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Citizens group attacks WQED over salaries

Thursday, February 22, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Groups opposing the proposed sale of Channel 16 are following the money -- and they don't like where it's leading.

The Pittsburgh chapter of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting and the Alliance for Progressive Action argue that WQED executives are overpaid compared to their counterparts in Philadelphia and St. Louis. They're using this to buttress their arguments that WQED's pleas of financial distress are invalid.

Although the cities' rankings have changed since 1998, the year being used for compensation comparisons, Philadelphia is the fourth-largest TV market in the country while Pittsburgh has slipped to 20th and St. Louis to No. 22, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Using documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service, the groups found Pittsburgh's salaries, wages and benefits were closer to those in Philadelphia than in St. Louis. An independent check by the Post-Gazette found that to be true; it also corrected discrepancies in calculations and made sure comparisons were uniform.

"For years, WQED has cited dire financial straits in fund appeals to viewers and in legal posturing at the FCC," Mike Schneider, a spokesman for the CIPB chapter, said in a release issued yesterday. "It's about time somebody took a closer look at this self-serving rhetoric. WQED's fiscal sad tale stems from bloated salaries and outrageous perks, and things haven't really changed."

B.J. Leber, WQED vice president and station manager, said yesterday: "We just won't comment on information put out by this group. It continues to be unsubstantiated. It continues to be inaccurate. Our eyes are on a much bigger vision."

According to a statement filed with the IRS, and available for free viewing at www.guidestar.org, the top nine executives at Philadelphia's WHYY earned $1,069,061 when 1998 income, benefits and expense accounts were factored in. That averages out to $118,785. Calendar year 1998 is the most recent year for which figures are available.

WQED's top nine executives earned $1,348,382, for an average of $149,820.

President George Miles earned $220,273, which includes compensation, benefits and expenses; chief operating officer Neil Mahrer, who left in February 2000 after three years, earned a combined $274,516; and Leber, $140,713. They were the highest paid executives at WQED Pittsburgh, parent company to the two TV stations, radio station and Pittsburgh magazine.

In St. Louis, KETC's top nine executives earned $789,094, for an average of $87,677.

CIPB spokesman Schneider, an Edgewood resident, also took issue with the proposed sale of Channel 16 for $20 million -- a matter before the Federal Communications Commission -- and argues there is "no effective way for the public to monitor how the money will be spent."

WQED returned to the FCC with its third plan to sell WQEX in January. It wants to sell Channel 16 to Diane Sutter, a Pittsburgh native now living in California and operating ShootingStar Inc. The groups that released the expense comparison yesterday are trying to block that sale with the FCC and have been writing letters of protest and circulating petitions.

Thursday, February 22, 2001

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