Closer look at challenges ahead
Kling: For bigger role, stronger stations required
When pubcasting leaders met at Minnesota Public Radio headquarters last week to strategize about expanding local news coverage, a sense of urgency about the need to act decisively prevailed despite competing agendas and disagreements over proposed tactics.
MPR President Bill Kling, who convened and hosted back-to-back meetings Nov. 16-17 on new models for pubradio to fill the gap in local and regional news coverage, urged leaders to build larger and stronger local stations, free of the universities and other institutions that own most of them. He put the spotlight on New York’s WNYC and two stations that his organization built into news powerhouses — Minnesota Public Radio itself and its offspring in Los Angeles, Southern California Public Radio. He proposed sweeping reforms to unshackle under-performing public radio stations from institutional or joint licensees.
While many in the room acknowledged the systemic problems of public radio that Kling laid out with precision, others pointedly questioned what really is possible and where system leaders should focus their attention.
Top pubcasting execs and lay leaders described the need to work on multiple fronts to ramp up news production, develop technical systems for distributing and sharing content, and raise the money to make it all possible as they are financially challenged by the recession.
“The metaphor of the hour glass is before us, the sand is trickling down and we need to act,” said CPB Chair Ernest Wilson. “We feel that on the board. We either innovate quickly or we die. We’ll just drive into irrelevance if we don’t act on many of the experiments we are seeing.”
The gatherings in St. Paul were public broadcasters’ first national-level open forums where they developed their response to two major manifestos from journalists and others critical of the field’s performance (Current, Nov. 9, 2009).
Last month both the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism released reports that held pubcasters’ feet to the fire for not devoting enough resources to local news. The Knight Commission, whose recommendations were discussed in detail, called for public radio and television to become “more local, more inclusive and more interactive.” But the Knight panel also pointed out that government support for the field has been inadequate to support this news and public affairs mandate.
The subject gets attention now because of the inadequacy of another media-funding model, newspaper advertising.
“People think that journalism is dying, but that isn’t exactly what’s happening,” Tom Rosenstiel of the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism said. “Journalism is not dying by any means. Shoe-leather reporting is shrinking, certain kinds of it in certain places.”
As the Web empowers news consumers to become their own editors, choosing among news sources to answer their own questions, news has become unbundled from the display advertising that supported it. “The power shift with the consumer is what makes the ad model not work anymore,” he said.
As revenues shrivel for traditional media, nonprofit news groups borrowing public broadcasting’s diversified funding model have been widely touted as the way to save serious journalism. But if that economic engine has been inadequate for stations to carry out the mandates of the Public Broadcasting Act, how can they step into the breach left by weakened for-profit media?
Size, independence, ambition
Kling urged pubradio leaders to break away from colleges, universities and other institutions, which still hold 60 percent of station licenses, and develop the larger scale and greater independence of strong local institutions.
Even among the news-oriented stations in the 25 largest markets, 17 are licensed to universities or other multipurpose institutions, Kling wrote in a white paper he presented to the CPB Board and other system leaders Nov. 17. Only eight “have what could be described as a dedicated, effective board” with authority to hire and fire their chief execs.
The governance and structural weakness of stations licensed to other institutions has undercut pubradio’s ability to attract “competitive leadership talent . . . with ability, vision, entrepreneurial genes, community skills and boundless energy,” Kling wrote.
That could be a description of Kling himself, who freed a number of Minnesota stations from college ownership and built a 38-station regional network that has offshoots in Los Angeles and Miami plus major national productions.
Kling’s paper reported that, among the major stations in the top 25 markets, their size falls off rapidly after the largest few, including MPR and WNYC, which have operating budgets of $76 million and $32 million, respectively. The smallest of the top 25, KERA-FM in Dallas and KVCR in San Bernardino, Calif., live on less than $2 million a year. “That is an unacceptable differential,” Kling wrote.
“Without redress, these weaknesses ensure that public radio cannot accept the mantle being handed to it and that many think it should embrace,” Kling wrote. “Moreover, as the retail face of national producers for most content, the underperformance of local stations not only deprives those communities of an ideal alternative news model for each community — it is also the primary cause of the financial weakness of national producers where few national programs, from Morning Edition to Marketplace to The World, can break even from station carriage fees and related underwriting.”
Kling said the local stations’ underperformance has a “waterfall effect,” inhibiting financial support from all other sources — from the government to foundations to listener contributions.
