Not All Public Radio Stations Control Their Destinies
Is my public radio station worth saving if most or all of the subsidies went away?
The reality is that as many as half of all public radio stations probably couldn’t survive the loss of all state, university, and federal support. In essence, these stations do not have control of their destinies. Many of them could be wiped out with the single stroke of a pen, as happened to WMUB in Ohio. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Since its inception, DEI’s Benchmarks for Public Radio has tracked a metric called the Community Financial Support Index (CFSI).
CFSI measures a station’s ability to cover its operating budget, minus direct fundraising costs, with net fundraising revenue. An index of 100 means a station could fund is current operating budget on net revenue from individual giving, underwriting, event revenue, etc.
Every year, DEI Benchmarks show the median station CFSI is around 65. That is, the typical station could cover just about two-thirds of its operating budget, not including fundraising costs, with community financial support. Put another way, the typical station would have to cut up to a third of its budget to survive the loss of subsides.
Most stations probably could not survive cuts that deep if they happened all at once. But many of these stations could survive if their dependence on subsidies were gradually reduced.
History shows that more listeners will step up and give more money when subsidies go away. Stations such as KUNC in Greeley and WYPR in Baltimore (formerly WJHU) effectively turned independence from university control into significantly greater levels of listener support.
Once heavily dependent on university subsidies, these stations were forced to take control of their own destinies. They accomplished that through improvements in fundraising results an, sd spending practices. Losing their remaining subsidies today would be very difficult, but like other high-performing stations, they are positioned to adjust and survive.
KUNC and WYPR, along with WRNI in Providence, are rich with lessons on how public radio stations can become more important to and sustained by the communities they serve.
Unfortunately, the public radio industry treats these success stories as anomalies to be avoided. Greater independence from tax dollars and greater long-range security for the station’s core service are shunned in favor of maintaining the status quo.
If public radio has learned anything over the past 6 to 10 months it’s that economic change is here and the status quo won’t cut it anymore.
Is your public radio station worth saving if most or all of the subsidies went away? Assuming the answer is “yes,” then it is time to take control of your destiny and start planning on greater self-sufficiency.
Jay Clayton contributed to this article.