Brady on a mission to preserve MPT

Governor's pick sets tone at station

April 21, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Thomas F. Brady is a lifer at Constellation Energy Group and the companies it gobbled up, which is to say he's been in the public utility business for a very long time. He says he sees a similar social good being provided by Maryland Public Television.

"It's an asset and a treasure for the state," says Brady, 54, who oversees strategic, government and image issues as a senior vice president at Constellation.

Until last year, however, Brady hadn't given MPT or PBS much thought. That's when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. asked him to become chairman of the commission that oversees the state television system. And Brady was soon confronted by serious management issues as well as credibility problems with viewers, donors and sponsors.

The firing of Louis Rukeyser from Wall Street Week two years ago remains a black eye for the state broadcaster, whatever the merits of the decision. Membership levels are significantly down - from 72,000 two years ago to about 62,000 now. That's almost exactly the same number that MPT had when Robert J. Shuman became its CEO and president in 1996.

Donations have dropped slightly. Underwriters (or advertisers) for Wall Street Week with Fortune, still MPT's most visible presence on PBS' national schedule, commit only for fleeting periods instead of the long-term contracts enjoyed in the past. Last fall, the state auditor found repeated violations of procurement policies, including an apparent conflict of interest in a six-figure contract.

In the wake of corporate scandals such as those that enveloped Enron and WorldCom, Brady says, Maryland's legislative auditors "raised the bar in their expectations." But he says he embraces that increased scrutiny, while proclaiming faith in Shuman and the executive team at the broadcaster's Owings Mills headquarters.

Brady says he's laid down the law: no more irregularities. Everything has to be done by the book.

"The tone had to be set," Brady says. "I'm not going to use [the audit] as an indictment - provided that everybody steps up. Everybody must understand what the rules are now."

Brady says he's only beginning to turn to questions of content. Recent predecessors have promoted pet projects for programming. Under former board chairman David Nevins, MPT created local news shows. Under Constance R. Caplan, who left the board last year, it added ArtWorks, a half-hour broadcast that features the state's cultural figures and institutions. But Brady says he still needs time to assess what kinds of new shows he'll champion, whether new local shows or the more costly dramas and documentaries that could generate cash and kudos for MPT.

Like those two immediate predecessors, both supporters of Democrats, Brady has demonstrated his political inclinations. Brady gave more than $6,000 toward Ehrlich's 2002 gubernatorial campaign. As a Baltimore County congressman, Ehrlich periodically expressed skepticism of the government subsidies directed to PBS and National Public Radio, which were able to raise significant private funds.

Next year's budget of $34 million at MPT - down from $37 million two years ago - includes $11 million in taxpayer dollars. A commission appointed by Ehrlich to review the workings of state government called for MPT to be sold. The state would still pay for MPT's initiatives for students and school teachers.

After that recommendation became public, the panel simply suggested additional study. Even that prospect makes some people at MPT a bit nervous. But Brady says it deserves to be considered. "From certain structural perspectives, it could be intriguing. Let's take this seriously and see what we come up with."

Individuals and sponsors might be more willing to step in and help pay for new programs if MPT were private, he says. "Once that happens, the new funding will only come in if, in fact, the source of the money has a certain amount of say in what the content will be," he says. "It would obviously have to alter content - but keep the content close to the mission."

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