Static at BNN

Boston's community cable channel is awash in political intrigue and infighting, raising some questions: who is responsible to whom, and for what?
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  July 16, 2010

NEW BRICKS, FEW BODIES BNN spent $8.7 million on a gleaming new facility in Roxbury, but 10 workers have been terminated since 2008. “The building was upgraded,” says a former employee, “but the skill set was not.”

The bigwigs at Boston Neighborhood Network, the city's grassroots, community cable-access television operation, were so confident of their reputation that last year they decided to parlay BNN's 25th anniversary into a major fundraiser.

Party planners commissioned centerpieces and trophies; honorees — including Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray — walked a velvet-rope-lined red carpet; and nearly 200 guests ate cake fashioned to resemble the BNN logo. To heighten the air of self-celebration, the bash was held in the backyard of the station's new state-of-the-art $8.7 million media center in Roxbury's Egelston Square, which is a gleaming emblem of urban rejuvenation.

The event was a social success but a financial disaster. According to public records, BNN invested $82,620 on the gala itself — much of which presumably went to two consultants who the network paid nearly $100,000 combined for event planning and marketing in 2009. Given that only $18,898 was raised, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the soiree was a dud. A splendid time may have been had, but by the end of the night BNN was $63,722 in the red.

BNN — a public nonprofit partnership largely subsidized by RCN and Comcast fees paid by Boston cable users — is a highly regarded local institution; both the network's news and information channel (which features the Boston University–assisted "Neighborhood Network News") and its quirkier community-television station (home of such programs as Harvest Time TV) have won honors, including a Boston/New England Emmy nomination earlier this year (the recognized production was a teen-pregnancy public service announcement that was shot by students in the network's In Focus Youth Media summer program).

But according to current and former BNN employees who spoke with the Phoenix, trouble lies behind the facade of accolades and the stunning Egleston facility. They claim, among other things, that General Manager Curtis Henderson Jr. has sparked an exodus that has resulted in 10 workers being terminated (some say unfairly) or "forced out" since 2008. Salaries for some of these employees remained flat for years. Nevertheless, since 2005 Henderson enjoyed a $23,000 pay hike. (Henderson did not respond to five Phoenix inquiries for information and clarification.)

Former distribution manager Jason Salzarulo is particularly concerned about the station's technological future. Salzarulo says that Henderson's management style is "chilling" and could compromise BNN's ability to serve the public. One glaring example of the alleged incompetence is to be found on the network's Web site, which was then and remains today virtually useless despite more than $65,000 being spent on Web consulting since 2008.

"The building was upgraded, but the skill set was not, and [Henderson] was reluctant to communicate with the staff about matters as crucial as Web-site development," says Salzarulo, who was reportedly laid off for economic reasons late this past year. "When things got critical, he got so cagey that people felt like they couldn't even bring things up."

Those are just some issues raised by perturbed members and employees, and, this past month, by a City Council inquiry into BNN's organizational practices.

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