TRENTON, N.J. — Saying that New Jersey doesn't need and cannot afford its own television station, Gov. Chris Christie on Monday announced a deal that calls for transferring operations of the state-owned New Jersey Network to one of New York's largest public broadcasting stations.
New Jersey would keep ownership of the lucrative broadcasting license, but would enter into a five-year renewable agreement with WNET-TV, Channel 13, in New York.
NJN would be known as NJTV and would continue to provide a nightly news broadcast and live broadcasts of major Statehouse events, including the governor's budget addresses and State of the State speeches, and live election night coverage.
The agreement, which was not publically released on Monday, also calls for 20 hours of weekly New Jersey-centric broadcasting to be provided by the Caucus Educational Corp., headed by Steve Adubato Jr., the son of a major political powerbroker in Newark.
Christie also announced that all nine of New Jersey Network's radio licenses will be sold to Philadelphia's WHYY and New York Public Radio, which operates WNYC and WQXR. WHYY would pay about $1.5 million in cash and in-kind contributions for five licenses in the southern part of the state, while New York Public radio would pay a total of $2.8 million in cash and in-kind contributions, which include free advertising, for the others.
A bill signed last year allows for the radio license sales. The TV transfer requires tacit legislative approval.
"We are looking forward to this new partnership, which we think will serve the people of New Jersey extraordinarily well," Christie said.
"It also meets our goal of making sure government is out of the broadcasting business. In my view that should have ended with the Soviet Union. It's ending here in New Jersey a little later than the fall of the wall in Berlin, but we're getting there."
The agreement with WNET will mean the loss of all 130 jobs at the station.
Neal Shapiro, WNET president, said that 15 to 20 people will be needed to help produce New Jersey content. He said there would be an office located somewhere in New Jersey but that no decision has been made on a location.
NJN employees are on the state payroll — something Christie has said presents a conflict of interest.
That scenario was on awkward display at a Statehouse news conference Monday when acting NJN news director Michael Aron, who has worked at the station 29 years and is the dean of New Jersey media, asked the governor how the news coverage could possibly stay the same given the dwindling staff.
"NJN at its zenith, in the '80s, employed 250 people. Six months ago it had 150 people ... You are talking about an operation of 15 to 20 people doing a better job. That kind of defies logic, somehow," said Aron, who is among those who will lose his job as he knows it.
Lawmakers have 15 days to act after the agreement is formally introduced next week; if they do nothing, it will move forward and WNET will assume operations on July 1.
Hearings were scheduled in both legislative chambers next week, but Democratic lawmakers were already expressing skepticism about the deal and leveled criticism that the contract and other competing bids had not been released.
"We are giving away one of the greatest assets that the state of New Jersey has," said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck.
Assembly Budget Chairman Lou Greenwald, D-Voorhees, who served on the Legislative Task Force on Public Broadcasting, said a closer look at the financial details and fundraising needs are warranted.
"Ensuring employees received equitable and fair consideration was also vital, and I'm not convinced that's happening under this proposal," Greenwald said.
Unions began running radio ads this week encouraging people to lobby their lawmakers to keep state control over the network.
NJN was incorporated in 1968 and went on the air in 1971. Its purpose was to provide New Jersey-specific programming for viewers living between the major New York City and Philadelphia markets. Its TV and radio licenses can be sold only to other public television stations or religious broadcasters.
Treasury Department Andrew Pratt said that the state will save about $11 million a year with the deal, but that figure didn't include an annual $2.5 million in revenue generated from the broadcast cell tower use and a $2.2 million grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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