New Jersey is planning to get out of the broadcasting business, handing control of its New Jersey Network television station to a public broadcasting outfit in New York and laying off its approximately 130 state employees, Gov. Christie announced today.
NJN will become NJTV and will be operated by WNET, Channel 13 in New York, beginning July 1 — unless the Democratic Legislature intervenes to block the move.
Republican Gov. Christie said he has always found it “strange” that government employees were being paid by the government to report on the government. He called it an “irresolvable conflict,” and likened it to an arrangement that would exist in the Soviet Union.
“We need to have robust public broadcasting in our state, but we need to have it in a way that’s not continuing to cost the taxpayers, and can be perceived as truly independent from state government,” Christie said.
All of NJN’s radio licences are also being sold as part of the deal. WHYY in Philadelphia, which did not bid on the TV portion, is acquiring five licenses for FM radio stations in Manahawkin (89.9), Atlantic City (89.7), Cape May Court House (90.3) Bridgeton (89.3) and Berlin (88.1). It is paying just under $1 million, according to The Associated Press.
Ron Stekeur, a radio consultant for WEHA radio station in Atlantic County, placed a losing bid for two of the radio stations.
“We just think it’s very unfair that they handed out these TV and radio licenses to people in New York Cty and Philadelphia,” Stekeur said. “They didn't even consider anyone who lives in New Jersey at all.”
Some of these stations will help guarantee a continued WHYY signal down the Atlantic City Expressway and through large portions of the Jersey Shore, said WHYY spokesman Art Ellis. The Federal Communications Commission still must approve the license transfers.
Although its nightly news broadcasts will continue in the form of the newly-named NJ Today show, it is unclear if its familiar faces — 29-year-veteran Michael Aron, the senior political correspondent, and Jim Hooker, the anchor — will remain on the air.
The new station’s five-year contract with the state for the broadcasting license does not mandate NJTV keep the current staff or its programing, like the weekly Reporters Roundtable show.
Still, under the contract, there will continue to be live broadcasts of the governor’s State of the State and budget addresses, live election coverage and Sunday public affairs shows. There will be 20 hours of “New Jersey-centric programing” a week, Christie said.
The president of WNET, Neal Shapiro, said the new nightly broadcast would be modeled on the PBS NewsHour show, and said coverage would be “less piece driven and more interview driven, and more about policy.”
There will be between 15 and 20 people on staff in New Jersey, down from 250 at NJN before recent layoffs, retirements and cutbacks.
Finding himself in the unusual situation of covering a press conference about his own station’s demise, Aron said to the governor: “You’re talking about an operation of 15 to 20 people doing a better job. That kind of defies logic somehow.”
Christie and Shapiro said NJTV will make up for the staff reductions by partnering with newspapers, universities and arts organizations, and by relying on WNET’s back-office staff for duties like payroll.
The Communications Workers of America Local 1032, which represents NJN employees, has filed a complaint in court to enforce contractual provisions that provide employment guarantees in the case of privatization.
The union president, Patrick Kavanagh, said the bids to take over NJN should be made public, and employees should be offered employment in the new entity or hired for other state jobs.
“People didn’t elect me to be the programmer in chief,” Christie said. “It’s going to be up to the folks running NJTV which folks they hire.”
More tomorrow in The Inquirer and on Philly.com.