TRENTON - New Jersey plans to get out of the broadcasting business, hand control of its New Jersey Network television station to a public broadcasting powerhouse in New York City, and lay off NJN's 124 government employees, Gov. Christie announced Monday.
State-owned NJN will become NJTV and will be operated by WNET-TV, Channel 13, in New York beginning July 1 - unless the Democratic-controlled Legislature blocks the five-year agreement.
As part of the deal, NJTV would offer New Jersey-focused programming, including nightly news and political coverage. The state would retain ownership of the station's broadcasting license.
Christie said he had always found it "strange" that government employees were paid by the government to report on the government. State-run media pose an "irresolvable conflict," he said, and likened it to something that would have existed in the Soviet Union.
"We need to have robust public broadcasting in our state, but we need to have it in a way that's not continuing to cost the taxpayers, and can be perceived as truly independent from state government," Christie said at a Statehouse news conference.
About $11 million in annual state spending on NJN would come off the books. That expenditure was defrayed by a Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant and revenue from space leased on four transmission towers, both of which would go to WNET.
The state would rehire six employees and spend $2 million a year to maintain NJN property and towers, according to the Department of Treasury.
All of NJN's nine FM radio licenses also are to be sold, the administration announced. WHYY in Philadelphia, which did not bid on the TV station, is acquiring licenses for five stations, in Manahawkin (89.9), Atlantic City (89.7), Cape May Court House (90.3), Bridgeton (89.3), and Berlin (88.1).
It will pay $926,000 in cash and provide $612,000 in services, including access to productions made through a WHYY-run digital-media program for Camden children, according to the Treasury Department.
Ron Stekeur, a radio consultant for WEHA-FM in Atlantic County, placed a losing bid for two of the stations.
"We just think it's very unfair that they handed out these TV and radio licenses to people in New York City and Philadelphia," Stekeur said. "They didn't even consider anyone who lives in New Jersey at all."
Some of the new stations will permit WHYY-FM to send its signal farther down the Atlantic City Expressway and the Jersey Shore, said WHYY spokesman Art Ellis. The Federal Communications Commission must approve the radio license transfers.
Although NJN's nightly news would continue as the renamed NJ Today, it was unclear if the network's familiar faces - senior political correspondent Michael Aron, a 29-year NJN veteran, and anchor Jim Hooker - would stay on. Under the renewable contract, WNET would not be required to keep NJN's staff or programming.
NJTV would continue to offer live broadcasts of the governor's State of the State and budget addresses, live election coverage, and Sunday public-affairs shows. There would be 20 hours of "New Jersey-centric programming" a week, including expanded arts and culture programming, Christie said.
The nightly broadcast would be modeled on the PBS NewsHour show, said Neal Shapiro, president of WNET, who said coverage would be "more interview-driven and more about policy."
There will be 15 to 20 people on staff in New Jersey, down from 250 at NJN before recent layoffs, retirements, and cutbacks.
Finding himself in the odd situation of covering a news event about his station's demise, Aron said to the governor: "You're talking about an operation of 15 to 20 people doing a better job. That kind of defies logic somehow."
Shapiro said NJTV would compensate for staff reduction by partnering with newspapers, universities, and arts organizations, and by using WNET's back-office staff for duties such as payroll.
Communications Workers of America Local 1032, which represents NJN employees, has filed a complaint in court to enforce contract provisions that provide employment guarantees in the event of privatization.
Union president Patrick Kavanagh said bids to take over NJN should be made public, and employees should be offered work at the new entity or hired for other state jobs.
"People didn't elect me to be the programmer-in-chief," Christie said. "It's going to be up to the folks running NJTV which folks they hire."
Skeptics said Monday that the network would not have enough staff to provide the political coverage for which NJN is known. Advocates and legislators would not have the same opportunity to reach the public, they said.
They pointed to the 2001 merger of WNET and WLIW-TV, a public station on Long Island, and said that despite promises by WNET, there was a serious dropoff in coverage of Long Island issues.
Democrats questioned whether New Jersey would save much money through the deal, and why the TV station's broadcast license wasn't being leased to the new entity for a fee.
A coalition of groups trying to block the transfer has started an online petition at www.keepthenjinnjn.com.
"We're giving away a valuable asset of New Jersey," said Assemblyman Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. (D., Middlesex). "This was all done behind closed doors."
The Assembly will hold a hearing on the deal on Thursday. Lawmakers have until June 30 to act after the WNET agreement is formally introduced next week.
The NJTV deal also comes with political intrigue. Steve Adubato Jr., a veteran broadcaster whose father is a North Jersey power broker allied with the governor, will be highly involved in the new broadcast enterprise. WNET plans to partner with Adubato's Caucus Education Corp., which has produced programing for NJN.
And energy executive David Koch is on the WNET board of trustees, noted Jeff Tittle, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. Koch is a major backer of conservative causes.
Created in 1968, NJN went on the air in 1971 and provided a single place for state news that would otherwise be fragmented between North Jersey and its New York stations, and South Jersey and its Philadelphia stations. No other New Jersey media entity covers the entire state.