Killing the AMN Softly

They were two seemingly unrelated events. First, the Review Team for the Austin Music Network (AMN) delivered its report to the City Council Sub-Committee on Telecommunication Infrastructure, a report with recommendations on how to cure what ails the AMN -- most visibly the channel's lackluster programming. Then, just a couple of days after that report was given, the Financial and Administrative Services department, which oversees the AMN, alerted network employees that, as things stand now, they're not even going to have a chance to fix things up. They won't have that chance because they're not going to have the network (or their jobs for that matter), as it is currently not in the Finance Department's base budget for next year. That means no money for it. And no money obviously means no network.

There is a $15 million budget shortfall with the general fund, yet the AMN report proposes that the city double the network's quarter of a million dollar budget. By law, that $15 million gap has to be closed. In other words, the Finance Department has to submit a balanced budget, and asking for twice as much appears a tad suicidal on AMN's part. Says Betty Dunkerley, director of that department, "Over the last couple of weeks we've been working hard trying to squeeze as much as we could into that gap and try to close it. So we're looking at any number of programs that may be potential candidates to close that gap and the Music Network was one of them."

AMN is a channel provided for in the cable agreement with Time Warner Communications and funded by the city as an economic development project. The network, the only one of its kind in the country, runs 24 hours a day and airs programming focusing on Texas artists and covering just about every type of music -- rock, pop, country, jazz, Tejano, folk -- as well as a couple of shows to keep people updated with what's going on in the clubs around town.

Again, those two events -- the team report to the council sub-committee, and AMN's exclusion from the budget -- appear connected only in that they happened just days apart. But closer examination of the report and the people behind it -- as well as of the people behind the Finance Department's decision to pull the plug on the network -- points to the possibility that the AMN may be more than just a victim of bad timing.

A Report Turns Deadly

The origins of the AMN Team Report can be traced back to Threadgill's, of all places. In connection with the Kenneth Threadgill Music Fund, a program to provide music lessons to under-privileged children, Woody Roberts, who administers the fund, had been trying to get an INet drop at Threadgill's so that the AMN could air music live from the restaurant and raise awareness among the public about the fund (and, not coincidentally, promote the restaurant).

. The AMN staff and Time Warner Communications, which installs the INet drops, had some disagreements on where the drops could be put. (INet, short for Institutional Network, is a hook-up used for doing live broadcasts.) By Time Warner's reckoning, INet drops like the one Roberts had been trying to get at Threadgill's would constitute use for commercial purposes, which is a no-no under the city's cable agreement. So the Council Sub-Committee on Telecommunications Infrastructure requested that some criteria for INet drops be developed.

So how did the formulation of those criteria lead to the possible death of the AMN? Well it didn't, directly. But it did, in part, lead to a proposed overhaul of the network. Marilyn Fox, the Assistant Director of Financial and Administrative Services (Fox works under Dunkerley), explains, "INet problems started out with a general purpose, then as a process check we also enlarged that function to rewrite the mission statement. Once we rewrote the mission statement, we looked at the processes to achieve the mission statement. As a result of the process review there were some things that needed to be changed to accomplish that mission statement." Translation: Well, one thing led to another.

The report itself is nothing to crow about -- it looks like a hastily assembled pastiche of management material, including the revised mission statement, some production flow charts, the proposed 1997-98 budget, and some other seemingly tangentially related documents from as far back as 1994.

A couple of things jump out of this mess, though. First, the report asks for a hefty increase in the AMN's budget (a near doubling from last year's $280,537 to $544,550) and an expansion of full-time staff from four to seven people. Job descriptions have also been re-written with the duties reassigned under new job titles (no new salary figures were provided).

The original idea being floated by Fox was to eliminate current staff members and have them re-up for those "new" jobs. That idea was altered by the review team and the revised plan will give current network employees the chance to list their skills and see if they match up with any of the new jobs. If they do, they get the job. If they don't, they would get the chance to re-apply through normal hiring procedures -- sort of like having dibs on the new jobs.

