continued During election season, for example, KPBS is virtually the only broadcast venue for serious political debate and interviews. Candidates and their handlers know that the region's small base of hard-core voters -- the key to victory or defeat, especially in close elections -- are some of the station's most loyal listeners. Though KPBS-TV has drastically scaled back local news coverage over the years, air time on the radio operation is coveted more than ever by the county's legion of aspiring politicos.
Savvy political operatives know to be careful not to offend Weber and those at the stations, such as talk-show host Gloria Penner, who many believe plays favorites in her choice of topics and interview subjects and the way they are interpreted. And once elected, office-holders listen carefully to pleadings made by SDSU and its lobbyists, lest they become the object of Weber's ire. That access, in turn, can bring huge rewards to the university in the form of government grants and charitable bequests.
University officials believe that KPBS has achieved extraordinary success in the role of molding public opinion, so much so that the university has sought to expand its power by adding stations in cities as distant as the Imperial Valley and the Los Angeles basin.
The process is illustrated by a memo Weber wrote on April 5, 2000, to Frea Sladek, the interim general manager of the SDSU Foundation, which helps administer KPBS for the university.
"At several times in the past we have looked at the possibility of bringing KPBS out into the Imperial Valley. I know that has not happened yet. I am not sure why. Is it a bad idea? Or impracticable? Or too expensive?
"The impetus for this comes in large part from Ben Clay, who does a lot of lobbying work out in the Valley and who believes that San Diego's and San Diego State's influence in the Valley could be greatly increased if the Valley residents began to get more information from us instead of Los Angeles (which is their current source for public radio and television)."
Clay, one of the school's major fundraisers, is a contract lobbyist for the San Diego County Water Authority, which is the force behind the controversial effort to import water from the Imperial Valley, a move opposed by Los Angeles. Clay did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story. But sources say that San Diego proponents of the project sought to influence the debate among Imperial Valley farmers and residents -- many of whom opposed the San Diego proposal as a "water grab" -- by providing a San Diego "spin" on the story that KPBS would furnish.
The plan ultimately went awry, according to the internal university documents, because an Imperial Valley television frequency coveted by KPBS was reassigned by the Federal Communications Commission to Mexico, and no radio frequencies were then immediately available. "KPBS has tried to find a frequency, but without success," SDSU Foundation manager Frea Sladek wrote Weber on April 20, 2000. "Suitable low-power alternatives have not been identified. Purchasing an existing station could be a solution if sufficient capital was available. To date, these resources have not been identified."
Stymied at least for the moment, Weber wrote lobbyist Clay in May 2000, asking for further assistance. "As you can see, the problem is not for lack of trying. If you have any ideas as to how we might proceed more effectively, we would be happy to hear them.
"Thanks for continuing to call this matter to my attention. I hope you will continue to 'bug' me, and I will, in turn, 'bug' KPBS until we get the job done."
During the summer of 1999, Myrland had Weber's blessing when he moved to spread the KPBS empire to the north by making a bid for KPCC, an FM station licensed to Pasadena City College, which was looking for a way to bail the station out of a $170,000 budget deficit. "Over the next few weeks we'll put together a business plan," Myrland wrote to Weber aide Barbara Hartung in an August 1999 e-mail. "If it looks like we can enter into an agreement that will provide financial advantage to KPBS as well as create good community service, we'll prepare a formal proposal. It's easy to be optimistic at this point, but our preliminary analysis of their budget and fundraising is very encouraging.
"Since I'm always interested in finding ways for KPBS to be legitimately involved with SDSU and the mission of education, the possibilities of this relationship have now begun to look pretty good!"
Weber endorsed the KPCC takeover plan in an e-mail dated August 15, 1999: "I agree. Assuming that it makes financial sense for KPBS, it certainly would be a plus for SDSU in the LA market. Tell Doug and Frea to keep us informed -- and thank them for their initiative in moving ahead thus far."
Despite making a large investment of money and staff time in the proposal, KPBS was bested in Pasadena by Minnesota Public Radio, a national power in the nonprofit radio business due to the success of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion broadcast. The wealthy Minnesota foundation, run by William Kling, stepped forward with an offer to lease KPCC from the college for 20 years and invest millions of dollars upgrading its news, public affairs, and other programming. It was an offer that SDSU couldn't match.
When it became apparent that KPBS had lost the battle, Myrland dispatched an e-mail to Weber with the bad news. "Next time I see Bill Kling I'll be tempted to tell him that he could have outbid us for a lot less than $12.8 million!
Yeowch! -- Doug." Replied Weber: "I am glad we were thought of as a possible suitor, and I am glad you pursued the courtship. Thanks. Steve."
But those heady days of would-be expansion now seem a distant memory for KPBS and Steve Weber. Two weeks ago, Myrland put out a news release announcing a "budget restructure due to a revenue-shortfall of $800,000, or 5 percent of the annual budget, for fiscal year 2001, which ended June 30 of this year. As part of the reorganization, 14 employees were laid off and operating expenses were cut to ensure the station meets budget expectations for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2002."