Monday, January 26, 2009

Renewing the Call for Self-Sufficiency

It was Day One of a public policy class at the University of Maryland. The professor offered this challenge to the students.

"You have just started as the head of a government agency fighting the drug problem in America. What is the first thing you do?"

The class was evenly split with half wanting tougher laws and more jails. The other half wanted to invest in urban renewal and education programs.

"You're all wrong," said the professor. "Your number one priority is to get funded again next year. Otherwise you are out of a job."

I was reminded of this after hearing that WMUB, the NPR News station in Oxford, Ohio, will no longer be operated locally. The station’s licensee, Miami University is pulling $500,000 in annual cash support due to major budget shortfalls of its own. All staff members are losing their jobs. The station will be operated by Cincinnati Public Radio.

Not surprisingly, some in public radio reacted by suggesting that the industry needs even more subsidies from the federal government.

That’s the wrong approach. Public radio needs to become more self-sufficient. Its service to nearly 30 million Americans each week is too valuable to leave vulnerable to a single stroke of a pen. That's not fair to donors either.

Self-sufficiency is a path public radio actually started down in the Reagan era. The industry was pushed further down that path in the mid-1990s. Remember Newt Gingrich? Remember the phrase "glide path to zero?"

Helping to lead the charge, and working against the logic of that Public Policy 101 professor, was CPB. Significant funds were invested in developing concepts, tools, and training to help wean stations from big subsidies. Those resources still exist in the form of Strategic Financial AudiGraphics and the Community Financial Support Index in DEI’s Benchmarks, and a still relevant 1995 report by David Giovannoni called "Licensees at Risk." These resources can help public radio today.

There are more WMUB's waiting to happen. Many more. And they aren't just small market stations or university licensees.

The problem isn't fundraising as much as it is spending. Too many stations are over reliant on the subsidies they receive from CPB, their state governments, and their universities.

In a dispassionate discussion, it can be argued that the WMUB outcome is the right one. WMUB's listeners will still be served with public radio's most important programs. The cost of serving those listeners is much lower. Cincinnati Public Radio should be strengthened.

Maybe this is the future of public radio. The consolidation of costs by having fewer independent operations is an option. It would be a very messy and painful transition.

It also goes against the belief that localism is important and, perhaps, the future of public radio in the new media marketplace. If localism is important, then self-sufficiency is the ultimate option.

Many stations currently in trouble can be saved if they are willing to back away from the subsidy trough. It won't be easy and they would need help.

Self-sufficiency doesn’t have to mean eliminating government support for public media. CPB could benefit greatly from helping these stations reduce their reliance on all subsidies, including federal support. That would free up sufficient money to fund efforts to reach new audiences and fund national projects for current audiences. Right now, there's really not enough to go around. It would be a great role for CPB to be advancing the industry rather than just sustaining the status quo.

Self-sufficiency is as important as growing the audience because it cements the foundation for future service. It’s not an easy choice, but it is the right one.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

Alive and Kicking in 2009

Some thoughts about the coming year.

In 2009, radio will be declared dead again, but it's not.

2009 will be tough but don't buy into the fear mongering around public radio. People who believe public radio is dying don't really understand the medium. It is changing, but it's not dying.

The economy goes up and down. Markets and Missions change. Institutions and organizations adapt. It's always been that way, even for public radio.

Interactive is overrated but that's where foundation and federal grants are going, so public radio will follow the money even if it's not the most prudent use of time and resources... and even if it hurts the core radio service.

The push to interactive media ignores radio's greatest benefit... that you can listen while doing other things.

That's why the majority of listeners won't use interactive offerings from their public media entity. They want to push a button and be informed or entertained while doing other things. That will not change in 2009 and it won't be any different in 2019.

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