What pubcasters are doing to increase impact
and reduce operating costs
This Briefing pulls together articles from Current that report on efforts to raise the ratio of the field's benefits to its costs.
Nobody laid out a rational plan for American public broadcasting. From the start of educational radio in the 1920s, it just grew. Any nonprofit group could apply for an FCC license, and when federal matching grants for equipping stations became available in the 1960s, stations began popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm.
That generally served the congressional objective of creating "universal service" to nearly every part of the country. And it avoided the sticky (and possibly oppressive) politics of somebody in Washington making unpopular (and conceivably sensible) decisions on a national basis.
But every college's and community's desire for its own public TV or radio station led to:
- stations serving some cities that are too small to support more than a minimal service (in a commentary, a former station manager explains that many local stations are simply too small for efficient operation);
- stations that carry similar programs operating within a few miles because one serves State "A" and the other serves State "B"; and
- more than one station in a community, sometimes competing for the same audience rather than cooperating by serving different audiences.
Many of these situations have been resolved over the years, through cooperation or financial emergencies, and the federal funding crisis of 1995-96 sparked additional attempts to rationalize the field.
Sharing of technical facilities
Across the country, at least a dozen public TV stations have been helped by a CPB project to plan consolidation of master control rooms, towers and other facilities with other stations in their localities. Those talks led to a merger agreement between the two big New York City area stations in August 2001 and talks with a third.
For years, automation and consolidation of tech facilities has been a major objective of national planners. In 2003, PBS began showing prototypes of the ACE or EIOP package of automation equipment and services intended to bring payroll savings and remote monitoring to member stations.
WGBH and Mississippi ETV proposed a cost-saving plan to put the acclaimed children's reading series Between the Lions back into production. using facilities and staff in Mississippi.
Sharing of fundraising and "back-office" work
With help from CPB, some stations are consolidated fundraising efforts in new multi-station service bureaus. The most extensive effort to squeeze out costs began in Florida and branched into other states.
Mergers and operating agreements
The most striking of many merger proposals is the one under discussion in New York City, where the area's two biggest public TV stations, WNET and WLIW, have begun talks about combining more or all operations, while the city school board also talks with WNET about operating its little-watched WNYE.
Many stations began considering mergers and other cost-saving arrangements in 1995. In Alaska and West Virginia, stations consolidated some functions by dividing the labor among their staffs. In Kentucky, the state network took over the independent station in Louisville. In Washington state, the Seattle station now operates the Yakima outlet. Three public radio operations merged to create a North Dakota network. And two stations in Indianapolis decided to merge physically and fiscally while maintaining some independent programming. And five state networks in the South are planning collaborations to save money and earn more private-sector revenues.
Not all merger talks are successful. In Binghamton, N.Y., WSKG-FM/TV reengineered itself for efficiency and then in 1999 began merger talks with larger WCNY-FM/TV in Syracuse. Those talks were unsuccessful.
Some of the difficulties of mergers are reflected in the experience of Colorado's three public TV stations, though Denver's KRMA has combined operations with a third Colorado station despite setbacks in merger discussions with the other Denver station, KBDI. More recently, KRMA and KBDI agreed to share some technical facilities.
In deciding which stations would get federal operating aid, CPB had always regulated the stations with a light hand to stay out of local decision-making. The main criteria for receiving CPB Community Service Grants (CSGs) were that the stations have at least a certain staff size and a certain level of local income. Faced with criticism of the field, in 1996, CPB adjusted those criteria slightly to push for efficiency:
- For public TV, it approved criteria that reduce funding where there is more than one station in a market.
- For public radio, it added criteria for audience size and community support to assure that the stations assisted with federal money have the support or the ears of substantial parts of their communities.
Dozens of radio stations at-risk of losing their grants responded by reworking their program schedules and boosting their fundraising. By fall 1997, about 26 were failing to meet audience and community support standards; only six lost parts of their grants. Some like KBOO in Portland, Ore. were willing to shift their schedules to improve audiences but not make wholesale changes in their philosophies.
CPB also set aside special "Future Funds" starting in fall 1996 to assist local projects that appear to have solid potential for introducing cost-savings and otherwise improving pubcasting's finances. Some stations initially objected that CPB drew a portion of the Future Funds from the monies that usually are apportioned to stations by a standard formula.
But with the Future Fund money, CPB has encouraged stations to try new kinds of economizing, including extensive collaborations by many of Florida's stations, such as service bureaus that create economies of scale in the back-office work of membership fundraising--Infinite OutSource in Tampa and Membershop in Minneapolis. And five state-operated networks in the Deep South have begun planning collaborations under the Five Star label.
CPB, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is the independent, nonprofit agency chartered by Congress to distribute operating funds to public broadcasters, has the sometimes conflicting tasks of looking out for the federal interest in the field and also protecting the field from undue political interference.
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Current Briefing: The struggle over federal aid since 1995.Web page updated Aug. 6, 2001
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