For more than 50 years, local public television station WYES-TV has worked “to inform, teach, illuminate and inspire” its audience by offering programs and other activities focusing on education and public and cultural affairs—as well as entertainment. Its high-caliber national program service, coupled with productions that showcase our distinct local culture, has earned Channel 12 the largest television audience in its history. As many as one million viewers in the area centered in New Orleans that includes Southeast Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast from Thibodaux to Hammond and Biloxi tune in each week.
The station’s impact is not limited to its local audience, however. Over the years, many of its unique award-winning programs have been seen nationally—and 80 percent of public television stations across the country have committed to run the station’s newest effort, Chef John Besh’s New Orleans, which premiered April 2 of this year.
IN’s Stephen Faure was given the opportunity to talk one-on-one with several of the station’s key personnel, who graciously shared the WYES story for our readers.
“It’s so ironic that I’m sitting here,” Randall Feldman says, as he looks out over the 17th Street Canal from his Metairie office in Heritage Plaza. “This canal broke about a mile up and sent water down to Navarre Avenue and flooded us with 5 feet of water, which is why I’m sitting here right now. This is our third set of temporary offices.” President and general manager of WYES-TV, New Orleans’ first public television station, Feldman and his staff have battled challenge after challenge since Katrina’s flood tore in half the building that Channel 12 had called home for nearly 50 years.
“We’re still trying to recover,” Feldman says. All in all, though, the station has coped remarkably well. While the office staff has led somewhat of a nomadic life, the production team at the Navarre Avenue studios near City Park has made the best of the crippled facility and began producing the local and national programming the station has become known for almost as soon as the water receded.
“It was really important to let people know that we [and the people of New Orleans]were still here,” says Beth Utterback, the station’s director of broadcasting. When Lakeview was basically still a ghost town, WYES began production of Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Always Cooking! “Chef Paul got on board, and we did 26 parts. There was nobody staying at the studio, and most of the houses in Lakeview still hadn’t been gutted.” The flood had caused the front half of the building, the station’s office space, to detach from the other half, which houses the production facilities. The office half could not be salvaged, and the first floor of the production area had flooded. The Prudhomme show was taped in the studio, but everything had to be done with a mobile production unit and trucked-in generators. “To get that on the air was a big thing mentally, physically and financially,” Utterback says.
The Beginning of a New Orleans Voice
In the early 1950s, the Federal Communications Commission began setting aside television channels for educational purposes. Feldman says, “A group of people in New Orleans decided that would be good to do. Three women got together: Pokie McIlhenny, Marion Abramson and Elizabeth Selley. They approached Darwin Fenner Sr. for a grant, and they were on their way. In 1953, the Greater New Orleans Educational Television Foundation was founded. In 1957, we went on the air.”
Utterback says, “This was the 12th public television station [in the country]. It was only on a few hours a day.”
Long-time viewers may remember that WYES started out as Channel 8. In 1970, it swapped places with the ABC network affiliate on Channel 12. This was important, because at that time almost every television set had a dial that had to be physically turned to change channels; WYES was now unique, apart from the commercial networks at the other end of the dial. “The switch from Channel 8 to Channel 12 was one of the first things that saved WYES,” says Utterback. The ABC commercial station, in exchange for being placed with the other commercial networks, agreed to shoulder WYES’ transmitter expenses. “I was still a kid; I remember watching the changeover with my family. You had Channel 4, Channel 6 and Channel 8 over here, and then you had to go over there to change to 12. [WYES] liked not being in the middle of the network stations. It was a win-win situation.”
A Lakeview native, Utterback has been with the station for 30 years. “This year is my 30th year with WYES and 30 years since I met my husband,” who worked at the station and showed her around her first day. “Mr. Rodgers, The Electric Company and Zoom were all shows I grew up on and really wanted to be a part of. I used to race home so I’d be in time for Mr. Rodgers, because I thought Mr. Rodgers was speaking just to me,” Utterback recalls. “He liked me the way I was. Even then, I was pretty self-confident, but it was always nice to hear that.”
Children’s educational programming has remained the backbone of WYES’ daytime broadcasts. But, Utterback explains, public television has had to adapt to changes in media. “For years, we used to air the GED. Now people go online to do that. So we evolved. Our [daytime programming]has become more narrowed to children’s education. We also do outreach in schools.”
Showcasing our Culture
WYES has excelled in producing shows that spotlight the unique flavor of our community, and continuing that legacy is important to station leaders. Peggy Scott Laborde, senior producer, notes, “Certainly the role of public TV is to provide public TV programs, and a lot of stations nationally do just that. We’re very fortunate in that we also do a lot of local productions that hold a special place in the hearts of our audience.”
