WMHT chief eyes even stronger ties with community

Robert Altman can see plenty of landscape from the large glass windows in his corner office at WMHT
Robert Altman, the new president and general manager of WMHT, sees a bright future for the public television and radio stations.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Robert Altman, the new president and general manager of WMHT, sees a bright future for the public television and radio stations.

Robert Altman can see plenty of landscape from the large glass windows in his corner office at WMHT Educational Telecommunications in North Greenbush.

As the new president and general manager for the public television and radio broadcaster, Altman has other things in view: a long list of positives at WMHT and a bright future for its operations.

The tall, slender Altman, 58, earlier this month assumed the position vacated by Deborah Onslow. He says a talented staff, excellent studio headquarters, fine reputation and solid financial base are high on the list of attributes.

“I think we’re skilled at what we do,” Altman said. “I think we’re great storytellers — it’s part of what public broadcasting is all about. Storytelling can be entertaining, storytelling can be explaining problems. I think we’ve got a tremendous brand. I’ve been really heartened by the fact that every time when I’ve met somebody and tell them where I’m from or who I’m working for, their response is always a positive one. People truly have personal connections to what we do, whether it be TV or one of the radio services.”

WMHT’s public broadcasting services include WMHT-TV, WMHT-FM (89.1/88.7) WEXT (97.7-FM), and RISE, a radio reading service for the visually impaired and print-disabled. Altman, who left his position as director of the public television major giving initiative for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in Washington, D.C., to take the WMHT job, sees more people turning on his channels and frequencies.

More relevant than ever

“We’re at a point of time in the world where the need for our services has never been greater,” he said. “I think nobody is doing the kinds of things that we do. Fifteen or 20 years ago, there was a lot of concern that some of our commercial competitors might begin nibbling away at the edge of our audiences and really providing a competitive service. But because of the nature of those businesses of commercial broadcasting and cable, the pressures on them to really meet their bottom lines have been so intense that it really is not looking like us as much as it might have.

“So there’s still nobody providing the kind of coverage of issues that we do on ‘Frontline’ or on ‘The NewsHour [with Jim Lehrer].’ There’s nobody who’s really taking live performance seriously the way we continue to do in some of the cultural programming, both radio and TV. And there’s nobody that provides the kind of service that we do for kids on television, or for the visually impaired with the RISE service on radio.”

Altman brings 25 years of public broadcasting experience to WMHT. Before joining the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 2003, he worked as a senior vice president for development and corporate relations at the Public Broadcasting Service. He also has been senior vice president for development and marketing at WHYY in Philadelphia, the nation’s fourth-largest television market.

At WMHT, Altman will run an operation with an annual operating budget of $8.5 million. He will be paid $164,000 yearly.

Altman, currently living in a Troy apartment and looking for a permanent home, said changes may come with time. “I’d say at this point, I have a point of view about what these institutions should do,” he said. “I’d say it’s probably too early for me to sort of figure out exactly what changes are going to result from that point of view. On the radio side, we’ve already had some big changes. We introduced a second service, WEXT, the album alternative format.”

More changes will come, on the television side, on Feb. 17, 2009. Analog TV broadcasts will stop, and broadcasters will use only digital signals. People with old television sets manufactured without digital tuners will no longer be able to pick up signals, unless they purchase special converter boxes.

“There are a lot of public television viewers who are not cable subscribers,” Altman said, “and we worry about that group of people waking up on Feb. 17 next year and turning on the television and getting a lot of snow.”

One way to prevent that is spreading the word over the air about the coming digital way of life on television. The digital world, he said, offers more opportunities.

“This gives us the ability to do lots more,” Altman said. “We’ll be able to broadcast not just a single service but multiple services, and Time-Warner actually is picking up our digital channels at the end of this month, which will give us the opportunity to get some of that digital stuff out.”

Other parts of the future, Altman said, will also be good for viewers and listeners.

“I hope you’ll see us playing a role in the sort of really vibrant kind of community of video artists and musicians that exist around here,” he said. “The line between the consumer and the producer of these things is certainly more blurred than it was before. So what’s our role — as a teacher, as a curator that helps sift through all this stuff and help the public find the best? I don’t know exactly what it is, but we’re not going to want to be a kind of ivory tower institution separated from that.”

Two-way communication

Altman wants dialogue, communications. Instead of radio broadcasters entering soundproof studios and talking one-way into microphones, Altman wants more room for two-way communications. That’s a way to let people tell their stories, he said, and put communities in the spotlight.

Viewers will see Altman on

television during future fund drives. He says it’s important for an institution to have a face. “One way to do that is being on the air,” he said.

So people will be able to see the man in charge. Altman said he also wants people to know they can talk to him.

“A lot of my work in these first months is really listening to people, learning about the community, learning about what its challenges are,” he said. “I think we’re not going to be able to survive simply by being a pleasant organization to have, or a nice organization. We’re going to have to do things that really make us essential, that may help the community solve their problems, whether that’s enhancing our work in education, which is already substantial, or partnering with others in the community to help advance their missions. That’s really what I see what our goals are going to be.”

Hook books

CBS 6 reporter Morgan Hook has left the Niskayuna television station for a position in Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s Albany press office.

Hook will maintain a connection to the WRGB newsroom; his wife is Michelle Smith, the station’s co-anchor for 6 and 11 p.m. news broadcasts and the WRGB children’s safety and education reporter.

Hook and Smith arrived at the station last March. Hook covered state government and also filled in as anchorman on morning and weekend shifts.

Hook will start the new job on Monday.

Categories: Life and Arts

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