Florida stations take the next step in collaboration, combining their membership operations

'We have bet the farm'

Florida has become the togetherness capital of public broadcasting. Nearly all the stations now collaborate in multimarket underwriting sales, and six TV outlets started recently sharing a programming staff.

Then, last month, 13 of them decided to merge their all-important membership operations.

"We have literally bet the farm," says Stephen Steck, president of WMFE-FM/TV in Orlando.

They're taking the risk to get the economics of a statewide network while keeping local autonomy. With help from CPB Future Fund grants and from PBS, they're leading the rest of the field in collaborations.

"Florida has about a year's jump on the system overall in terms of the number of projects it has working and the potential returns from those projects," says Doug Weiss, director of CPB's TV Future Fund.

In mid-February, the Florida Public Broadcasting Service (FPBS) gave the go-ahead for the next stage of its membership project — "FRED," or "Florida Re-Engineers Development" — and for a CPB grant application to pay for it.

The 13 stations plan to entrust their direct marketing efforts in a new development agency, starting the transition in June and completing it by January, says Johanna Antes, former development director of Tampa's WEDU, appointed to start up the agency.

In five years, according to projections, the agency will be saving and/or earning an extra $20 million a year for those Florida stations, according to Weiss. This amounts to tripling the stations' total membership revenues. He says the work in Florida will give pubcasting a proven "franchise model" for a fundraising factory that can be replicated elsewhere.

FPBS also heard good news about its programming collaboration, led since last summer by Mike Seymour, former programmer at KERA-TV in Dallas. November audiences were way up at the two stations using Seymour's first Florida schedules.

Not every station problem benefits from the same medicine, however. There would be little to gain from consolidating program-guide preparation, an FPBS committee recommended in January after several months' study. Present spending and formats varied so much that many stations would save very little while a few save a lot and a couple would spend more, said Heather Mudrick, of Tampa's WEDU.

Someone please fix that printer!

The FRED project was first motivated by the development directors' desire to use the sophisticated new PBS Team Approach software, Antes told Current. But few of the busy fundraisers had the staff to master the new software.

"Collectively we could have something that individually we couldn't have," says Antes. The fundraisers also started talking about monthly renewal mailings and other tasks they'd rather not do.

With help from a Future Fund planning grant, FPBS brought in experts to determine whether a service bureau could handle membership records for multiple stations using Team Approach. It could, they determined.

In the planning, the fundraisers realized they were creating an expert direct-marketing "development agency" instead of just a service bureau that does the clerical work, according to Antes.

The agency will improve development practices in Florida in three main ways, says Weiss:

  • reducing costs through economies of scale — making group buys and consolidating such backroom operations as list-processing and telemarketing;
  • improving fundraising practices — moving techniques closer to the level of the "best practices" known in the field; and
  • redeploying local development staffers to do the neglected person-to-person work of major-donor and planned-giving solicitation.

As Antes says, development directors will be out raising money instead of sitting in the office, fussing over a jammed printer.

Pledge did better, too

Seymour reported last month that Tampa's WEDU saw a 22 percent increase in its whole-week audience in November and Jacksonville's WJCT had a 35 percent gain in primetime.

Rating results aren't available yet for the other stations. Seymour began preparing schedules for WJCT and WEDU for November, and has since gradually added four other stations: WSRE, Pensacola; WFSU, Tallahassee; WUFT, Gainesville; and Tampa's second station, WUSF.

December pledge results — which reflect program decisions to some degree — also held good news. Pledges to WJCT were 33 percent over the station's goal, for instance, and WEDU came in 14 percent over goal, according to Seymour.

Seymour carefully notes that the successes belong to the stations themselves, but these early numbers don't hurt the record of FPBS collaboration or that of Seymour and his assistant Denise Hall.

While boosting audience, the FPBS collaboration also aims to reduce spending on programming tasks. This year, participating stations pay FPBS 90 percent of what they formerly spent separately, says FPBS Executive Director Jim Moran. "Next year, our plan is to drop that to 70 percent."

Once a month, between the 10th and 20th, Seymour makes the rounds of his client stations, mostly by car, delivering the schedule for the month after next.

A basic rule of the collaboration is that program-purchase decisions, as well as final schedule approval, remain in the hands of the individual stations. But Seymour introduced some common elements in several cities. Two schedules now feature British comedies on Saturday nights and a third has expanded its block of Britcoms. Back at his former station, KERA in Dallas, Britcom blocks were a successful feature of weekend nights.

Collaboration has also allowed Seymour to begin negotiating lower prices for group buys of programs from PBS Select, and he suspects that other discounts will be possible where four or more stations buy the same programs. "Potentially, if we had most of the stations, we could probably get double-digit [percentage] savings with program suppliers," he said.

Seymour negotiates service deals with each station, which must specify its audience goals and what it will spend on programming to reach those goals. "They have to do certain things if they want certain performance," he said in a SECA presentation last fall.

Dentists in drivetime

After months of groundwork, FPBS's statewide underwriting project took off in November with the hiring of Janyth Righter, a former senior account rep at WITF, Harrisburg, Pa.

FPBS hired Righter with proceeds from an earlier collaboration: the sale to PBS of a dance-band pledge special made a year ago by the Florida stations, according to Antes.

Righter is happy with the cooperation she's gotten across Florida from station salespeople, a human breed known for being an eensy bit territorial.

It helps that, when she signed the first statewide sale — two radio spots per weekday for the Florida Dental Association — the ground rules gave a 25 percent commission to the station that gave her the lead, WFSU in Tallahassee.

More statewide contracts are pending. Righter sent out proposals worth a total of $500,000 in January, and now expects to exceed her first year's goal of $300,000.

She's established procedures and forms for multimarket sales within Florida, and is now beginning to come across potential multimarket deals that could reach into other states if she had arrangements with stations there.

With the development agency handling the mass mailings, development directors can be calling on major-gift prospects instead of fussing over a jammed printer.

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