The ability to produce such in-depth, locally oriented series is something that fits the nature of public television, in contrast to the local commercial network stations whose local programming revolves around newscasts. “While news people are under the gun every single day, we have the luxury of really taking time in doing the research and pulling things together,” says Utterback. “People look at these shows for years and years; they buy them and give them to their kids and grandkids for Christmas. It’s something that we’re proud of.”
“We work on local cultural legacy programming. It is the core of what we do,” notes Feldman, who says that mission really hit home after the storm. “We thought that it was important, but we had no idea that it was an essential service until after Katrina, when viewers saw these shows on our air. They sent e-mails, stopped us on the street and made phone calls, all [sending the same message:]‘Thank God, we’ve not lost our past.’”
Paul Combel is another long-time WYES employee. “I planted that big oak tree out front,” he jokes about the length of time he’s been there. Combel came to the station in the early 1970s after finishing a tour of duty as an Air Force combat photographer in Vietnam. He recalls the general manager at the time told him, “‘You’re the only guy that’s applied for this job without long hair and a flowing gown,’ because of all the hippies at that time.”
Starting as a cameraman, Combel has been involved, in one aspect or another, in almost every show WYES has produced since. Now he’s an all-around handyman, set dresser, lighting technician and director of photography, and he ultimately provides quality control for everything shot in the studio. His ingenuity helped breathe life back into the studio and keep it alive with limited resources after Katrina. “I throw all this together from what I have. It’s primitive, but it looks good on the air. No matter what you see in here, it’s deceiving—the illusion, the smoke and mirrors that we pull off.” He’s not without help, though, to make things picture-perfect. “All our cameras are high-def, and also our monitors, so we’re pretty much up to speed with the technology.”
During his career, Combel’s made the transition from film to videotape to high-definition digital video. He shot much of the footage out in the field for Channel 12’s early documentaries, which set the standard for the level of local programming the station maintains today.
Many of those local documentaries were produced by John Beyer, who Combel fondly remembers as a creative genius. “Beyer’s method of producing the show was to go out and shoot it. The concept was there, and it was building as we shot it. He’d view all of the footage, and then he’d go away and write it.”
Combel says Beyer was ahead of the curve in his productions. A memorable Beyer production Combel shot footage for was Observations From 10 Below. Combel also says, “Beyer beat the Food Network.” Hot Stuff: The Restaurants of New Orleans, a Beyer documentary, aired in 1980. “He started Hot Stuff, that led to the Great Chefs series and then Great Chefs spooled off onto the world,” Combel says. “We did so many shows. Hot Stuff was the first one. Then we did a documentary on Pete Fountain and one on Louis Prima. We’d use these shows to hustle the bucks for public television. We’d have membership drives. For the one we did with Pete Fountain, we had Pete on the show, appealing to the community to pledge money for more shows like that.”
WYES produced other cooking series, including Justin Wilson’s early show. Paul Prudhomme’s show remains on the air, and Combel was involved in the station’s latest entry, Chef John Besh’s New Orleans, which premiered April 2 of this year, and appears throughout the country. “Not only is it a great cooking show because he’s a wonderful chef, but he’s also promoting our area and our culture,” says Utterback.
Keeping Beyer’s spirit alive are Laborde and WYES’ other talented producers, including Terri Landry and Marcia Kavanaugh, as well as independent producers who work with the station. Over the years, they’ve produced a litany of documentaries and series highlighting the area’s unique culture. Laborde says, “I’ve done shows on shopping, Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street, the French Quarter, Canal Street, St. Charles Avenue and Uptown. Terri Landry has done those cultural heritage shows which are really good—the Irish in New Orleans, the Italian and German and Jewish communities and the show about the northshore.”
Laborde produces Steppin’ Out, a weekly series, and her husband, Errol, produces another weekly series, Informed Sources. Both shows focus on current events in the community. Peggy’s show features upcoming happenings in the arts, entertainment and culinary world, while Errol’s recaps the week’s news headlines.
The Labordes, along with artist Henri Schindler, also host WYES’s showing of the Rex Ball and meeting of the courts of Rex and Comus every Mardi Gras evening, giving otherwise-ordinary citizens a glimpse into the secretive world of Carnival pageantry.
One reason WYES has been able to afford to do so much local programming over the years is the income provided by its television production operations, under the banner of YES Productions, a subsidiary of WYES. In the early ’80s, the station started YES Productions, a mobile-unit company that also manages the station’s facilities. Feldman says, “Now we have two major mobile units, 18-wheelers. We’ve literally been around the world—to the Olympics in Korea, to everywhere, doing a variety of things. Mostly sports, some entertainment and the occasional program for WYES. But it pumps funds into the TV station.” (When you’re watching a Hornets’ game, it’s likely being broadcast on YES Productions equipment.) YES Productions may employ as many as 300 people during the course of a year.
