At 10, Station Resource Group has more for Tom and Terry to do

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You seldom hear that members of an association are voluntarily doubling their dues, but that’s about what the Station Resource Group is doing.

Ten years after an informal group of station managers, the Dallas 15, hired Tom Thomas and Terry Clifford, the stations are raising their commitment and buying more of the consultants’ time.

When Thomas and Clifford return home from last weekend’s annual SRG retreat — Aug. 18-22 in Park City, Utah — they’ll bring back a “to do” list and authorization to spend full time on it. Until now, SRG has taken about two-thirds of their time, Thomas estimates. SRG’s budget rises from $184,000 to $315,000.

While it’s not the year’s biggest personnel decision in terms of payroll hours, it’s a notable vote of confidence in Thomas and Clifford, who have been “public radio’s primary source of policy analysis” for 10 years, says SRG Chairman Max Wycisk, GM of KCFR-FM in Denver.

The couple, who are partners in wedlock and parenthood as well as consultancy, have also had overtures from public TV, acknowledging their work with SRG. A group of public TV managers approached the couple for help in creating an SRG-like organization for TV, according to an SRG member. Sorry, the time is all committed.

Thomas individually was recognized last year when NPR leaders interviewed him as a candidate for NPR president, according to an NPR board member.

With the two-person firm of Thomas & Clifford contracted as its staff, the research, advocacy and facilitation group has given stations a bigger voice in national policymaking and raised stations to the level of partners with NPR and other national organizations.

“It’s been one of the most productive groups I’ve been involved with,” says Susan Harmon, head of KERA-FM in Dallas, a leader of the Dallas 15. “Having that kind of analytical prowess has been important to us. If we take a position, we know what it means in dollars and cents over the years.”

SRG has set itself apart from most public broadcasting groups by looking toward the future and paying attention to research, remarks Dale Ouzts, GM of WOSU-AM/FM/TV in Columbus, who is not an SRG member.

“It’s difficult to think of any major advancement in public radio over the past decade which does not have Tom and Terry’s imprint on it,” says Marjon van den Bosch, executive director of Eastern Public Radio.

They cofounded the National Federation of Community Broadcasters in 1975 and staffed it through 1984, coauthored major audience analysis studies with David Giovannoni, developed plans for the Hispanic satellite system Satelite and World Cafe and played key roles in countless policy dramas at NPR and in the Public Radio Expansion Task Force.

Thomas and Clifford represent stations that are bigger, richer and more conventional than their constituents during the years at NFCB. One national policy advocate calls Thomas as a “hired gun” for the big stations. But their advocacy so often takes a “whole body” approach to the wellness of public radio that the suspicious observer could suspect they’re counterintelligence agents from NFCB.

“They’re quite successful in crafting solutions that benefit all of public radio,” said van den Bosch. “They have a very global view.”

There’s a natural tension in public radio between the many little stations and the few big ones, acknowledges Don Mullally of WILL-AM/FM, Urbana. “Tom has been able to find policies that will balance the interests of those two conflicting groups.”

When the ad hoc Expansion Task Force was debating strategy, for example, SRG argued successfully that public radio and CPB should invest promptly in new minority stations as a demonstration of goodwill — a decision that causes CPB to slice the Community Service Grant pie in more and smaller pieces.

And two years ago, when the NPR Board was considering how it would set its station dues, SRG advocated levying dues that equalled a simple percentage of station income — a formula that strengthened the system in spite of higher dues for big stations.

Ten percent solution

Until 1992, when NPR called a truce, Thomas and Clifford routinely deployed the spreadsheet software for a protracted dues war each year.

In the mid-’80s, NPR’s chairman at the time, Mullally, had proposed a percentage formula that tied NPR dues to station income. But SRG suggested that NPR postpone that and set dues annually instead. That process prevailed, and the dues wars ensued.

In 1992, however, SRG began advocating a percentage formula. The system was ready, Thomas recalls. The program marketplace had developed, and stations had a feel for what programs were worth. And it was time to end the exhausting dues debates.

After its August 1992 meeting, SRG proposed a five-year lockdown of basic NPR dues and news fees at 10.7 percent of station revenues. Thomas and Clifford toured the annual regional meetings that fall, selling what Clifford called “the 10% solution.” NPR management was skittish about the five-year lockdown, but came around. The NPR Board finally tied its revenues to 10.22% of station revenues.

Though the plan shifted some of the burden of supporting NPR, it was meant to be “revenue neutral” for the network; if the number of members held steady, it would earn the same total income as under the old fee structure. If the number grew, NPR could afford to send more reporters to Bosnia.

With child, without job

Ten years ago this month, Thomas and Clifford had just quit their jobs at NFCB, Clifford was pregnant with their second child, the Reagan juggernaut was bearing down on public broadcasting, and the Dallas 15 station managers got together at KERA in Dallas to strategize.

Thomas recalls getting a call from Wayne Roth, GM of KUOW in Seattle, and Bob Ottenhoff, then head of WBGO in Newark (now an executive VP at PBS). “They said, ‘Hey, we’re finishing up a meeting down here. There are a couple of things we need done. Are you interested?’ Given that we had a child about to be delivered and no job, it looked pretty good.”

Thomas recalls that the Dallas 15 were feeling rudderless. “Too much is happening in Washington with only token consultation with the stations.” The managers seldom could meet to take collective action. “Getting together for a few Early Bird meetings at the PRC [Public Radio Conference] wasn’t going to cut it.”

The immediate issue was, how CPB should split a supplemental appropriation? How much would go to NPR and how much to the stations? SRG advocated a split that was later put into law for future appropriations.

Now SRG is 10 years old and so is Hal, Thomas and Clifford’s son. Their older daughter Kate is 11, and younger daughter Charlie is seven. And the parents work in their Takoma Park, Md., home, interrupted occasionally by plumbing disasters and bee stings. To some extent, they are Mr. Outside and Ms. Inside, with Thomas doing more of the traveling. But they say that they split most of the work and take turns writing rough and final drafts.

Thomas, who has been accused of occasional brusqueness and even arrogance, has been known to refer certain questions to Clifford as “the Minister of Diplomacy,” while Clifford sends reporters to interview the “Quotemeister.”

In that role, Thomas is one of those rare people who can start reeling off a list of options, laugh heartily about what option No. 4 says about human nature, and then resume the list without losing count.

New focus: collaborative projects

In coming years, Thomas hopes to leave behind the “Let-Tom-and-Terry-do-it model” and inspire the managers to invest more of their own time in projects.

For one reason, the projects will need that time. While SRG will continue to monitor Washington policy, the group aims to put more of its energy into multistation projects in program production, fundraising and research. As a model, SRG leaders cite the Public Radio Music Source compact disc sales operation, which developed out of an SRG discussion on joint moneymaking schemes. Another example is Northwest Journal, a regional news program produced in Seattle for stations in several adjoining states.

SRG will also begin releasing products from its Making the Case project. While many stations have learned how to win support from listener-members and business underwriters, few have tapped philanthropy — major donors and foundations, Thomas says.

The project will help stations approach those sources. The idea is similar to the “Signaling Value” gospel that PBS preaches, he explains: “You have to think through your value before you start signaling.”

A how-to guide will help member stations do that for their own communities, and SRG survey results will isolate eight “message points” that all stations can use.

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