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By Frank Owen
Aside from the usual component of offering a free tote bag, WXEL's recent on-air message to listeners had all the trappings of a traditional public broadcasting solicitation.
First came the sober, stately voice of the public broadcasting station's president, Jerry Carr: "Many of you have called to ask if we will be participating in this year's SunFest," he announced after introducing himself. "The answer is: We'd love to."
Then came the letdown: "But the management at SunFest has decided to exclude WXEL from this year's festivities."
Finally, the earnest appeal, followed by the kicker -- the call to action: "We cannot understand why [we] should be excluded from this West Palm Beach tradition. If you'd like to help us find out more, please call the SunFest president [at this telephone number]."
The answer to the seemingly genuine query was far less nefarious than the ominous message let on. SunFest's rationale for excluding the station was also already well-known by staff at WXEL (TV Channel 42 and FM 90.7). The public radio and TV station would not be part of the five-day West Palm Beach concert extravaganza because of a simple business decision made by SunFest that gave exclusive sponsorship to WPBT-TV (Channel 2) in exchange for the production of a one-hour promotional video that will be broadcast on public stations nationwide.
That apparently benign arrangement degenerated into the latest chapter of a long-standing feud between the Palm Beach County-based WXEL and its rival, Miami-based WPBT, which broadcasts from Vero Beach to the Florida Keys and claims twice as many Palm Beach County members as WXEL. (A donations of about $40 at either station qualifies a person to become a member.) The two PBS stations offer nearly identical programming and compete for public and private donations. Government funding of public broadcasting has decreased by 28 percent since 1995, making an appearance at SunFest, which drew 300,000 people last year, somewhat of a fund-raising necessity.
"There is definitely an attitude of attack on Channel 2's part," asserts Jay Lynch, WXEL director of creative services, who used to work as a TV producer at the rival station.
"They're creating the animosity," counters Jody Rafkind, WPBT's advertising and promotions director. "They're making such a fuss over this."
The current commotion is mostly comprised of WXEL's all-out campaign to insinuate itself into the outdoor festival and bolster the station's Palm Beach County fund-raising position. Station staffers have gone so far as to label WPBT a "bully" for its business savvy -- without offering evidence of actual wrongdoing -- and the station has launched a publicity and letter-writing campaign that could continue until April 2000 if WXEL doesn't get its way.
At least for this year, SunFest refuses to budge. The dozen or so calls generated by a week's worth of radio and TV announcements were considered mere inconveniences by SunFest staffers. "We got angry calls with people saying, 'Get over it. Why are they using public airtime to do this? Don't they have better things to do with their time?'" says Doreen Poreba, a SunFest spokesperson.
One listener called SunFest to rant that he loathes WXEL because they're always asking for money. The man left a voice-mail message saying he intended to attend SunFest just to spite the public broadcasters. A deeply religious woman telephoned each of the parties to determine the different sides of the dispute and, she hoped, to pacify the situation. She then wrote conciliatory letters saying she prayed for a peaceful outcome.
When the broadcasts yielded a few absurd phone calls but generated little impact, WXEL then took to writing letters. "I'm a businessman like yourself," Lynch wrote in a three-page letter to Paul Jamieson, SunFest's executive director, "and have no personal ax to grind...." Nonetheless, the humble letter continued, SunFest has done "a disservice to the community by excluding us from this wonderful yearly event."
Lynch later explained in a telephone interview that he understands the business arrangement between SunFest and WPBT, but he has a grander vision for the proper relationship between public broadcasting and SunFest. The nonprofit festival shouldn't be about business, he offers. It should be about shaking hands, meeting people, and thanking the good people of Palm Beach County who support public broadcasting. WXEL, he suggests, should be given that opportunity.
"Channel 2's one hour video I'm sure does help [bring] tourism to the area and that benefits us all," Lynch wrote in his letter to Jamieson, "but WXEL reaches into the home, the heart, the very lifestyle of our South Florida, if you'll pardon the expression, 'brothers and sisters.'"
Lynch recognizes that he may have already lost the battle this year. And although he has no proof, he says he is certain SunFest has already excluded his station from the 1999 event. "Now I'm working on 2000," he asserts.
In the meantime Lynch intends to carry on the crusade by meeting with Jamieson, writing more letters to SunFest expressing WXEL's continued dissent, and planning their next strategy. This week he will also host the new WXEL-TV talk show, South Florida Xtra, where he plans to interview SunFest President Don Mathis. He had once intended to ask Mathis to explain on the air why WXEL would not be part of the festival. More recently he promised SunFest organizers he wouldn't ask about the now-sore subject.
"But," Lynch notes, "I didn't say I wouldn't talk about it.