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Teletunes is one of the longest-running music-video programs in the country: It began appearing on PBS affiliate KBDI-TV/Channel 12 under the handle FM-TV in February 1981, a full six months before MTV debuted. But after more than eighteen years, it may--may--be headed to the scrap heap. Furthermore, transitions taking place at KBDI have the potential of severely decreasing--if not eliminating altogether--the presence of videos on the station.

According to Charles Russell, who's handled audio and camera duties for Teletunes for the past year or so, the show went out of production in May, when the decision was made to eliminate VJ segments; in fact, his guest VJ appearance, filling in for longtime host Heather Dalton, was the last to be aired. Reruns were used throughout June, but no more are scheduled to appear. "It's really frustrating," Russell says. "After all these years, the people who put the show together weren't even given a chance to say goodbye."

But is Teletunes truly dead? KBDI membership director Shari Bernson, who has executive-produced the show since last November, won't confirm that and goes so far as to encourage fans to call the station at 303-296-1212 and let their feelings be heard. She concedes, though, that there are no current plans to bring Teletunes back, in part because KBDI itself is in such flux. "We're really at a crossroads," she notes.

That's because gearing up for digital broadcast will require an investment estimated by a knowledgeable source at $800,000; the station also has a growing relationship with KRMA-TV/Channel 6, a far more conservative (and far more affluent) PBS affiliate. At one point, KBDI and KRMA were vigorous rivals, but this competition seems to be a thing of the past: Bernson says that Channel 12 will begin running its on-air operation from KRMA's Bannock Street facility sometime this fall, and implies that further "cooperation" could be in the offing. But the biggest change is the impending departure of KBDI president and general manager Ted Krichels, who's been the primary decision-maker at Channel 12 since its founding. Krichels has been hired as assistant vice president for outreach at Penn State University, a job that will put him in charge of WPSX-TV in Clearfield, Pennsylvania, and WPSU-FM in University Park, and when he leaves KBDI at the end of this month, no one knows what will happen. "We're doing a national search for a new general manager," Bernson says, "and what he or she believes will help determine which direction we wind up going."

Music videos have been part of KBDI for nearly as long as Krichels has. Mike Drumm, the creator of MusicLink and Waveform Rock Video, which was paired with FM-TV for a year or so, worked at Channel 12 in the early Eighties, where he recalls that early videos were used as filler following Have Gun, Will Travel, The Twilight Zone and other aging network fodder that the station once featured. Shortly thereafter, FM-TV was born, but the moniker disappeared when the production company in New York that produced Night Flight, a video program on the USA Network, purchased it from KBDI. (Bernson notes that the fee paid by the company was an important windfall for Channel 12 at the time.) A contest to come up with a new name resulted in the program being rechristened Teletunes, and when Bernson became involved with it in 1986, she successfully repositioned it as what she calls "a progressive-alternative show, which set a lot of precedents nationally." She adds, "We had a lot of success in the late Eighties and early Nineties, working with local clubs and doing artist interviews."

After leaving KBDI, Bernson did work for MTV and VH1 and worked for two years in France as an organizer of SOS Racisme, an annual human-rights concert that attracts performers such as Bruce Springsteen and Ziggy Marley. Her decision to return to KBDI was motivated in part by her love of Teletunes, but by last year, she says, "Ted wasn't sure if any of the music stuff was fulfilling the mission of the station anymore." Krichels was also dissatisfied with the unprofessional look of the show, so one of Bernson's first goals when she took over the program's helm last November was to improve its production values. She felt that she was making strides in that direction, but after the assault at Columbine High School in late April--and the myriad attempts by the mainstream media to link aggressive music with violent acts--Krichels decided that Teletunes had become too controversial for its own good--hence the decision to cease production.

Krichels also asked Drumm to stop airing a MusicLink spinoff, Punk TV, in the wake of Columbine, but MusicLink itself continues to appear, as does another Drumm-produced program, B.P.M. Drumm isn't certain why these shows have escaped the guillotine thus far, but he speculates that they've been treated differently because he actually pays for airtime on Channel 12 via underwriting, while Teletunes, a KBDI production, did not. "Even though Teletunes is put together by volunteers, it costs them money to produce it--and it's not really generating much money in return," Drumm says. "Whereas we don't cost them anything." Still, Drumm is uncertain whether dollars and cents alone will save MusicLink in the long run. "We're going on a month-by-month basis, and after July, we don't know what's going to happen. There are a lot of philosophical questions about the possible mainstreaming of the station that are still up in the air, and with Ted leaving, the continuity between station management and the tradition of airing music videos has been broken. It's a new day."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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