The Corporation for Public Broadcasting not only stood firm yesterday on its conditions for a lifesaving loan to National Public Radio, but further warned that it may block the $1 million monthly payment it is scheduled by contract to send to NPR on Monday.
"NPR is a very sick company," CPB president Edward Pfister said. He told reporters that CPB will continue to insist that NPR hand over title to its satellite transmission equipment as the condition for a $9.1 million loan. Title would go to a trust comprising CPB-selected public radio stations.
But NPR's board of directors had already said in an emergency meeting Monday that it could not accept the plan.
Meanwhile, the union representing many NPR staffers, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, called a Friday meeting to discuss the possibility of walking out if NPR fails to meet its payroll--although members pointed out that this would damage a fundraising program scheduled to begin Monday.
As the Friday deadline approached--the date NPR needs an influx of cash to meet its payroll and other debts in order to stay in business--both sides exchanged letters, both sides said the other had broken off negotiations, and both sides denied it.
Letters were exchanged between Pfister and Ronald Bornstein, NPR's interim chief operating officer. Bornstein said Pfister's 13-line letter, reemphasizing CPB's conditions, meant that the negotiations had been terminated.
Pfister received a 30-line letter from Bornstein, who wrote he was surprised "by CPB's unilateral decision to break off discussions with NPR." Pfister denied he had terminated the talks.
"We have a proposal on the table. We would like to have a response and we would like to continue discussions, so in our view negotiations and discussions have not been cut off," said Pfister. "If there is a better way to accomplish a trusteeship, if there is a better way under the terms of the transfer to secure the equipment against further jeopardy while they are restabilizing themselves--I want to emphasize NPR is a very sick organization--we would like to hear it."
On the possibility of blocking the scheduled $1 million federal payment, Pfister said NPR had told CPB that if it did not get a loan, it couldn't operate past Aug. 15. Therefore, he wasn't sure NPR would be able to fulfill the program contract for the federal payment.
This afternoon Pfister has scheduled an interconnection discussion with NPR member stations on the negotiation impasse. The NPR board is scheduled to meet Thursday and Friday, and the CPB board is scheduled to meet on Thursday.
Bornstein said of the letter from Pfister: "I must take that as a take-it-or-leave-it basis for negotiating which I regard as disappointing and unfortunate."
On CPB's intractability over the transfer of title, and its explanations that this move would protect the equipment in case of lawsuits by creditors, Bornstein said, "If you examine the whole bankruptcy matter at the outset of the loan agreement, CPB has extraordinary fiscal oversight over NPR in the next three years. Unless they default, this place is not going to default. If they are to do their job, surely NPR will be protected."
Several reasons for CPB's position have been offered by NPR staffers. These include a desire to restructure or dismantle NPR, taking away some of its profit-making power by putting the distribution equipment under someone else's ownership.
But Pfister countered: "CPB in this proposed loan arrangement has no ownership, no operational authority, no management authority."
Another scenario is creation of a new network through selected satellite uplink stations. This network could produce the news magazine shows, "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition," which CPB has repeatedly said it will protect.
"I haven't said that," said Bornstein, "but I believe it does create a situation where the trustees of the interconnection system are no longer trustees selected by the licensees but selected by CPB. It could fragment public radio, I think it would weaken public radio."
However, Bornstein said he did fear that a network could be created and had suggested other alternatives to his negotiators, including a shareholders' cooperative, a privately owned subsidiary or the election of a station trustee group by the members--but not a solution arrived at "under the gun."
Later Pfister said, "I think that is more public broadcasting political nonsense. National Public Radio has a high-quality, wonderful reputation of producing extraordinary radio programming. No one is going to touch that."
While Pfister was trying to clarify his position, he opened up a whole new problem of morale by saying, "I just want them to get back to work."
The staff at NPR believed he meant them. Faith Fancher, a reporter and shop steward, hand-delivered a letter to Pfister protesting his words. And Bornstein, in his last volley of the day, echoed the staff's dismay at the remark and then asked for a "democratic deliberation" by the public broadcasting community on the issue of ownership.