By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Tony Burke, a TV-station technician who reinvented himself as a top-shelf broadcast executive, has been sacked a little more than a year into his tortured reign at KLCS (Channel 58), the underachieving television station owned by the L.A. Unified School District.
Burke, 57, was the central figure in a concerted station-upgrade effort launched by Superintendent Ruben Zacarias, who retired earlier this month. Burke landed the job after first schmoozing Zacarias at a party hosted by Sony, then re-establishing contact through the friend of a friend. The tale of Burke’s rapid and unlikely rise was all Hollywood; the end results, however, were all Grozny.
From the outset, Burke alienated employees with his personnel decisions and management style. Burke could not be reached at his home to comment for this story, but his defenders suggest he was done in by an entrenched station and district culture that reacts defensively to any aggressive effort at improvement. In contrast, his detractors insist that Burke quickly became part of the problem -- and that he was never qualified for the job in the first place. An employees union mounted an open campaign against Burke, while 16 station workers daringly signed their names to a letter calling for his dismissal.
In these letters to the school board, the union and disgruntled staff members accused Burke of violating civil-service rules to hire friends at inflated salaries, then illegally using them to supplant union members, particularly those who criticized Burke‘s decisions or were regarded as disloyal. Separately, the station’s art director filed a complaint against L.A. Unified with a federal agency regarding alleged sexual harassment and retaliation by Burke.
”We believe the ongoing conflict at the station . . . has reached crisis proportions,“ wrote labor-relations representative Connie Moreno. ”Further, we believe this crisis was created and is fueled by Burke and will not be resolved until he is removed as the station‘s general manager.“
A staff rebellion was not what Superintendent Ruben Zacarias had in mind when he instructed Burke to shake up the lethargic operation. ”That station has had problems for years, and I want to put an end to it,“ Zacarias told the Weekly near the time of Burke’s hire. ”I said to Burke, ‘You have carte blanche to do whatever it takes to straighten out the station.’“
Zacarias met Burke at a Hollywood studio party. Months later, he sought a reintroduction through KLCS producer Rita Lepicier, a mutual acquaintance who was an old buddy of Zacarias‘ girlfriend. This friend-of-a-friend connection helped get Burke’s foot in the door. His initial task was to evaluate, as an independent consultant, what was wrong with KLCS.
In this capacity, Burke had rich fodder. In the early and mid-1990s, district auditors identified numerous hiring and payment irregularities at KLCS -- nothing that would send anyone to prison, but enough to question the competence and integrity of station managers. Beyond that, the station has long been regarded as a pit of dissension, nepotism and sometimes even racial tensions. And the on-air product speaks for itself, a tired combination of recycled PBS fare mixed with locally produced shows marked by that homemade, seventh-grade-carpentry-class aura. Recently featured shows have included In Their Own Words, showcasing ”in-depth conversations with LAUSD and local personalities,“ and More Than a Game, which explores the ”motivational and inspirational aspects“ of L.A. Unified high school sports. Viewers also can catch every breathless minute of the marathon school-board meetings and also the official conclaves of the county Board of Supervisors. Until recent times, the station didn‘t even run 24 hours a day. Technical glitches remain a problem. The tape of one school-board meeting broadcast last year was scratched and overexposed, finally giving out in midsentence -- a genuine cliffhanger.
Much of the problem is simply underfunding. Though KLCS is the city’s number-two public-television station, powerhouse KCET has a budget more than 10 times the size of KLCS‘s -- even after Zacarias increased Burke’s budget to $4.8 million, a boost of about 50 percent. Then, too, KLCS has suffered from the same malaise that plagued the school-district bureaucracy at large. Civil-service procedures defeated any attempt to quickly upgrade the staff, while also failing to result in a crew that was up to industry standards. And when things didn‘t go well, it didn’t seem to matter much anyway.
Burke was only the most recent evaluator to conclude that the station was in sad shape. But embedded in Burke‘s take was the notion of bringing in a talented general manager from the outside to turn things around. And it didn’t take long for Zacarias to decide that Burke was just what the doctor ordered -- without so much as a job interview for any other potential applicant. To make the move happen quickly, Zacarias created a position for Burke that was exempt from the civil-service, merit-system process used to select the previous station manager and other district administrators. State law permits 10 such senior-management positions at L.A. Unified. The other designees included the district‘s top three business and operations administrators. Burke’s salary of $105,183 was the same pay that would be due an experienced assistant superintendent.