From TV to Philanthropy:

How a public television station in Philadelphia seized an opportunity to transform itself and better serve its community

Molly de Aguiar
4 min readJul 9, 2019
Clockwise: African American Museum of Philadelphia, Germantown Info Hub, The Village of Arts and Humanities, PhillyCAM. (AAMP and Germantown Info Hub photos courtesy of AAMP and Andrea Wenzel, respectively.)

Today, Independence Public Media Foundation is announcing its first ever grants: $5.3 million to eleven organizations in Philadelphia, as well as a partnership with Bread & Roses Community Fund, to help communities across the Greater Philadelphia region build power through media and media making.

These grants reflect IPM’s expansive definition of media, with support for community archives (African American Museum of Philadelphia, Taller Puertorriqueño), digital literacy workshops and programs for immigrants and refugees (Digital Literacy Alliance, SEAMAAC), community-centered journalism (Germantown Info Hub & Kensington Voice via Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication), media justice initiatives (The Village of Arts and Humanities), cultural competency training and professional development opportunities for legacy newsrooms (Lenfest Institute for Journalism and WHYY), and creative expression (PhillyCAM, Scribe Video Center, Doc Society’s Good Pitch Local Philly).

I’m oversimplifying the grants a bit for brevity’s sake (please do read the full grant descriptions), but they reflect an understanding that media impacts our lives in myriad and complex ways, requiring us to explore multiple avenues for creating a just and equitable media landscape.

The announcement of these grants is a major milestone for IPM. Although we are a new foundation, we are not a new entity.

Independence Public Media, founded in 1981, was formerly a public broadcaster operating WYBE Channel 35 in the Philadelphia market. It was a small public television station with a creative, artistic vision for the role that media can and should play to strengthen communities. It was known, in particular, for programming and staff that represented the true and rich diversity of the Philadelphia region.

In 2017, IPM relinquished its broadcast license as part of the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadcast Incentive Auction and received a one-time payment of $131.5 million. The auction offered participating stations the option to go off the air entirely (and potentially get a bigger payout), or stay on the air, but move to a less valuable spot on the spectrum and share space with someone else (“channel sharing”). To the best of my knowledge, only three stations in the country, including WYBE, elected to go off the air; the other two belonged to universities which planned to use their proceeds for other initiatives at their respective institutions.

WYBE was the only station in the country to seize the opportunity of the auction and transform itself from a broadcaster into a private foundation, believing it could have far greater and longer-lasting impact on communities as a funder. That private foundation, which I now lead, has a $5-$6 million annual grant-making budget to honor and carry forward the very best of what WYBE offered the region, while also exploring new ways that media can foster understanding and improve people’s lives.

Stop for a moment to consider the courage it takes to completely give up the way you’ve been serving your community for nearly 40 years, and decide to pursue a whole new way to serve and support them.

The IPM board could have chosen to upgrade the station’s equipment, put some money away in a rainy day fund, and keep right on broadcasting, just like the other non-commercial stations across the country did with their $2 billion in auction proceeds. But that is not what IPM decided to do.

Instead here we are, after two years of incredibly hard work transitioning from tv to philanthropy, celebrating our first grants today — more than $6 million! — directly invested into community-centered and community-led media organizations and projects. Better yet, we are just getting started.

To learn more about IPM, its guiding principles and four overarching goals, see the background paper (PDF) on our website. While this first set of grants is a good representation of IPM’s values and goals, we know we have a lot to learn, including how best to serve and support the region, not just Philadelphia. We are committed to sharing our processes, decisions, and learning publicly.