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FROM RED INK TO BLACK : KCET PAYS OFF DEBT AHEAD OF SCHEDULE

Times Staff Writer

Four years after staring bankruptcy in the face, the board of directors at KCET Channel 28 heard Thursday that the last of the public television station’s long-term debts will be paid off today--four months ahead of schedule.

The surprise announcement of that decision by KCET president William H. Kobin brought gasps and an outburst of applause at the board’s bimonthly meeting.

Station officials said that with the payment of $288,000 to a consortium of three banks, KCET will be debt-free. At the worst of its financial crisis in 1982, the station was $5.5 million in the red, forcing it to make drastic reductions in personnel and programming, and to consider selling its 4 1/2-acre studios in Hollywood.

Under new leadership, the station has finished in the black for four consecutive years. Kobin told the board Thursday that the station expects to show a surplus of about $300,000 for the fiscal year that ends Monday.

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It was that positive balance that prompted station officials to pay off the bank debt early. The final payment of $144,000 had been due Oct. 31.

Further reflecting KCET’s economic health, the board of directors unanimously approved an operating budget for the fiscal year that begins Tuesday of $25.5 million--a 14% increase over the year just ending and a 50% jump from 1983, Kobin said.

In addition, KCET chairman Kyhl Smeby reported that the station is maintaining a $500,000 cash reserve. Kobin said that this account will be built up now that the bank debt has been retired.

“Obviously, we feel very good about the magnitude of what we paid off,” Kobin said later in an interview. “Beyond that, it shows the community that this is a stable, responsible, well-managed business organizatiion in which it can have trust.”

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Kobin pronounced himself pleased with the station’s “prudent and deliberate growth,” particularly at a time when many other public television stations are having to tighten their belts.

He also expressed pride in several other growth figures over the last year. He said viewership was up 9% over a year ago, with an average of about 2.1 million households now tuning to the station at some point during the day, while revenue from individual contributions climbed 10% to more than $13.1 million.

KCET officials declined to discuss specific programming plans for the new fiscal year beyond those already announced: a documentary about a Hungarian freedom fighter returning to his homeland after a 30-year absence, coverage of the international Tchaikovsky piano competition in Moscow and a documentary about how the National Security Council might operate during a terrorist-provoked international crisis. It also continues to seek funding for “The American Ticket,” a projected 26-part series designed to combat illiteracy.

While these particular programs are being produced for the national public television schedule, Kobin stressed that local programming remains the station’s top priority.

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In other matters Thursday, the board elected two new members: veteran television producer David L. Wolper and Jane Eisner, former vice president of the Los Angeles Children’s Museum, whose husband, Michael, is chairman of the Walt Disney Co.

KCET has received a grant of $475,000 from the Los Angeles-based Weingart Foundation.

Station President William H. Kobin said $200,000 will be used to bring one of KCET’s studios up to earthquake standards, and $175,000 will be spent to replace the studio flooring. The balance will be used to acquire needed technical equipment.

The KCET studios are Hollywood landmarks, originally built as movie sound stages in the ‘30s.

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