New Philly media foundation arises from the ashes of WYBE-TV

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Howard Blumenthal, the outgoing CEO of WYBE-TV 35, will be staying on as a foundation board member.

Philadelphia will be losing a public TV channel this fall when WYBE-TV 35 shuts down, but gaining a significant new grant-making foundation focused on media, education, and diversity.

The new foundation, called Independence Public Media of Philadelphia, will give out several million dollars a year from a $131.5 million endowment to other tax-exempt groups in the region (and perhaps beyond) that abide by the same ethical code driving WYBE during the last 27 years.

That code is “using media and new technologies to connect communities, promote diversity, and encourage understanding,” said WYBE’s outgoing CEO, Howard Blumenthal, who will stay on as an Independence Public Media board member. “As on WYBE, we’ll be looking to support media projects that aim to make things better, that are very conscious of social issues, education, that help create an informed populace, that present ideas that aren’t as popular. We want to represent the interests of minorities, disenfranchised groups, that dig deep, focus on national and international views.”

Might they mostly target online sites and streaming services? Or prop up endangered print media? “We’re wide open,” said Rene DeGeorge Smith, chair of the Independence Public Media board of directors. “New media technologies may come into play that we don’t even know about yet. We just want to encourage a lot of things.”

“Making the transition from a small, boot-strapped, nonprofit broadcaster focused on education and public media is an exciting and daunting proposition,” Smith added. “By becoming a foundation, our board believes Independence Public Media can increase its impact on the Philadelphia area. We take the responsibility of investing and deploying more than $131 million very seriously and will be very careful with our focus, our decision making, and our evaluation of success.”

The new foundation’s whopping endowment is coming from the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadcast Incentive Auction, a multiyear undertaking that encouraged stations such as WYBE to relinquish highly desirable channel spectrum so it could be “reallocated for wireless and other services,” Blumenthal said.

That purchase “has now closed, though we haven’t received any of the money and aren’t really sure who the spectrum buyer or buyers are,” Blumenthal said. “It’s not as simple as ‘Channel 35 will now be going to’ this company or that.”

Comcast, T-Mobile, and Dish were major auction bid winners, but the spectrum has been reordered so no one entity got Channel 35’s spot.

“The FCC may reallocate, divide it up for several purposes,” Blumenthal said. “We don’t even have an exact shutdown date but expect to be off the air by the end of the year, at the latest.”

Some outreach efforts have been made, he said “to place WYBE’s core MiND TV content elsewhere” and to find new local broadcast and/or cable outlets for the international news channels WYBE also has delivered in its four digital channel lineup – NHK from Japan, France24, and Russia’s RT. “They’ll be making their own announcements,” Blumenthal said, “and are already available for viewing online and on some pay TV services.”

The all-volunteer board at Independence Media is working up a strategic plan for its foundation focus, Smith said.

She won’t quit her Chadds Ford day job as vice president of technology with Kynectiv, maker of  decision simulation software for life sciences and health-care professionals. But she will have some hard decisions to make with her fellow board members.

“We expect to begin awarding grants no later than early 2019,” she said.