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Former Student Assistant Takes Top Job at KPBS

Tom Karlo can remember one of the first jobs he had as a student assistant with KPBS.

Scrubbing toilets.

“We had an apartment building on the edge of campus, and two rooms had all the production equipment,” he said. “The equipment was so valuable that the staff didn't want janitorial service to be entering those rooms at night. So I cleaned the bathrooms once a week."

Karlo was focused. He wanted to tell stories. He was determined to do whatever was necessary to work in the industry that he loved.

Even as a kid scrubbing toilets, he had ambition.

“As young as I was, I always set my goals very high,” he said. “I knew I wanted to do something like that in the future and be general manager. I knew right then and there that this is where I wanted to be.”

Now, almost 40 years later, Karlo is still with the organization. His hair is shorter than it was in the ‘70s. He makes more money than he did as a student, when he brought home a whopping $1.89 an hour. And he’s achieved his goal, having recently been named the station’s newest general manager after a five-month nationwide search.

Karlo replaces Doug Myrland, who led KPBS as general manager for 15 years.

“Tom is committed to making KPBS the number one source for high quality news and information,” said Stephen Weber, president of San Diego State University. “It’s interesting that he started out as an intern at KPBS. I mean, that’s just cool. In that context, it’s the job that he’s always aspired to. He wants to do something worthwhile and make a difference in the community.”

Sitting at his desk in his office, Karlo looks comfortable and relaxed in his new role. Pictures of his children and grandchildren surround him. Colleagues that walk by say hello, and he responds in kind with a greeting and a smile.

Karlo hopes to brand KPBS as “the premiere local news and information source in this community” within the next few years, despite the station’s current absence of a news director.

“I feel we should look at a news director position,” he said. “How I’ve decided to do it, I’m not sure yet. But I think it’s a critical to have someone who is making those decisions.”

His goal is to use KPBS’ highly respected radio programming format to bring the same quality content to television and the Web.

“This community deserves good, thoughtful, local content,” said Karlo, 56. “So the direction I want us to point to is to expand our local news and information content on the other distribution platforms that we have, which is kpbs.org, digital media and television.”

His biggest opponent? A struggling economy.

“Here at KPBS, our listenership on radio is at an all time high,” Karlo said. “Television is extremely strong and we are growing every day at kpbs.org. We have a lot of customers and it's great. But we are feeling the effects of the economy just like any other industry. We've seen our federal support and our state support decline, membership struggles to stay even or is a little bit behind, corporate support is behind. So for me, the biggest challenge is trying to figure out where the bottom is gonna hit in this economic downturn that we're having.”

When Tom left his hometown -- Millbrae, near San Francisco – in 1973 to come to San Diego State University as a television and radio major, the station had about 20 full-time employees and a budget of maybe $1 million, he said. Now, it operates with about 100 full-time employees and a $19 million budget.

“In the early days, we were playing,” Karlo said. “We didn’t know what we were doing. Now, we have a strategic plan. We have a business plan.”

Karlo -- who has received regional and national Emmys for his work - has dabbled in nearly every department in the building. His early titles include cameraman, director, cinematographer, editor and documentary filmmaker.

In his 30s, he moved to management as the station’s first production manager. Later, he would be promoted to director of operations, then associate general manager for telecommunications and operations and head of national productions, where he helped develop two national television series – a children’s show and a dessert show featuring Debbi Fields of Mrs. Fields Cookies.   

But it was in 2001 that Karlo’s career path dramatically shifted. Using the experience he gained while growing up in a family-owned business -- (where his parents primed him to eventually take over, a path he chose not to follow) -- Karlo assumed the role of associate general manager for business, finance & operations after proving he could balance the station’s budget.

“When the stock market crashed and 9/11 hit, we also took a nosedive in our finances,” Karlo said. “Our budget was out of balance by $2 million.

“I was never afraid to say I could tackle a job. I went into Doug Myrland’s office, who was the GM at the time, and said, ‘Look, I'm not an accountant, I'm not trained CPA or anything like that, but I know how to fix this problem.’

And he did.

“I feel I have so much institutional knowledge of this organization, of public broadcasting,” Karlo added. “I really think I understand the business.” 

He’s happy to be doing what he loves in San Diego, where’s he’s always felt connected.

“I've chosen to be here all my career, even though I'm not from San Diego and my wife is not from San Diego, this is where we moved to in 1973,” he said. “That's the year we got married. We raised our kids here. Even though I had an opportunity to apply for other jobs around the country, I never really went after them in a serious way. This is where I always wanted to be.”

When he’s not donning a suit and tie at KPBS, he can be found at a football field on many Sundays, camera in hand.

“I work for NFL films during the football season, shooting slow motion ground camera,” he said. “I wear shorts, don’t shave that day, get all sweaty and run around the field.”

In that sense, he’s still doing what he set out to do in 1973, as a bright-eyed student from San Francisco who just wanted to tell stories.

 

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