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New WTVP board chairman starts his tenure with an apology, and a plan for the station's next steps

WTVP's studios and offices are located on State Street in downtown Peoria.
Tim Shelley
WTVP's studios and offices are located on State Street in downtown Peoria.

Incoming WTVP board chairman John Wieland is starting off on a note of contrition: "I apologize."

It's a new tone from the PBS station's leadership in the wake of last week's "pivot" that saw the resignation of 11 board members and the installation of eight new ones, Wieland included. This came a month after several members of the public called for the old board's resignation.

"We have members that are disillusioned, and I apologize for that," he said. "And we are going to work hard to restore your trust and your enthusiasm."

Full interview with John Wieland

Allegations of financial mismanagement surfaced in October, soon after the resignation and death by suicide of former WTVP president and CEO Lesley Matuszak. The station's board of directors approved $1.5 million in cuts to right-size the budget. Nine employees were laid off, and publication of Peoria magazine was also indefinitely suspended.

The station later attributed the improper spending to Matuszak and former director of finance and human resources Lin McLaughlin. The Peoria Police Department and Illinois Attorney General's Office are investigating those allegations.

Wieland said he wants to dispel any notion that the 11 members who resigned did anything wrong, but he said they recognized a change was needed.

"The idea was to get some funding, and then provide the community and the members, maybe a fresh board. Not because the board didn't do what they were supposed to do when the misuse was identified. They did the appropriate steps. But the optics were not healthy," Wieland said.

John Wieland
John Wieland

Wieland said the resigning members indicated they were willing to stay on board if needed. He said he didn't know former chairman Andrew Rand until about two and a half months ago.

There was much the board couldn't say due to the ongoing investigations, Wieland said, but he plans to release regular updates to viewers going forward and solicit their feedback via a survey in the coming weeks.

Wieland said WTVP has secured $1.2 million in commitments over the next three years to address the station's immediate financial challenges. He said one foundation is primarily responsible for the infusion but declined to name it, citing respect for the foundation's lack of desire for publicity. $250,000 was deposited into WTVP's coffers last week, and another $250,000 is expected in February, he said.

The recomposed board's three immediate priorities are restoring community trust, securing the release of the fiscal year 2024 Community Service Grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and hiring a new CEO.

The CPB is the government-funded entity responsible for granting a large portion of the money to operate public media stations. Wieland said WTVP is expecting around $800,000 from a CPB Community Service Grant, but that funding will be withheld pending an investigation of the station's financial issues and assurance that proper financial controls are in place. The matter was also referred to their Office of Inspector General.

Wieland said many of the CPB's issues stem from the cloudy separation on some contributions between Peoria magazine advertising revenues and donations to WTVP.

"How they determine how much to give the station is based on donations. And so by not moving those advertising dollars to advertising income, it artificially inflated the donations. And that's what (board treasurer) Helen Barrick is going through, getting that all right," he said.

Barrick is a retired principal for CliftonLarsenAllen, a Peoria auditing firm that also compiles the station's annual audited financial statements. Wieland said he's going to Washington, D.C., to speak with CPB officials in February, but he's also planning to talk to them beforehand.

"I'm pretty confident that they're going to see, wow, they've done detailed research. I've said like, hey, if we owe them X dollars, I'd rather show that we owe X plus a little more. So they really understand we're not trying to shortchange that process," he said.

He said he remains optimistic the CPB will release the FY24 Community Service Grant soon.

The CPB last year requested a forensic audit by a third-party firm. WTVP filed an employee theft claim with its insurance agency, but that money can't be used to pay for such an audit. Rand said in November he didn't believe the station could pay for it at the time.

Wieland said the station's 2021 purchase of Peoria magazine may not have been a good idea financially, but he still believes it's a valuable asset to the community that's worth having.

"It is the board's desire that Peoria magazine continues. It doesn't need to continue with WTVP though. Because WTVP, our mission is actually broadcasting. Creating. And this was kind of a side deal," he said.

Wieland said the station has no pride of ownership with the magazine. WTVP could end up still owning it, or another organization could take over.

The magazine will remain on hiatus until a new CEO is onboarded, so that person can have a voice in the discussion. Wieland said his ideal CEO candidate doesn't necessarily need broadcast experience, but is someone from Central Illinois who displays character and leadership skills.

Wieland said he wants the CEO to become the new face of WTVP and take charge.

"I think that's if there's any good thing about my leadership is — other leaders, they are comfortable with my style, because I don't micromanage. I don't get in their way. And they feel like they can run the show," he said.

The WTVP board of directors is still seeking an additional five members. Wieland said there's only one litmus test for prospective candidates.

"This board will bow to the mission of WTVP. And that is creating and broadcasting scientific, educational, entertainment, and cultural content," he said. "And we're not going to get our eyes off that."

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.