The mobile units are based out of the Navarre Avenue facilities, which YES Productions also lets out as studio space for movies, commercials and internet video providers. “When a movie comes in, we’ve had the whole parking lot filled with production trucks, grip trucks and craft services. They use some of our instruments, but the grip trucks bring most everything,” Combel says.
“YES Productions also gives our staff interesting things to work on from time to time,” notes Utterback. “They’ve done some Treme episodes; Peggy was even in an episode. They got the idea to put her in when they saw her at the studio. Ernest Borgnine was there one day. I walked in, and he was working on a movie scene.”
Another source of income for WYES is its auctions, where viewers can bid on items donated by other members of the community. In the 1960s, volunteers looking for alternatives to membership drives for income saw that other stations around the country were holding auctions. “So we started one here, and the auction is one of the great philanthropic stories of our region,” says Feldman. “Lots of volunteers got their training here and went off to serve at other non-profit organizations.”
Since its beginning, the auction has been an intimate way for the community to get involved in public television. All types of organizations pitch in to work the phones and the auction boards. It’s one reason Utterback was attracted to the station as a career choice. “I felt a connection to WYES, not only because it was in our neighborhood, but because my family would always watch the auctions,” she says. “We would bid on things and get so excited that we’d pile in the car to go and pick them up.”
Melanie Andrews is auctions manager, also known, as she jokes, as “One Who Obeys the Volunteers.” Art Collection 12, held each June, is the largest televised event of the year, with a three-day preview and then, a few weeks later, seven nights of live prime-time auctioneering. “We try not to be on the air at one in the morning. But we do make really good money late night. People are laying back and watching,” she says. “For fall, we have a general merchandise auction, a dining and entertainment auction and a travel auction. We end the year with a wine auction.” Andrews hopes to get at least 800 items donated this year.
After Katrina, the art auction moved to June and the others to late fall, when the worst of hurricane season is over. More than 800 donated items were awaiting the September preview show and the October auction in 2005 when the flood destroyed everything.
The most valuable work Andrews recalls coming up for sale was a statue by sculptor Enrique Alferez. After a bidding war, it was sold to his estate for about $6,000. “We cried and cracked open champagne for that one.”
WYES is ready to break ground on a new production facility. Phase I is to rebuild at Navarre Avenue. Once it’s built, the production equipment in the old building can be moved without much interruption to operations. Then, the old building will be demolished and new offices and garage space constructed as Phase II. “We have the money for Phase I. We’ll have to do a capital campaign for Phase II,” Feldman says, “although Phase I is much more expensive.”
Feldman is also looking to the future on the internet, saying, “There’s a huge paradigm shift here in media. It’s all because of digital.” Marcia Kavanaugh, WYES’s director of local initiatives, is considering the web as one new way of interacting with the community on subjects like coastal restoration and government accountability. Feldman says, “Part of our long-range plan is to figure how to do more with [the web], how to make that a rich environment. The web has content that you can take time to interact with and really learn from. You can’t do that on a TV show. So we’re thinking web first, with the broadcast being more of a promotional vehicle to drive people to the website.” Currently, WYES has two websites. In addition to WYES.org, viewers can catch the latest installments of Steppin’ Out and Informed Sources at WYESonDemand.org.
As it moves into the future, WYES will continue to fulfill its unique mission to serve the community by presenting children’s educational programming and producing in-depth shows on local culture and public affairs. Feldman says, “That’s not only for us now—it’s so that all our children in the future can know where we come from and why we value what we do. Nobody else does that.”
Government Funding for Public Broadcasting
While WYES keeps as busy as it can, cultivating its membership and earning money through YES Productions and the auctions, government funding for local stations as well as the national Public Broadcasting System network remains vital to keeping public television on the air and fulfilling its mission. That funding is decreasing and/or threatened at the state and federal levels.
In Louisiana, state funding for WYES has been eliminated for the first time in over 25 years, while Louisiana Public Broadcasting, which operates public television stations throughout the rest of Louisiana, retained its state funding, albeit at a reduced level.
On the federal level, bills have called for the reduction or elimination of federal funding for public broadcasting, even though it is less than two ten-thousandths of the federal budget.
These actions have been taken in spite of studies that document the positive effects of PBS programs such as Sesame Street on children’s literacy and math skills and the findings of polls such as the annual Roper Poll on public affairs and media. In 2010, that poll indicated that Americans believe public television is the most trustworthy media outlet in the country; that it is “mostly fair” (when asked to choose among “liberal,” “mostly fair” and “conservative”); and that funding public broadcasting is the second-best use of tax funds in the entire budget, next to the military.
To support WYES, tune in to Ch. 12 on your television and visit WYES.org for show schedules, program and auction information as well as membership and volunteer opportunities. Many of the programs featuring our local culture produced by WYES are available online for sale on DVD; sales also support WYES.