ingrown habits and behaviors, but this is the sort of thing that I will need to keep bringing to your and Doug's attention until we gradually see a change."
Why is Weber so interested in controlling KPBS? He, along with KPBS manager Myrland, declined requests for interviews last week, but university insiders say that the stations and their virtual monopoly over local public-affairs programming provide an ideal vehicle for the university to influence regional political and business decisions. Documents obtained from the university under the state's public-records act show that Weber has repeatedly involved himself in station policy with an eye toward fostering university interests.