Explains Fox, "Again, that's something that is not uncommon when you change the focus or the processes of what you're doing. It's not an uncommon process to then have the employees fill out their job skills and actually look to see if there are new positions being created, which one they might want."

Current employees might not be as excited about the "new positions" they "might want" as they are terrified of getting squeezed out of their current ones; especially because among the new and improved job descriptions, there doesn't seem to be a comparable position for AMN Artistic Director Tim Hamblin (one of two of the original four employees remaining at the network) and current AMN Program Manager Esther Matthews doesn't appear close to meeting the minimum qualifications for the updated General Manager position. That job description asks for a "Bachelor's Degree in Communication; Radio, Television & Film; Commercial Music Management, Business Marketing or related field, plus five years work experience in television, entertainment media, or promotions, three years in a manager's capacity." Matthews has a degree in Elementary Education and has nine years experience as a councilmember's aide.

When asked about both her own and Hamblin's situations in light of the revised job descriptions, Matthews (currently Hamblin's boss) simply replied, "No comment." Fox was a bit more elaborate, saying that Hamblin hadn't yet voiced any concern to her about a lack of position in the new network structure, and, with regards to Matthews' potential future, "I'm not going to presuppose anything until we go through that process. That would be defeating the purpose of the process."

Holding Out Hope

The Austin Music Network, which airs programs focusing on Texas artists 24 hours a day, is the only one of its kind in the country. It's currently cut from the city budget.
photograph by Jana Birchum

However, as mentioned earlier, all of those processes may be completely irrelevant and all of the employees may have even greater cause to be worried because, unless something changes, there will be no money at all for the AMN come October, and that means there will be no network to restructure.

But it may be a little soon to 86 the thing just yet. In fact, there are at least three good reasons to think that money will be "found" to fund the AMN. First, according to former AMN Programming Director Kent Benjamin, in past years, when he was still at the AMN, it was "never ever in the budget" and money for it was always found somewhere.

And even if the base budget does make it to council sans the network, council can put it back in. Whether the AMN has widespread support on council remains to be seen -- in fact this will be an early litmus test to see how much support the new mayor and councilmembers are willing to give to the music community -- but there is reason for some optimism on this count. Says Councilmember Gus Garcia, "My sentiment has always been in favor of supporting the Music Network.... It doesn't make much sense to kill it now."

Moreover, since the network is one of the few highly visible things that the council has done for the music community, it can ill afford to pull the plug now. And those councilmembers who touted themselves as champions of the local music scene on their respective campaign trails would have a lot of explaining to do if they presided over the death of the AMN.

Third, and this one seems highly unusual, but Dunkerley, the very woman who has endangered the fate of AMN by leaving it out of the budget, also claims to be behind it. She calls it "a program that I am particularly very fond of and have worked very hard for. So I'm going to continue to keep working on that and before August 15 try to make sure we can get it all covered."

Self-Inflicted Budget Wounds?

Contrary to critics' claims, Financial services Director Betty Dunkerley (pictured here surrounded by budget printouts) says she supports the AMN.

photograph by Jana Birchum

That said, there are some -- what, weird vibes? fishy goings on? serious questions? -- that may bring out the conspiracy theorists in the least Pyrrho-esque of skeptics.

To begin with, who goes to a council sub-committee with a very unprofessional looking report and asks for twice the money for a program when every city department is cutting back and when there's already a $15 million budget shortfall? Fox did just that when she presented the AMN Team Report to the Council Sub-Committee on Telecommunications Infrastructure. The oddity of this is compounded by the fact that the Austin Music Commission recommended against the review team asking for a budget increase. For 1997-1998, The Music Commission proposed asking for $280,537, the same as the current budget allotment.

