Workers at San Diego State University's taxpayer-funded broadcasting arm, KPBS radio and TV, have voted to sign up with SAG-AFTRA, the big media union affiliated with the AFL-CIO, according to an online posting by the labor organization.
Upcoming contract negotiations between management and labor are likely to cast a new light on the station's financing and fundraising operations, including their relationship with Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs.
The new bargaining unit will cover 55 public media professionals who produce, report, host, and present content for television, radio, and the Internet. This election allows them to move forward to negotiate a first contract.
“KPBS provides a unique and valuable service to the San Diego community,” said Peggy Pico, host of Evening Edition for KPBS. “We look forward to a role in decision-making and to starting our negotiations."
KPBS is the second public media station in Southern California to organize with SAG-AFTRA this year. In January, staff of KPCC in Pasadena voted to join SAG-AFTRA. SAG-AFTRA also represents public media professionals at National Public Radio (NPR), KQED in San Francisco, WNYC in New York, and other stations.
A major difference between KPBS and KPCC is that while the Pasadena station is run by a non-profit corporation, the San Diego operation is an arm of the public university, reportable to SDSU's president through the station’s general manager, Tom Karlo, a state employee.
As previously reported here, Karlo makes a handsome state salary of $215,262. In addition to its state funding, public contributions and federal grants solicited by the stations are routed through a university-controlled fundraising arm.
The school's non-profit San Diego State University Research Foundation — run by a board including $400,000-a-year SDSU president Elliot Hirshman, UCSD grad school dean Kim E. Barrett, and an array of other top-dollar state university employees — pays a Washington D.C. lobbyist $40,000 a quarter to look after its interests in Congress, the source of millions of dollars of annual revenue to SDSU.
The arrangement has created prickly conflict of interest and governance questions for the public broadcaster, as when earlier this year it investigated GOP congressional candidate Carl DeMaio's campaign fundraising in his race against freshman Democrat Scott Peters, a self-proclaimed champion of public money for the university.
A chief private funder of the KPBS operation is San Diego's richest man, Qualcomm founder and La Jolla billionaire Irwin Jacobs, whose political interests have been known to intersect with his public giving.
A seven-figure backer of Barack Obama who is currently helping to bankroll the campaign of newly-hatched Democrat Nathan Fletcher for San Diego mayor, Jacobs donated $2.9 million to renovate the KPBS newsroom, which was subsequently named after him and his wife Joan.
“KPBS is one of the better sources for news and information in our region,” said Jacobs, whose proposed Balboa Park transportation remake has drawn fierce criticism from some quarters. “Joan and I wanted to do something that would enhance their ability to cover local news.”
Earlier this year, the Jacobs couple were prime sponsors of a lavish downtown society fundraising bash for KPBS held at the Grant Hotel. Attendees were encouraged to wear costumes from public television’s Downton Abbey.