KPBS General Manager Tom Karlo spoke at a September 2018 Morse High School event honoring Rep. John Lewis and his graphic book “March.” Photo by Ken Stone

In a local media milestone, KPBS General Manager Tom Karlo will retire at the end of this year after a 47-year career at the public radio and TV station operated by San Diego State University.

The announcement was made Monday by San Diego State University President Adela de la Torre. KPBS is licensed to the Board of Trustees of the California State University system.

De la Torre named Nancy Worlie as interim general manager effective Jan. 1, 2021. Worlie — now associate general manager content and communications — has been at KPBS for 17 years, recently overseeing news, programming, communications and human resources.

Karlo, 67, has been at the NPR affiliate since 1973 when he began as a student while attending SDSU.

In late June, Times of San Diego columnist Rick Griffin reported that KPBS was facing economic difficulty and resorting to employee layoffs and salary reductions amid COVID-19-related deficits in sponsorship and donation revenue.

KPBS spokeswoman Heather Milne Barger said the station faced a six-figure loss this fiscal year, and already had shaved roughly $800,000 in expenses from its annual budget that can typically range between $20 million and $30 million in recent years, depending on revenue.

“Understandably, morale is not good,” said Milne Barger, who confirmed layoffs. “These were difficult decisions and management has a lot of work to do moving forward.”

Since 2013, KPBS employees have been represented by the labor union SAG-AFTRA, which also represents public media professionals at KQED in San Francisco, KPCC in Pasadena and WNYC in New York.

KPBS has been publicly criticized for proceeding with a planned $3.2 million remodel of its media complex on the San Diego State University campus.

In June, Barger said: “KPBS has been long overdue in updating our facilities and technology,” she said. “We began the capital campaign five years ago as a quiet campaign. We were able to raise nearly the entire campaign amount prior to the pandemic, and finalized the project bidding process in 2019.

“Every one of our major donors signed gift and pledge agreements restricting the funds to the construction project. The capital campaign funds are completely separate from the operational fund. We are starting construction this summer and the money is already spent through SDSU on the construction company and the architect. What we would lose by stopping this project this late in the game is far greater than what we would gain, and would not help our finances at all.”

Monday, Griffin shared memories of his former SDSU classmate.

“I’ve known Tom since the mid-1970s, he looks the same today, he doesn’t age,” said Griffin, a local PR consultant. “Back then, we were both SDSU broadcasting students working at KCR, the campus radio station. Live from Aztec Bowl, where Viejas Arena stands today, we broadcasted the Aztec football spring football game to the dorms over phone lines.”

He said he did play-by-play and Karlo did color.

“We were awful,” he said. “I moved on to focus on print journalism, but Tom never left in his career at KPBS. San Diego is a better city thanks to Tom’s dedication and selfless career in public broadcasting.”

On Tuesday, Pat Harrison, president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, said: “Tom Karlo’s collaborative and congenial leadership and dedication to the communities KPBS serves has made a positive difference in the lives of so many. He will be missed and we wish him and Julie all the best.”

Karlo worked his way up from a cameraman and eventually learned all facets of the business, including TV production, operations, program distribution and finance. He was named general manager in 2009, making him only the fifth GM in the station’s 60-year history.

“Tom’s passion for KPBS and for SDSU are apparent to anyone who meets him and he has invested decades to elevate KPBS as an important community-focused ambassador for public media in the San Diego region,” de la Torre said. “As a former writer and journalist myself, I applaud Tom for his years of service to meaningful storytelling and to ethical journalism.”

KPBS said that During his tenure as general manager, the station ushered in a new era of multiplatform content and “solidified the organization’s reputation for trusted, award-winning news across all platforms.”

Since 2009, KPBS has added a weekday television newscast, and digital news on KPBS.org and social media, in addition to an existing and well established radio news team. KPBS now has content on more than 30 platforms, including four television channels, 89.5 FM, KPBS.org, and social media.

“It’s been an honor and a privilege to spend my entire career at KPBS and SDSU,” Karlo said in a statement. “I feel I have made a difference at KPBS and KPBS has made a difference in the community. I am so proud of that.”

In his nearly 12 years as general manager, KPBS has grown to 180 full and part time staff; the news team started at 15 people and is now close to 50. The audience has grown to more than 1.3 million each week; and operating revenue has nearly doubled, the station said.

The KPBS Producers Club has also grown from 600 families and $700,000 a year to 1,900 families and nearly $2.8 million annually.

Officials called Karlo a fundraising powerhouse, raising nearly $70 million for KPBS’ Building on Trust Capital Campaign in three years.

“The campaign funds a much-needed expansion and remodel of KPBS’ building,” the station said. “Construction will begin before Tom retires at the end of the year.”

Karlo has served on national boards including the PBS Board of Directors, Public Television Major Market Group, and the California Public Television Board of Directors.

Karlo and his wife, Julie, have three children and four grandchildren and look forward to spending time with family in San Diego and Lake Tahoe, the station said.

Karlo sent this message to staff:

Dear Team KPBS,

After 47 years serving KPBS and SDSU, I am announcing my retirement. My last day will be December 30, 2020.

I honestly can’t believe 47 years have passed. I started as a student assistant and moved into the GM position almost 12 years ago. It has been a privilege, pleasure, honor and joy to work with you. It truly is all of you, KPBS’ team of amazing employees, that have made this organization great. I can’t thank you enough.

I am proud of what we have achieved in the last 12 years. While the pandemic has changed the world we live in, making the past seven months challenging, I am confident KPBS will continue to grow, prosper and serve the community.

As many of you know, I have been targeting retirement for the last couple of years, but wanted to make sure the capital campaign for the construction of the building, and future fund for programming and technology, would reach their goals. We have raised $39.5 million to complete the construction and documented another $30 million in future planned gifts to fund programs and equipment over the next couple of decades.

The construction will begin later this month and I can’t wait to see you all in the new state-of-art media center for the future.

SDSU will recruit for my replacement in time but there is a hiring chill and budget considerations. In the meantime, President de la Torre has named Nancy Worlie (associate general manager for content and communication) as the interim general manager beginning January 1, 2021.

I am thrilled to see one of our own team members step in and continue to lead KPBS during this transition. I am confident and know that Nancy is ready for this challenge; she has been on the Management Council for five years and she has been instrumental in helping steer KPBS toward its digital future. Over the last 5 years the management team of Vince, Alex and Bruce along with Nancy have done an incredible job. I couldn’t be more pleased with Nancy moving into the general manager role as interim and the Management Council team staying intact for the near future. KPBS is in good hands.

As I enter this next stage, I think of a specific song:

“Well, my friends, the time has come. Raise the roof and have some fun. Throw away the work to be done. Let the music play on.”

— Lionel Ritchie

At my age, trying to raise the roof is probably not happening. But I have decided to retire and have some fun. So let the music play on.

Of course, I plan on continuing my membership in the Producers Club and will be an ambassador for KPBS and SDSU. I look forward to being your biggest fan, and can’t wait to see you all take KPBS to new heights.

Thank you all again for making KPBS a success.

Respectfully yours,

Tom

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