Longtime chief of WUFT leaves post

Published: Thursday, January 11, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 10, 2007 at 10:43 p.m.

Public broadcasting has gone through a lot of changes in Gainesville over the past 30 years, from the advent of WUFT-FM, to the rise of cable to new digital and high-definition formats.

Rick Lehner has overseen it all.

Lehner became director of programming for WUFT-TV in 1977, and in 1981 was named general manager, in time to oversee the creation of WUFT-FM. Wednesday was his last day on the job as he leaves to be vice president of operations with the National Educational Television Association in Columbia, S.C., where he will oversee a staff that provides programming services to 100 public TV stations, including WUFT-TV.

Lehner said the mission of WUFT's stations is to educate, entertain and inform. Another mission is to provide a training ground for University of Florida broadcast journalism students, who have gone on to careers at stations throughout the nation.

When Lehner took over, cable television was in its infancy. As it grew, cable provided niche programming that challenged public television to come up with new alternatives. Lehner said public television has seen a resurgence, while WUFT-FM is setting fundraising records.

WUFT-TV runs the Public Broadcasting Services' primetime schedule, but also tailors broadcasts to community needs, Lehner said.

"We do a lot of listening during fund drives," he said. "People call in and make a lot of comments about what they like and don't like."

Some comments have to do with politics.

"We still have people who call to say your programming is too liberal, and in fact we have people who call to say it's too conservative," he said. "When you're doing that, you're probably hitting a good middle ground."

Of a $5 million annual budget — $3.5 million for TV and $1.5 million for radio — Lehner said 30 percent of the funding comes from community donations, 25 percent from UF and the bulk of the remaining 45 percent from state and federal funding.

He said he is not expecting the regular Big Bird Battle in Congress when federal funding comes up. "Things have moderated a little bit, especially since the last election," he said. "We'll see less of an attack on public broadcasting. I think public broadcasting itself has kind of moderated a little bit in the programming."

That doesn't mean they shy away from controversy, however, with shows like "Front Line" and public affairs programs.

"We do go after some hard issues and explore them on both sides," he said.

In 1995, Classic 89 started a repeat broadcast — WJUF Nature Coast 90 — with a 24,000-watt tower in Inverness. Digital radio users can also get three channels, Classic 89 on channel 1, National Public Radio news talk on channel 2 and old-time radio from the WUFT library on channel 3.

WUFT-TV started a high-definition channel three years ago, with some alternate programming.

WUFT community outreach efforts include helping teachers and caregivers use children's programming through the Ready to Learn program and literacy initiative.

Other activities include the Celebration of Wines fund-raiser and the Fanfare and Fireworks celebration.

An interim general manager has not yet been named.

Anthony Clark can be reached at anthony.clark@ gvillesun.com or (352) 374-5094.

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