Channel 12′s Rowland talks to BigMedia about journalism and his upcoming retirement

The word “visionary” is over-used, especially for people who are retiring, but it’s truly an accurate description of Wick Rowland, who announced last week that he’s stepping down in March as President of Colorado Public Television (Channel 12, CPT12).

In 1999, Rowland left his job as Dean of CU’s journalism school to run Channel 12, and he quickly turned it into the go-to TV station locally for public affairs programming, creating content that KRMA Channel 6 did not offer. See more on this topic here.

Rowland built a lineup of shows that broke from the ponderousness that defined public affairs TV here at the time. Channel 12’s flagship program, Colorado Inside Out, is consistently the best public-affairs show on Denver TV and Internet, mixing information with provocation and entertainment. Under Rowland’s leadership, Channel 12 has also been a major player in election-year debates and forums, adding depth that spilled into the political discourse, beyond the unfortunately small audience that tunes to public television.

I liked bumping into Rowland over the years because he’d inevitably remind me how narrow the debate about journalism is in America, pointing out, as he does below, that advocating for increased public funding for journalism isn’t wacko, despite the gross suggestion someone had of taking an ax to the neck of Big Bird.

After you talk to Rowland, you kind of shake your head and say to yourself, “Hell no. We don’t have to settle for the market-driven mayhem and fluff that overwhelms you on commercial TV. And we don’t have to rely on nutcase bloggers or partisans.”

A reasonable model to support thoughtful journalism, as Rowland likes to say, is to provide more public funds for it, like they do in most industrialized nations. If only more people were out there like Rowland pushing for this.

Talking to Rowland is like chatting with a kind professor, which he is, but he also reminds me of an admiral, who’s seen many a battle. He’ll be missed way more than our community knows.

Here are excerpts of a conversation I had with Rowland Monday:

What’s your primary concern about journalism in Colorado?

It’s my primary concern about journalism, and you’re talking to an old journalism dean and someone who really believes in the disciplines of journalism education and training and the practice. My fundamental concern, and it’s not novel to me, and it’s the loss of what I call disciplined reporting. I very much believe in a meritocracy of work in the media. I feel that any kind of profession requires standards and a process and a mechanism for holding feet to the fire for those standards…We have had historically an editorial structure, and I just want to have the feeling the someone oversees a particular piece of work, and subjects it to fact checking and the normal protocols of editing, pushing back and keeping a reporter on his or her toes. One of the great threats of the blogosphere, frankly, is the loss of that. And we need to find ways of maintaining that.

Could public funding save journalism?

Public broadcasting could be a pilot project for what the future could look like. It’s very difficult in these United States of America to have this debate. And even on the public broadcasting side of it, we are funded on a very mere pittance by comparison with the way in which public-service media are funded in every other advanced industrial democracy. There is no comparison. That’s because we have a difficulty articulating in the United States a case for tax-based for public culture generally. It’s not an argument about public broadcasting alone. It’s about arts and culture. We just don’t put the tax-based resources into it. It’s based on the misbegotten hyper-democratic notion that the public will support it if it’s important, and, of course, we know that not to be necessarily true.

Your prediction on The Denver Post?

I’m very concerned. I’m seeing it ready to cut back to maybe three or four days a week. That worries me. Like many people I was disappointed that when the Rocky folded, The Denver Post did not grow bigger. It actually began to shrink. I’m in part an ink-stained wretch at a TV station, and I very much enjoy reading newspapers and take three or four.

What are the high points of your time at Channel 12?

Negotiating excess bandwidth opportunities that helped establish an endowment for the station…raising money and guiding the transition from analogue to digital…purchasing the building where the station resides…starting a systematic planning process and building on the success in public affairs and cultural programming. The community better understands what we’re about.

What’s the biggest problem with public television?

The worst thing is we’re being forced out on the commercial market—where were forced to worry too much about sponsorships and branding in ways that are not appropriate for public media.

Why are you retiring?

I’m 68-and-a-half years old. I’m at the stage of life where I’ve got people falling left and right around me, many of them younger. I lost my mother-in-law this year, and two or three other friends. It’s been kind of sobering for me as well. My grandkids are not getting any younger. They’re growing up fast. There’s this cliché about he’s going to spend more time with family and so on. There’s a little piece of that that’s true, probably in a lot of cases and certainly in this case. If you had asked me about the prospects of my stepping away even three of four years ago, I would have been much more reticent about stepping away, with the assault on public broadcasting…but I feel in the wake of the elections, and from a number of other things that I’m participating in nationally, I feel a little more confident than I did even a few months ago that this is a good time to step back… I do a lot of writing. I continue to publish, as if I were still at the University…I’m not finished with my discourse with the public about public media. I’m not done with that yet.

Follow Jason Salzman Twitter @bigmediablog

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