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Quiet Coup at LAUSD TV 

Zacarias places obscure exec in charge of district broadcast

Wednesday, Dec 16 1998
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Three years after a bruising public fight over who would run the underperforming public-television channel operated by the L.A. school district, Superintendent Ruben Zacarias has authorized a quiet coup de station at KLCS Channel 58. Beginning this fall, Zacarias installed an obscure broadcasting consultant — and friend of a friend — as general manager, prompting some longtime station employees to cry cronyism, and leaving others merely scratching their heads in surprise.

There wasn’t so much as a round of job interviews before Zacarias had named former KCET engineering manager Tony Burke as the television station’s top administrator. In fact, Zacarias appointed Burke to a newly created position exempt from the civil-service, merit-system process used to select the previous station manager. The superintendent came to know Burke through contact with a mutual friend, someone with whom Zacarias has vacationed.

The TV-station episode offers a behind-the-curtains glimpse of Zacarias, a career LAUSD insider whose drive to turn around a struggling district has produced minimal results so far. For low-budget KLCS — the city’s number-two public-television station, behind powerhouse KCET — these happenings are the latest installment in a turbulent history — from allegations of inappropriate underwear purchases to under-the-table contracts — while programming and production languished.

"It’s a dinosaur sitting there," said one industry producer with ties to the station. "It’s been a dinosaur sitting there for years. And yet there’s so much that can be done. How much programming could you do that could be utilized in the classroom? How many school districts in this country have an operating TV station?"

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When Zacarias turned his attention to the school district’s struggling television station, he had a built-in advantage. Here, in the nation’s number-two media market — not to mention the heart of Hollywood — he should have had no trouble finding experienced station managers and heavyweight broadcast experts to lend a hand.

The person he found was Burke, 56, who is introduced in the KLCS November program guide as "one of the country’s leading experts in television broadcasting and new-media development." More precisely, he spent 14 of the last 17 years at KCET, rising to the position of associate director of technical operations, where, in the words of his self-penned bio, "he was responsible for the operations of the broadcast facility and all West Coast production of national PBS programming."

According to a KCET spokeswoman, his job consisted of scheduling and maintaining engineering facilities. As a technical manager, his role was to make sure that production crews, for example, had the right equipment in the right places when they needed it. He was not involved in programming, producing or station management.

In an interview, Burke characterized his role this way: "I was in charge of all the facilities that prepare stuff for productions."

He lost his job in June 1995, during a round of funding cutbacks. When asked about his departure from KCET, Burke made no mention of a layoff, saying simply that "I just went on to greener pastures." The new opportunities, according to Burke, consisted of consulting work with a variety of clients nationwide, notably Sony’s Game Show Network cable channel, where he was part of a team that designed content for the Web-site companion to the game-show channel. Burke also worked as a programming consultant for a Fresno-area station operated by the local archdiocese.

While acknowledging the casual nature of his introduction to Burke, Zacarias defended the hire as simply spotting talent and bringing it on board. "That station has had problems for years, and I want to put an end to it," said Zacarias. "This district deserves better." He added: "I said to Burke, ‘You have carte blanche to do whatever it takes to straighten out the station.’"

Burke first spoke with the superintendent at a reception at Sony. Zacarias, who said he was impressed with Burke from the start, recalled that Burke mentioned they had a mutual friend, Rita Lepicier, a KLCS producer. Months later, when Zacarias turned his attention to the station, he asked Lepicier to put him in contact with Burke.

Said Burke, "I met him through Rita, and that’s how we started talking about things."

Lepicier, a former KCET colleague of Burke, has worked at KLCS for the last two and a half years. She was originally hired as a fund-raiser — a role that produced few dividends — then switched gears to organizing live call-in programs for parents and teens. It was through coordinating such shows with the Superintendent’s Office that she met Zacarias. The avowedly outspoken Lepicier, who is something of a lightning rod at the station, gets all the blame (or credit) among some staffers for Burke’s ascension.

In an interview, Lepicier insisted she had nothing to do with Burke’s hire and that her ties to Zacarias are almost solely professional. "I don’t have any contact with the man except when he comes over here to do a program," she said. As for reports that she and her husband have vacationed with Zacarias: "That is ludicrous. That doesn’t even merit a response so I won’t give it one."

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