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Reassessing MPT as the dust settles Analysis: Ho's downfall was difficult to watch, but more ugliness awaits as public TV outlet seeks new funding and new leader.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The demise of Raymond K. K. Ho, who was fired this week as president of Maryland Public Television, leaves behind two important questions.

If Ho was, as some of his colleagues nationally describe him, a visionary whose innovative leadership made MPT a model for stations around the country, why did his nine-year tenure here come to such an ugly end?

And, more important, are Ho's bosses right when they say it is time for MPT to rely less on government money and more on contributions from viewers, foundations and businesses -- a move Ho feared would drive public TV into the hands of commercial interests?

The answer to the first question is, perhaps, provided by Ho's own erratic behavior this week.

Without question, Ho was an original thinker in public television. He made MPT a premier producer of shows for the nation's Public Broadcasting System. He had creative ideas for using public TV in schools. And MPT prospered financially under his leadership.

"MPT has become a valuable contributor to national programming on PBS, and that is one contribution that can be laid at Raymond Ho's feet," Ervin Duggan, president of PBS, said this week. "In that regard, he serves as a role model for his colleagues at other state systems."

But from the beginning Ho was dogged by questions about his style. Some considered him a conspicuous self-promoter. Morale at MPT was said to be poor. And there were reports that Ho alienated his staff, leading to high turnover.

"Shortly after I became chairman, 'shortly after' meaning maybe five minutes, I started hearing from scores of people with regard to Raymond Ho -- stories about his management style and decision-making," said David H. Nevins, chairman of the Maryland Public Broadcasting Commission, which runs MPT. "The fact that so many people were coming forward obviously indicated to us that we needed to do something to either clear his reputation and the reputation of management at MPT or to confirm the allegations," he said.

Ho's behavior this week leaves one wondering if those who argued his problematic style outweighed his creativity weren't right after all. Fearing he was about to be fired, Ho lashed out against those who held his fate in their hands -- Gov. Parris Glendening and Nevins.

He accused them of trying to run him off the job so they could use MPT for political purposes, such as airing interviews with VIPs and covering county events as a way of currying favor with businessmen and politicos.

That alone amounted to career suicide, but the more Ho talked, the worse things got for him.

Any credibility he had evaporated when he began claiming to be the victim of a "Jewish connection" involving Nevins and state legislators out to get Ho because he is a born-again Christian.

In the end, Ho seemed to have become intoxicated by the notion that he was a television visionary and somehow confused that with his Christianity to conclude, as he told a reporter, that, "God has put his hopes in me, and television is the instrument."

His demise was sad to watch. On Monday, he was fired from his $101,000-a-year job and ordered not to set foot in his offices again. On Tuesday, state employees showed up at his home to repossess his MPT car and state-owned television sets.

By yesterday, the man who once controlled one of the most powerful public television systems in the country with 183 employees and a $24.9 million annual budget, said he was left without a single TV set in his house.

"I'm being treated like a first-class criminal, an untouchable, no // one is allowed to talk to me," Ho said, sounding as if he had no idea how all of this had come to pass.

Unfortunately, there will be more ugliness before things get back to normal at MPT, an institution that reaches into every home in Maryland with such programs as "Sesame Street" and "Masterpiece Theatre."

Next month, the commission begins a national search for a successor to Ho. The person it finds will face the bloody task of ousting Ho loyalists in senior management -- not to mention preparing MPT to deal with the changing future of public TV.

"We will be seeking someone who is visionary and creative, but also someone who is detail-oriented," Nevins said. "Obviously, also someone who has fine management and human relations skills. Most important, someone who has an appreciation for the kind of important role public television plays in the life of the citizens of this region."

One question the new leadership will face is this: Should MPT wean itself from state financing to assure its future. Both Nevins and his predecessor, Zelig Robinson, believe a more diverse funding base is critical.

Robinson said that even when he was commission chairman, there was talk of "privatizing" MPT -- that is, having the station get more of its financing from viewers, foundations and businesses.

Nevins agreed, noting that MPT has only three sources of money -- state, federal and private contributions -- and that it will be a big enough struggle just to keep the government contributions stable.

"If we are to grow and prosper and become more of a presence than we already are, it leaves only one other funding source: private revenue," Nevins said. "That's grants, sponsorships, contributions and the like.

"During my tenure," he continued, "I would like my contribution to be helping to develop that third funding source. We need to look much more seriously at partnerships with the community, doing entrepreneurial things that will bring us revenue."

That is clearly the trend nationally in public television. The three great stations in the top tier that MPT aspires to -- WETA in Washington, New York's WNET and Boston's WGBH -- all get more private funding than MPT and have less reliance on government money.

Today, MPT gets $8.1 million -- or 32 percent -- of its budget from the state, with the rest coming from the federal government and private sources.

The amount MPT gets from the state has declined by about 50 percent since 1990, but its level of state support is still the third highest in the country, according to the Association of America's Public Television Stations.

Nationally, public television stations, on average, receive about 17 percent of their money from the state.

Ho saw the idea of privatization the same way he saw the Glendening administration's evaluation of his performance -- as a conspiracy. Ho claims that he went public with his charges in part because the Glendening administration was talking about "privatization" and a possible million-dollar budget cut for MPT in 1997.

In interviews with The Sun, and on talk radio this week, he described the plan to privatize MPT as part of a plot to sell the network's property in Owings Mills to Glendening supporters and drive MPT into the arms of commercial interests like Comcast Cablevision, which does business with Nevins' public-relations firm.

There is, of course, reason to fear that if public television becomes too dependent on corporate money, it will look more and more like commercial TV. Ho isn't entirely wrong about that.

But others in public TV say there are advantages to being less reliant on the state -- not the least of which is that a station with multiple sources of money is more independent.

"We try to have diverse funding sources, so that no one source is dominant and no one source controls," said Nancy Neubauer, director of communications for the association representing the nation's 190 public TV stations.

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