MPT departures add to rumors of rising discontent 'It was pure hell,' one person declares about working there

November 29, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

When Michael Styer, a popular top executive at Maryland Public Television for almost 20 years, cleaned out his desk and left earlier this month, many at the station and in public television were shocked.

Perhaps they shouldn't have been. Mr. Styer was only the most recent in a long series of top executives who have left MPT during the six-year tenure of Raymond Ho as president of the state-supported public agency.

But Mr. Styer's departure -- announced to the staff as a resignation, though many sources say he was ousted -- has brought long-simmering discontent with Mr. Ho's management to a full boil at MPT's headquarters in Owings Mills.

Many of those who left, most of whom wish not to be identified, are highly critical of his management style.

"It was pure hell working for him," said one.

But they also raise broader questions about Mr. Ho's attempt to make MPT a major player in the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) by funding and co-producing expensive national and international programs that have little or no connection to Maryland.

Mr. Ho and his defenders argue that he has brought MPT through a difficult transition, kept its budget rising as state funding has been chopped, and turned MPT into the fourth-largest source of national public programming.

Mr. Styer's resignation comes after a tumultuous summer that saw a dramatic turnover in the personnel who solicit corporate underwriting for MPT programs. The public broadcasting equivalent of advertising salesmen, they account for about $4.5 million of MPT's $25.8 million budget. The summer also saw a serious rift, now smoothed-over, between Mr. Ho and Louis Rukeyser, host of "Wall Street Week," the golden goose of MPT's budget, which alone brings in $3 million a year in corporate contributions.

Mr. Styer, who created the long-running "Critics' Place" and produced a variety of cultural programs before moving into management, would not comment on the circumstances of his departure. Sources at MTP said the silence was part of Mr. Styer's severance agreement.

Mr. Ho and Norman Silverstein, MPT's vice president for administration, conceded that there is discontent. "When you go through three rounds of layoffs like we have, you are bound to have some morale problems," Mr. Silverstein said.

"I would challenge you to find any state agency that is not having morale problems," Mr. Ho added. "On top of that are the problems that are happening throughout public broadcasting, and all of broadcasting, as we face stiffer competition.

"The employees here see that and it can't help but affect them. And everyone now has to do twice as much work, because we used to have more than 300 employees and now we're down to 220 or so."

Mr. Ho spoke highly of Mr. Styer, but said, "After 19 years, sometimes it is time for a change.

"Michael is a very good broadcaster, but broadcasting is becoming a less and less important part of our operation," he said, citing the need to emphasize other areas of telecommunications.

Mr. Silverstein said the underwriting staff left because MPT wanted them to work as regular employees, instead of independent contractors on commission.

"We asked these people to work 40-hour weeks and they didn't want to," he said. "As we rely more and more on funding from sources other than the state, it is necessary that we run these operations on a more businesslike basis."

The Prudential matter

But former underwiting representatives say MPT management's attitude toward its underwriters has been anything but businesslike.

Brent Gunts, a former general manager of Channel 11 (WBAL) who raised national underwriting for MTP from 1975 until his resignation this year, said Mr. Ho tried unsuccessfully to get out of an agreement with Prudential Securities when he found someone to underwrite "Wall Street Week" for more money.

Mr. Ho said he did procure other underwriting for "Wall Street Week" at higher prices than Prudential had been paying. "Brent wanted us just to renew with his customer so he could continue to receive his commission," he said.

Not so, said Mr. Gunts: `That had nothing to do with it. This was just not the way you treat someone who has been loyal to you a long time. During the early years, there were times when Prudential was the only underwriter 'Wall Street Week' had."

During Mr. Ho's six years, five different people have been in charge of fund-raising. It was last in the hands of Mr. Styer and is now under Mr. Silverstein on an interim basis. Craig Brush, who ran fund raising before Mr. Ho took over, lasted 18 months under the new regime and left for a better-paying job in Miami in 1988.

"At that time, I was being asked to do things that violated the code of ethics that I swore to uphold as a member of the Society of Fund Raising Executives," Mr. Brush said of his departure.

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