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‘Horizon’ down to skeleton staff, in financial turmoil

“Horizon,” the public affairs television program for confessed political junkies, is in danger of going off the air because of budget cutbacks at Arizona State University, said former News and Public Affairs Director Mike Philipsen.

“I don’t think it will make it,” Philipsen told the Yellow Sheet Report.

Philipsen is one of at least 11 KAET/Channel 8 employees who have been laid off this year. Additionally, the staff for “Horizon,” “Horizonte,” and “Journalists Roundtable” is down to three employees. One of them, Mike Sauceda, has been given notice he will be gone in July, leaving anchor Ted Simons, David Majure and possibly one other staffer as the shows’ skeleton crew.

Despite the strict personnel diet at the station, ASU Vice President of Public Affairs Virgil Renzulli said there is no chance the three programs will be axed. He said it’s a matter of slimming down based on recommendations from at least two consultants.

Fundraising is down, he said, and the date for the KAET move to the $71 million Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication building downtown is not clear.

“The show isn’t being cut,” he said.

Renzulli said KAET was over-staffed with production positions and over-expensed compared to other public broadcasting stations across the country.

“In the modern media market, you have to have smaller, more flexible staffs,” he said. “PBS stations have to be as commercially sound as commercial stations. Now, we’re in really excellent shape.”

KAET, which has operated since 1961 on the ASU campus, was planning to move downtown this summer and occupy a 40-foot-by-60-foot studio (photo), which would be used for “Horizon” and other local programming. The move is a separate issue from operational expenses, Renzulli said, and still will take place, “but I don’t know when.”

He added $250,000 for a new “Horizon” set “has been taken care of.”

Renzulli said the cutbacks also are in preparation for anticipated fewer public contributions in 2010, but if those donations come in at or above 2008 levels, the station will be in excellent financial shape.

Two sources told the Yellow Sheet it would take $150,000 to bring things back to normal in news/public affairs.

Michael Grant, who before his retirement two years ago hosted 6,000 “Horizon” shows during his 25 years with the station, said he had heard about the cutbacks.

“Given that level of cutbacks, it’s awfully difficult to maintain the program,” he said, adding he would have “a heavy degree of sadness” were the show to end.

“I hope it doesn’t happen, but how long you can run at that level and low staffing I’m not sure. It’s had a great run. I think it’s had a positive impact. It’s given voice to a whole lot of coverage, a whole lot of issues that otherwise wouldn’t have had a voice,” Grant said.

The cutbacks are reflective of what’s going on in the media across the country in bad economic times, he said, with frequent “Horizon” guest Alfredo Gutierrez in agreement and issuing a warning.

With diminishing media scrutiny, “indulgence in corruption” by policy makers will increase “when ‘Horizons’ go away, and reporters are unable to bring accountability,” Gutierrez said, adding the show covers topics “in a very intelligent way, and no one else does that.”

He said policy makers have to defend their proposals on “Horizon.” “To the degree those proposals had elements of insanity . . .they became laughing stocks. I don’t know how many times these people came on the air to explain their proposals to Michael Grant, and that’s where it ended.”

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