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.
Had Burke undergone a routine civil-service screening, it might have come out that he exaggerated certain elements of his background. The KLCS November 1998 program guide introduced him as ”one of the country‘s leading experts in television broadcasting and new-media development.“ More precisely, he spent 14 of the 17 years before coming to KLCS at KCET (Channel 28), where he rose to the position of associate director of technical operations. In a self-penned bio, Burke described that job as making him ”responsible for the operations of the broadcast facility and all West Coast production of national PBS programming.“
An obviously incredulous KCET spokeswoman told the Weekly that, in fact, Burke’s job consisted of scheduling and maintaining studio engineering facilities — making 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, she said.
Burke lost his job in 1995, during a round of funding cutbacks. After leaving KCET, he was part of a team that designed content for the Web-site companion to Sony‘s game-show channel. He also worked as a programming consultant for a Fresno-area station operated by the local archdiocese.
But despite the thinness of Burke’s senior-management experience, he obviously had thought long and hard about running a station during all those years at KCET. He was brimming with ideas, and this enthusiasm obviously caught the ear of Zacarias, who always had a soft spot for KLCS.
Many years ago, Zacarias was a film major at USC, and several family members had been involved in the film industry in Mexico. He saw KLCS as both an educational resource and a way to get his own message across. He regularly appeared on KLCS in both live and taped segments.
One of Burke‘s first moves was to relegate incumbent station manager Tom Mossman to pushing paper clips. Though Mossman kept his title, not one person reported to him. Mossman was not amused and decided to launch his own unauthorized analysis of Burke’s resume and station evaluation, which he forwarded to Zacarias. Burke also quickly alienated producer Rita Lepicier, his onetime ally. Lepicier also took her complaints up the chain of command. Unlike Mossman, however, Lepicier had no civil-service protection, and Burke soon terminated her contract. (It could not have comforted Burke to learn that Zacarias helped find media work for Lepicier elsewhere in the district.) Lepicier‘s dismissal reached Latino activists, who called for Burke’s ouster, accusing him of slashing an already paltry Latino presence in KLCS‘s programming and staff.
Burke also ran afoul of the union that represents many of the district’s nonteaching employees over the hiring and pay issues: ”I confronted Burke frequently about the ongoing violations of our union contract,“ labor rep Moreno wrote the school board. ”His response was standard. He would always say, ‘I know you don’t like me.‘ Or, ’I heard you don‘t like me.’“
Moreno also repeated staff allegations that Burke used station workers and resources to produce programs free of charge for the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE). ”It is also the organization that gave . . . awards to the station Burke cites to show how well the station is doing under his leadership,“ Moreno wrote. (NATPE could not be reached for comment.) She added, ”Massive amounts of money [have] been spent [on] cosmetic changes to the facility, such as $80,000 for new carpeting, while the engineering staff wait in vain for new equipment, and other staff . . . finally are forced to themselves pay for the computer equipment needed for work.“ In the same letter, Moreno also reported the staff allegation that Burke bought audio-visual equipment for senior district administrators in an attempt to curry favor with them.
Adding to the discord is a sexual-harassment complaint involving Burke filed by station art director William C. Martin with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Sources familiar with the complaint report that Martin claims Burke retaliated against him for rejecting his advances. The state‘s probe is apparently looking not only at Burke but at an administrator allied with Burke, and district higher-ups who allegedly did nothing when harassment was reported. Martin himself declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation and adding, ”My overwhelming concern is that the process for handling complaints within the district complies with justice and fairness and applicable state and federal laws.“
According to district sources, all of these issues and others are being investigated by school-district internal auditor Don Mullinax, whose report on the Belmont debacle resulted in a spate of sudden retirements and suspensions.
Eventually, Zacarias himself apparently lost confidence in Burke. On November 15, he wrote Burke of his intention to terminate Burke’s contract as of December 31. The new school-board majority, however, was then battling Zacarias over issues large and small, and it overruled him. The embattled Burke was placed on a month-to-month contract instead. This action postponed Burke‘s day of reckoning until last Tuesday, January 18, the first day on the job for interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines. That morning, Burke received word that he should pack up and leave.
Most of the storm and stress has little to do with Burke’s programming or concepts. One producer faulted Burke for trying to turn KLCS into KCET without the needed resources. Others criticized him for not providing adequate programming support for teachers, parents and students.
On the plus side, ”he made the station look more like ‘90s television than 1970s television,“ said former district spokesman Brad Sales, who closely monitored doings at the station. ”The on-air hosts were smarter, brighter, faster.“ He added, ”Tony came in like a raging bull at the beginning. The district is not used to someone coming in and creating all these waves . . . When you’re an outsider, the insiders are just ready to crucify you. I think Burke had this burden on him. Channel 58, in order to get it fixed, is going to need someone on the level of Warren Christopher.“
Most disturbing, though, is that no one contacted for this story took issue with looking at the TV station as a metaphor for the school district at large. And for viewers at home, dealing with that realization is a lot more difficult than simply changing channels to a better station.