Pubradio’s weaknesses have everything to do with the governance structure of local stations under institutional or joint licensees, according to Kling. These stations’ are inhibited in fulfilling their public service mission because their agendas are subservient to that of the parent institution, he said. In the case of joint licensees, he wrote, radio revenues are too often siphoned off to subsidize pubTV operations, preventing the radio outlet from reaching its full potential. “The economies of television coupled with the diversion of finding a viable local mission for their television operation can cause senior management to ignore radio — or worse to see it as a ‘cash cow’ for television,” Kling wrote of joint licensees. Stations licensed to universities or other institutions fare even worse because the public radio agenda is at best secondary to the licensee’s.
During the Nov. 17 meeting, Kling proposed that public radio focus on news and information stations in the top 25 markets, creating incentives for licensees to allow their stations to operate with more independence, under community-based boards that will hire top talent and hold them to high performance standards. As examples of what independent licensees can achieve, Kling pointed to two stations located in the nation’s largest markets:
- KPCC in Pasadena, an ascendant news and information station in Los Angeles operated for nine years by a nonprofit allied with his own organization’s national arm, American Public Media Group. Since 2000, KPCC increased its audience 156 percent, added two repeater stations, increased its budget 1,445 percent to $14 million a year, and raised $25 million for capital needs.
- WNYC in New York, which has grown into a formidable national production house and multistation operator since buying its independence from city hall in 1995. In 14 years, its audience grew 32 percent, its budget grew 277 percent and it raised more than $50 million in capital campaigns, he wrote. The New York station, which recently bought a second FM outlet to create separate news and music channels, has “a superb governing board, which hired one of our system’s best professionals as its leader,” Kling wrote, referring to Laura Walker, WNYC president.
“Our success is largely tied to the success of the local stations, so it’s important that we look at that and get it right,” Kling said during his Nov. 17 presentation to the CPB board. “Our communities need strong local newsrooms ... to complete our service combining national international and local news in one stop.”
Public TV seen as a drain on radio
Pointing to the flurry of recommendations about restructuring public broadcasting as public media, Wilson described Kling’s analysis as “the most powerfully stated” for its insider’s understanding of the system’s inherent problems. But Wilson noted that CPB’s powers are limited and questioned how the governance structure of local stations could be changed.
Among those who critiqued Kling’s analysis were two CPB directors.
Patty Cahill, g.m. of KCUR in Kansas City, an NPR News station licensed to the board of curators of the University of Missouri, recalled that she had once been prohibited from hiring a staff member “because the drama department would be upset.”
She said university-owned stations often struggle for journalistic integrity and independence — a necessity if stations are to have credibility in news reporting.
But she told Kling that his analysis didn’t acknowledge the infrastructure and financial support universities provide to their stations. “If university stations become community licensees,” Cahill asked, “what happens to that support? How do we fund it?”
Former CPB Chair Chris Boskin, a veteran of magazine publishing who serves on the board of San Francisco’s KQED-TV/FM, disagreed with Kling’s description of public TV as a financial drain on radio operations. “The advantage of the joint licensee is the collaboration between television, radio and now the Web,” she said. KQED-FM operates one of the strongest public radio stations in the country.
“Too often, we don’t have that relationship between radio and TV,” said Bruce Theriault, CPB senior v.p. of radio. “As we look to the convergence of TV, radio and online platforms, the challenge for us is how to take those licensees and make them real public media companies, really using all of their assets in the best way.”
Kling’s criticism of joint licensees is on target for many stations across the system, Theriault said. “Too often, radio is thought of as an afterthought and not an area of focus.”
Radio managers under joint licensees experience a “high amount of frustration” because the money they raise is transferred to television instead of invested in strengthening the radio, said Vinnie Curren, CPB c.o.o. The conflict has been a point of discussion during round robins convened this fall by CPB and PBS. “One can see the potential for radio and television to come together in a more powerful way, but you can also see that radio operations that are truly focused on radio tend to be successful.”
Others spoke up for smaller radio stations that mount ambitious news services without the money of the largest operations.
“You need a segmented strategy to recognize the different players with different capacities and strengths,” said Tom Thomas, co-executive director of the Station Resource Group. Beyond the multistation operators highlighted during the meetings — KPCC, WNYC and MPR — are many outlets with “less capacity, fewer feet on the street and high aspirations.”
“I think the largest challenge in large or small markets is just having the audacity to envision a larger success than we have seen today,” Thomas said. “Many stations feel that they’ve moved from the margins of their communities to success, and their challenge now is to think large and bold about what more they could be.”
Thomas also recommended that CPB reach outside the community of pubcasting stations to the nonprofit new media organizations that are committed to public service journalism. “We need to open the tent in an explicit way to bring those entities into what we are inventing.”
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Posted Nov. 24, 2009
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