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Legislative committee delays vote on pay raise for Courtney Pledger, director of Arkansas PBS, who’s being recruited by another state

COURTNEY PLEDGER: An offer from another state led to a request for a pay increase in Arkansas. Not yet, a legislative committee said.

Simmering legislative unhappiness with Arkansas PBS bubbled up in the legislative personnel committee again today on a recommendation that the maximum pay allowable for Courtney Pledger, executive director of the Agency, be increased from $157,100 to $180,000.

John Brown, chair of the Arkansas PBS Commission, and Commissioner Woody Freeman said the increase was necessary to retain Pledger, whom they praised for expansion and improvement of the educational channel’s offerings. She has an offer from another state, perhaps Louisiana, which pays its executive director $243,000. The average pay for the job in Arkansas and adjoining states is $182,000, with Arkansas ahead of only Mississippi, legislators were told.

Ultimately, on a motion by Rep. Frances Cavenaugh that drew no audible objections, the request was delayed until after a Joint Performance Review Committee consideration in June of an interim study of Arkansas PBS that results from a deal struck to get the PBS budget approved during the fiscal session. It took three tries to get an essentially flat $5 million budget approved after Sen. Dan Sullivan proposed crippling budget cuts because he didn’t approve of the political views of a producer hired for a children’s program. He said contracts should go to people with views that reflect those of Arkansas. He was joined in griping about AETN by other ultra-conservative legislators. It takes a three-fourths vote to approve budgets, so a minority can block passage.

Cavenaugh said the Pledger pay raise could be brought back after the interim study discussion.

Sullivan didn’t bring up ideological objections today but pressed the witnesses for figures on viewership, particularly high school sports. Solid over-the-air broadcast figures aren’t available, because Arkansas PBS doesn’t join in Nielsen ratings, but Brown cited big numbers online for a variety of programs and also noted that 24,000 members support Arkansas PBS with nearly $4 million in annual contributions. Marty Ryall, who does public relations for Arkansas PBS, chimed in that Arkansas PBS was providing a public service, unlike commercial channels that must sell advertising to pay for production. Ryall said the high school sports coverage was equal in quality to that on ESPN and it would do this weekend’s coverage of high school baseball and softball for $25,000. Sullivan said $25,000 was a lot of money to some people. And he said Ryall’s statement that communities covered by the broadcasts seemed to like them was only anecdotal evidence.

Brown acknowledged to legislators that as a former president of a Christian college, John Brown University, he knew that there were some topics on PBS that “aren’t to your liking or my liking.” But he said, “We try to be very careful.” And he observed that PBS serves “the entire Arkansas community, which includes a lot of different ideas.”

Ryall,  in response to a question from Rep. Karilyn Brown, said Arkansas PBS produced a substantial and increasing amount of local programs, including high school sports, a new farming show, and others, including expanded offerings during the pandemic. It is obligated to carry PBS programming, he said. This is because the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is a major financial supporter. But it can choose to exempt up to 50 hours of national PBS programming for whatever reason and sometimes does so. It will exempt three hours Tuesday, for example, for local election coverage.

Ryall said he expected that questions about programming decisions would be part of the interim review and the agency welcomed that discussion. Today, he said, the salary request was a “timing issue.” He said, “We wanted to show her we were moving in the direction of making salary commensurate with the benefits” she has brought.

I’m seeking to find out if today’s delay might affect a decision by Pledger.

 

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