Back up further, to late 1995. When Esther Matthews left Max Nofziger's office she was placed at the AMN by Fox and Dunkerley (remember, Fox works under Dunkerley in Finance). While Matthews was not put there as the Program Manager, that is the position she assumed not long thereafter. Now, why do Dunkerley and Fox put Matthews down at the AMN in the first place? She had nine years experience as Nofziger's aide, not a background in video production nor in running a television network. That doesn't necessarily preclude Matthews from doing the job, but it doesn't exactly look like an ideal fit. And it is widely acknowledged that the programming at the network, for which she is responsible, has been fairly stale lately.

Finally, it is worth noting that one of Dunkerley's own employees has worked in opposition to the AMN continuing as a 24-hour program. Paul Smolen, the Manager of Cable and Regulatory Affairs who also works under Dunkerley, recommended last year against the AMN being 24 hours (he still holds that position). Smolen had tried to get what he called "community-oriented programming" such as "arts and entertainment and other business-related programming that would be of interest to the whole business community, the whole arts community, and all of the other communities" onto the channel before the AMN went round the clock.

Apparently, Smolen's request for original programming received exactly one response. Yet, if the network were to go blank because of lack of funding, Smolen said he would recommend the city again try that type of programming. The question here: Why the interest in space for programming for which the demand is unknown?

If Dunkerley has been one of the biggest flag wavers for the AMN as she and others (Benjamin and Matthews among them) claim, then why the actions from under her command either in opposition to, or jeopardizing the fate of, the network? Maybe, despite what Dunkerley has said about supporting the AMN, she, or someone in her department, wants the network gone. Claims one longtime city watcher, "The killing of the music channel has been one of the highest priorities of the Financial Services Department for years."

There may be something to that. If the network were indeed any kind of priority, and there was money available, then it's reasonable to think the AMN would get that money. Right? Well, take a look at some things that general fund monies are going to at a time when the AMN is on its deathbed.

Two city requests for proposals (RFPs) have just closed. One is for "technical services for multimedia development," the purpose of which is to put the City Council meetings over the Internet. The second is for the production of a "`sampler' CD-ROM of Austin multimedia developers and a user interface for the Austin City Connection's streaming media server." The Purchasing Department couldn't give the budgeted numbers for the projects, but various sources have pinned the cost of the CD-ROM at $50,000 and numbers for the Internet plan at anywhere from $20,000 to $150,000; and that's just the money spent this year.

The money for those two RFPs comes from the current budget, so it doesn't really impact AMN's status, since its fate hinges upon next year's budget. The only thing the network could be in "direct competition" with is the Council-on-the-Internet thing, as there will be more money spent on that in the future. Beyond the current RFP for technical services, total costs over time for that have been pegged by one of the bidders at as high as a million dollars.

And as for this year's money, it's not like it evaporates if it is not spent. If Finance is so desperate for funds that it cuts the AMN to save $280,537 (a pittance in the billion-dollar-plus city budget), it could perhaps not spend the money on some of these types of things, and let the cash roll over into the next budget -- unless this is where the city's priorities indeed lie.

Ironically, at the same sub-committee meeting where Fox gave the AMN Team Report, Fox and Smolen delivered a report on their recent trip to Korea as part of Austin's involvement in the World Technopolis Association (WTA). At that meeting, Smolen and Fox talked about the possibility of participating again next year (they didn't ask for any decision to be made, but they threw out a figure of $50,000 for next year's costs).

The point is not that these are necessarily bad projects. There could be large economic benefits to be reaped from Austin's being part of the WTA. There could be similar positives for the CD-ROM and, who knows, maybe, say, some Latvians want to watch our city council live in action (we can be the Live City Council Meeting Capitol of the World). The point is that it is not the Austin Music Network versus city services -- police, schools, filling potholes, etc. That's not the choice here. The choice is going to be between competing pet projects like the AMN and putting the City Council on the Net.

As an AMN proponent put it with blunt eloquence at the last Austin Music Commission meeting: All cities have potholes, no other city has a music network. In the next couple of months we'll see if Austin will stand by its live music moniker.

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