Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.
Before Double Helix Corporation's executive director Beverly Hacker's arrival, Double Helix Television was, in the eyes of many, an operation so slipshod as to merit comparison to Weird Al Yankovic's UHF. Most recently, in July of 2002, former dhTV station manager and development director Donna Kirkpatrick resigned amid allegations that the television station's bookkeeping practices were suspect. (Kirkpatrick could not be reached for comment for this story.) But financial troubles at the station date back to the distant past.
dhTV, which operates the city of St. Louis' community and public-access channels (21 and 22, respectively), was more or less hoodwinked in 1987 into agreeing to what appeared to be a five-year deal with the city's then-cable provider, STL Cablevision. The company gave Double Helix a flat $300,000 in up-front cash to purchase equipment, but the deal contained a fine-print provision wherein STL Cablevision (and subsequently, by way of transfer, TCI, AT&T and, finally, Charter Communications) could renew the partnership with five-year rollovers. The kicker: No additional cash allotment was required for equipment maintenance and replacement with each renewal.
"We spent, like, ten years without any updates in TV equipment," recounts board member Paul Dever, who began his involvement with the corporation as a volunteer producer of dhTV's Beyond Barriers program in 1996.
Last year Charter Communications agreed to renegotiate the dhTV contract, and Hacker, with the support of a majority of the nonprofit's board, entered into a fifteen-year deal, cemented in city ordinance, for Double Helix to operate the city's stations until 2016 in return for (among other cash allotments) $25,000 annually from Charter for equipment upgrades and $26,042 per month to cover operations and studio rent. With the help of development director Doug Whyte and then-production manager Mike Steinberg (who now directs the Webster University Film Series), Hacker wasted no time in improving dhTV's Euclid Avenue digs by moving its business offices from the fourth floor to the first floor, which already housed the stations' studios. With the move came new equipment, plus intricate psychedelic paintings adorning the walls of production facilities (which were given monikers such as the David Lynch Room). Hiring the multitalented Whyte, himself an aspiring filmmaker, has helped drastically improve the quality and ingenuity of the station's programming, which has placed an increased emphasis on airing the works of local filmmakers and collaborating with Cinema St. Louis to promote the St. Louis International Film Festival.
Still, some think Double Helix missed a golden opportunity to simply get the organization out of the TV business once and for all.
"One of the points where Bev lost me was when she said, 'Hey, we're going to do more with the TV stations,'" says former assistant station manager Tony Renner. "I was like, 'Pull the plug.' [dhTV] will always be an afterthought."
If member donations are any indication, Renner's assessment is on the money. Through August of this year, the TV station took in a mere $171 in membership revenue, compared to $339,340 in pledges for KDHX, Double Helix's much-higher-profile radio arm. Granted, the TV station's revenue structure is designed to rely upon the city cable agreement, but the one-meal-at-Tony's tab collected to date still falls far short of dhTV's own $2,000 budget projection in that category. What's more, says board member and late-night KDHX host Lee Whitfield, dhTV is garnering an unacceptable amount of attention from Double Helix's staff, with the likes of Whyte devoting too much time to television when he should be focused on raising money for the nonprofit as a whole.
"I think it's a sinking Titanic," says Whitfield. "It seems to me that a lot of energy's being wasted on TV. Look at dhTV compared to PBS. You can see signs of improvement, but I don't see it as being viable. Look at all the other channels on cable. I don't think people are gonna sit and watch public-access TV."
Hacker and Whyte vehemently disagree with the naysayers, pointing to television's potential to broaden Double Helix's demographic reach and fight a disturbing trend of media consolidation.
"I think they're absolutely wrong," Hacker says. "We've got a generation of people who grew up on video. When we invite people in to learn TV, it's a huge, diverse response, whereas with radio it's mostly young men."
Adds Whyte, who is working on a documentary about the Silver Spur, a cowboy-themed assisted-living residence in south St. Louis: "It's weird to me to hear that [from Whitfield], because I see it building nothing but momentum. My vision of it is to work with nonprofits and independent producers to come in and get their messages out. This is one of the last vestibules to do that with media consolidation. I wonder if those people really see what's going on."
Dever concurs, and takes it a step further, predicting that dhTV may end up being more important than its radio counterpart.
"TV is the dominant medium," Dever says matter-of-factly. "The influence of FOX News is enormous and tragic. Ignoring TV would be just about the worst thing you could do."
But Double Helix's membership, as the $171 figure attests to, isn't on the same page.
"It's the listeners' money, and most of them want it to go to the radio station," says veteran board member Bob Gist. "Most of them don't care about the TV station."
Correction published 12/24/03: In the original version of this story, we incorrectly stated the name of the TV show Beyond Barriers. The above version reflects the corrected text.