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Wichita public TV station in midst of critical fundraising

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012, at 11:34 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, at 11:17 a.m.

KPTS, the public television station serving south-central Kansas since 1970, has a lot at stake right now.

If the station doesn’t raise enough money – $650,000 – to have new equipment operating by September 2013, it will risk losing its license to serve the portion of its viewership left without the station’s signal since a mandated technology change in 2009. KPTS, Channel 8, would continue to serve those homes that currently receive its signal.

Children in the affected area – which includes about 39,000 homes in southwest and southeast Wichita and a couple thousand more in scattered pockets – would be the biggest losers if KPTS can’t meet its deadline, said Michele Gors, the station’s president and CEO. The most important thing the station provides, Gors said, is seven hours a day of educational programming for children, including such shows as “Between the Lions,” which helps 3- to 7-year-olds develop reading skills.

For adults, there’s entertainment and information, including “Antiques Roadshow,” “Frontline” documentaries, the “Downton Abbey” drama series, and community and government affairs shows.

The main area that currently doesn’t receive the signal includes roughly 60,000 children, many of whom are at a socioeconomic disadvantage and whose only access to preschool-age learning may be KPTS, Gors said.

“Some of these homes don’t even have books” or computers, “things other families take for granted,” she said.

The situation puts some children so far behind other children’s skill levels when they enter school, they feel they can never catch up and it can make them less apt to like school, Gors said.

“When you get kids who don’t want to go to school, then you get … bigger problems,” she said.

A key goal of the fundraising effort is helping people understand “that we’re not just a TV station,” she said.

The station has raised about two-thirds of the $650,000 needed. But the challenge is that so far “that major gift has not come in,” she said. The single biggest donation is $75,000 over five years, and the Wichita Community Foundation gave a $50,000 matching grant.

That doesn’t mean that the station doesn’t appreciate even the smallest donations. Gors showed a letter from a woman who said she is “on disability with a terminal illness” and is raising three grandchildren.

The woman said the station’s programming has “expanded my mind and takes me to places all over the world that I would never see otherwise.” The woman’s letter closed: “I am committing to 20.00 a month as long as I can swing it.”

“And, you know,” Gors said, “that’s just as important to me as someone who writes a check for $20,000.”

Still, it takes more time when the donations come in smaller increments.

The current need exists because the federal government mandated a change from analog to digital technology. When KPTS made the required switch, it lost the ability to send a signal mainly to south Wichita, but also pockets elsewhere.

People paying for cable or satellite TV can get KPTS, but many people can’t afford cable or satellite, and the idea is they should be able to get the station for free, Gors said.

“We’re public television,” she said. “We’re supposed to be there for everybody.”

The money being raised will allow the station to install equipment, including a tower in north Wichita that will amplify a signal from an existing tower in Hutchinson to the unserved population. The station is having to buy land for the tower, and the September 2013 deadline “means we need to start building here soon,” Gors said.

KPTS has obtained $150,000 in tax credits from the state and is soliciting donors willing to give in exchange for the credits. The station has reached out to accounting firms whose clients might be interested in the credits.

The fundraising is occurring on-air, through mailings to foundations and in personal contacts. Overall, KPTS depends on fundraising for about 67 percent of its funding; the rest of the money comes from state and federal government.

Fundraising has been tougher since the recession of 2008 and 2009, Gors said. And the station has seen major cuts in federal and state funding over the past few years.

Gors provided a letter from a former viewer, in Conway Springs, who hasn’t been able to get the KPTS signal since the switch to digital in 2009.

“We have learned so much from watching public television,” the former viewer said. “We long for the joy of being able to receive your signal.”

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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