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Ritchey rips county's 'sweetheart deal' with WHKP

If the elected county commissioners would stop ignoring her, Eva Ritchey would stop showing up to complain about cable channel 11.

“I want people to know I did not go up there for a microphone,” she said last week. “I went up there because I wrote to them, I sent them an email, I followed up. No response. You know what that is. That’s hiding behind silence.”
During two recent meetings of the Board of Commissioners, Ritchey has revived a long-running and never settled debate about cable channel 11, the government channel on the Morris Broadband lineup in Henderson County, and what kind of content it should provide.
Ritchey says that Henderson County has no business allowing one radio station use of the public channel and that it ought to open up the broadcast for all users who want to produce appropriate content.
“They’ve obviously gotten comfortable with this monopoly that they’ve been given at taxpayers expense,” she said.
The content includes an hour-long program on the “History of Communication in Henderson County” that includes interviews about WHKP and the Times-News.
“When you run something one time or even twice, it’s a documentary, and they do have a historical place here in Henderson County,” Ritchey says of the station, which went on the air in 1946. “But when you run it twice a day, every day, for weeks on end and months on end, then it no longer falls in my opinion into that category of documentary. It’s an infomercial for WHKP.”
EvaRitcheyEva RitcheyThe problem, she says, is that WHKP is not the only locally operated AM station.
“The second issue is it was never opened up fairly for any kind of bid process,” she said. “So when Art Cooley said, ‘Well, nobody else wants it, that’s disingenuous.’ Nobody on there was going to take him on when he has been a major player in the background to the Republican Party here in Henderson County. It was a sweetheart arrangement from the very beginning.”
She received no response when she appealed to the board.
“Gentlemen,” she wrote, “it is time to end this monopoly that gives unfair advantage to one radio station and to end the misuse of it.”

No money changes hands

Under a contract the county and WHKP signed in 2008, the station receives nothing for providing the audio stream and it pays nothing for its access to channel 11. No one seems to know the exact audience size of channel 11, although Ritchey also objects to the station promoting its cable presence when it pitches advertisers.
WHKP owner Art Cooley says the station has streamed audio on cable going back to the 1960s, when the company strung the first cable TV wires in Hendersonville. It wasn’t successful, he said.
ArtCooleyArt Cooley“It almost bankrupted the company,” he said. “What do they say? The pioneers get the arrows. It’s gone through a number of changes. We’ve been on there historically it seems like forever. The county is moving more and more toward using their own material. We’re on there less and less.”
The media history documentary was made by the Heritage Museum, not the station.
“The video that they did under the guise of Tom Orr (at the museum) was to do a presentation in which we were featured,” he said. “If you ever look at it (former Times-News publisher) George Fain talked longer than all of us put together. We had nothing to do with that. It’s not us running that, it’s the county.”
Under a franchise agreement with Mediacom and now Morris Broadband, the county received its own channel and the Board of Commissioners sets the policy for its use. In 2006 and again in 2008, the board and WHKP signed a contract authorizing the radio feed when there is video or written information with no audio. The contract points out that WHKP has five local news broadcasts a day plus weather and Friday night football. The 2008 agreement bars the streaming of political content; the public channel does not broadcast the Rush Limbaugh show, for instance.
During a county commission meeting last week, County Attorney Russ Burrell said the elected board could make whatever decision it wanted. He warned, however, that opening the channel to all providers would invite religious programs and pornography.

No time for channel 11

Mark Warwick, the general manager of WTZQ, recalled that former County Manager David Nicholson tossed out the idea of the WTZQ providing content, though the idea never went anywhere.
Mark WarwickMark Warwick“I certainly see the benefit of being on channel 11 and I really don’t think either radio station should be on it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair for them to be on it just like it would not be fair if we were on it. Of course, I would love to be on channel 11. It’s a great way to show what we do. I would certainly be open to that” if it shared time.
One reason the commissioners have not responded to Ritchey or taken up her appeal publicly is because they’re busy drafting a budget, said County Manager Steve Wyatt.
“Right now to be honest the priority is putting the budget together,” he said. “That’s where my focus is and where the county staff’s focus is. …
“I talked with Eva and that’s her opinion and that’s fine. The board may or may not have the same view. The board is keenly aware of the fact that we’re 110 percent invested in the preparation of the budget and this multiyear plan and it has consumed 99 percent of our time.”

High school videos

When he read an account of Ritchey’s complaint in the Times-News, Larry Rostetter saw an opening. He thinks the public station needs better programming and could get it for free.
He has talked with Henderson County school personnel, Veritas Academy, Blue Ridge Community College and Flat Rock Playhouse about a collaborative effort to help high school students produce video content for channel 11.
“None of this is terribly formalized,” he said this week. “With respect to the high schools, I got a green light from one of the staff. He said they were in favor of it but not right away because it’s late in the school year.”
Rostetter also talked to the head of the video production program at BRCC and to Flat Rock Playhouse.
“It’s a beautiful match because one of the classes they going to be holding is on video production and editing,” he said.
Rostetter, who is retired from the computer business, said if all the county’s high schools produced video, the students could fill “at least a few hours a day” on channel 11.
Board of Commissioners Chairman Tommy Thompson gave Rostetter the OK to continue exploring the idea last week.
Veritas Academy plunged enthusiastically into the effort, Rostetter said. A crew of students from the Fletcher school went to the Carl Sandburg Home on Saturday and filmed a baby goat.

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Disclosure: The Hendersonville Lightning has a partnership with WTZQ-AM 1600. The newspaper’s editor appears weekly on the radio station’s “Lightning Thursday” program. The station broadcasts the Lightning’s editorials three times a week.