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Finances, abrupt cancellation defined end of ‘Ralston Live’

The nightly interview program “Ralston Live” had been running a deficit during its entire 15-month run, but some, including host Jon Ralston and former sponsors of his show, are critical of how abruptly the show ended.

Donors, not taxpayers, covered the shortfall in the first year, said Tom Axtell, general manager of Vegas PBS, which jointly produced the program with Northern Nevada’s KNPB. Vegas PBS is now making cuts for the upcoming fiscal year, Axtell said, but there were also editorial differences that kept him from saving the show.

The two-year budget for “Ralston Live” had donations of more than $400,000 in the first year that began March 2015, but a deficit of about $101,000, according to figures provided by Vegas PBS to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Axtell said he was not willing to continue the program for a second year, which projected a deficit of about $83,750.

Ralston said he offered to take a salary cut after he was told the show was being canceled because of money problems. Both Ralston and KNPB, which employed him, declined to disclose his salary.

Axtell said he and KNPB President and CEO Kurt Mische decided to pull the plug before the start of a new fiscal year.

“We were two weeks away from the end of our fiscal year (June 30),” said Axtell. “I felt I could not continue.”

But the program’s cancellation did not follow the expectations outlined in a memorandum of understanding between the two public television stations. That memorandum, approved by the Clark County School Board last year, required 30 days written notice to the host if either station wanted to cancel the show.

Instead, Ralston was told June 20, after finishing production in Las Vegas with guest Phil Ruffin, owner of Treasure Island, that it was the last episode

“I go to a meeting on Monday night and was told summarily that the show was being canceled,” he said.

Axtell said Ralston and two producers were salaried full-time employees at KNPB, and had signed separate contracts stating they were at-will employees who could be terminated at any time.

The handling of Ralston’s departure brought criticism from at least one board member.

“The cancellation of the show came as a complete and unexpected surprise to me,” said philanthropist Barbara Molasky, who sponsors the program and sits on the board of Southern Nevada Public Television, Vegas PBS’ tax-exempt nonprofit fundraising arm. “I feel this was handled unprofessionally.”

Axtell said he had received feedback from the public that made him concerned about long-term, broad-based donor support for “Ralston Live.”

“People were saying it looks like you’re using my (financial) support for a person for whom I disagree, and that looks like the editorial opinion of the station,” he said.

Although Axtell said he talked with Ralston about it, Ralston said there were no protracted discussions, only occasional comments, and nothing to signal a serious problem.

Axtell said he knew Ralston could conduct thoughtful, in-depth, informed interviews. However, he said that in the second year of “Ralston Live,” an election year, there was more commentary and a change in the tone of the program.

But Ralston said the show did not change. He also said if the commentary was an issue and he had been asked to take it out from the beginning, then he would have been open to that. But the station managers never asked, he said.

There were also issues with Ralston’s interview style, Axtell said.

“He clearly has his own views, but he tries to hold people to a high level of personal consistency in their comments and when he thinks they’re not being consistent or they’re hemming and hawing, he just lasers in.”

Ralston said Axtell and Mische never told him he was too confrontational in the interviews.

Lori Nelson, vice president of corporate communications at Stations Casinos, one of the program’s sponsors, said, “Certainly, he has a style that can be perceived that way, but I think every politician and group has fairly been a target of topic from him. He leaves no stone unturned.”

Wynn Resorts Ltd. co-founder and philanthropist Elaine Wynn described Ralston as “quirky, in your face, abrasive. But if you also know Jon Ralston, you also know he’s a good guy.”

“I thought it was important for his voice to be a voice in the community, because for years I found it to be one of truth,” said Wynn, whose family foundation was a major sponsor of the program. “There have been times that I haven’t agreed with him. But I trust people to make their own decisions.”

Prior to being cancelled, Ralston had lined up guests for future shows. Last Wednesday, the scheduled guest was Steve Hill, director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and chairman of the committee tasked with the funding strategy for the $1.4 billion stadium. On Monday, the guest was the Nevada System of Higher Education’s new acting chancellor, John Valery White. They had also lined up special coverage after the national Republican and Democratic conventions with Congressman Mark Amodei, R-Nev., and former governor and U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev.

Reporters Neal Morton and Sandra Chereb contributed to the story.

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