Universities to merge stations, creating Iowa Public Radio

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Three public radio operations will merge to create a new Iowa Public Radio network, the state’s Board of Regents has confirmed.

The net will include stations at three universities overseen by the regents: WOI-AM/FM at Iowa State University in Ames, KUNI and KHKE at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, and WSUI and KSUI at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

Regents expect the merger will lower administrative costs and improve programming, with management of the stations centralized under an executive director and news reports and other programming shared throughout the network.

Managers of the stations share that optimism but worry about lost jobs and the future of their local programs. The stations could end up with a radically revised staffing hierarchy and significant overhauls to the five program streams on their AM and FM signals.

Their universities have embarked on the first step of the process — the search for Iowa Public Radio’s executive director. Each school named an official to an executive council that will hire the director within three to six months.

Mergers aren’t new to public radio, but the Iowa stations present unique challenges. Most other mergers have united a dominant station with a weaker competitor, says John Hess, director of broadcasting at KUNI/KHKE.

But in Iowa, “it’s really three very strong stations trying to come together,” Hess says. WOI and KSUI began broadcasting in the 1920s, and KUNI, the relative newcomer, signed on in 1960. Over their long histories the stations have developed their own personalities and attracted loyal listeners and donors.

Realizing ‘full potential’

Regents and station managers began eyeing a merger in late 2003, when Iowa was grappling with a $60.3 million budget shortfall. The regents began reviewing their spending priorities after an across-the-board state budget cut.

The three stations now receive combined subsidies of almost $2 million from their universities. A consultants’ report that recommended the merger suggested that the universities reduce subsidies by $300,000 over the next five years, from 35 percent to 29 percent.

The report by Bornstein and Associates said the state of Wisconsin and its universities fund Wisconsin Public Radio at the same level and the structure of that state network is the most comparable within public radio to the vision for Iowa. Ron Bornstein, head of the consulting firm, and Larry Dickerson and Jack Mitchell, who worked on the report, are all veterans of the net operated by the state and the University of Wisconsin.

The report stressed that the universities should focus more on improving the stations’ service than on saving money.

“Each [station] has probably reached its full potential as a totally independent university station,” the report said. “Public radio in Iowa has not reached its full potential, however.”

The report criticized the stations for chasing each other’s listeners without developing a clear plan to complement each others’ programming or expand service to unserved listeners.

“To make the most of the considerable facilities built through the years, the three public radio organizations in the state must operate as if they were a single organization, and that requires a central authority,” the report said.

The regents affirmed only the general thrust of the Bornstein report with their vote Dec. 6, leaving the new executive director to design the network and follow through on the report’s detailed recommendations for its structure and sound.

The university officials responsible for finding a director are Warren Madden, Iowa State University’s v.p. for business and finance; Steve Parrott, University of Iowa’s director of university relations; and Steve Carignan, executive director of a performing arts center at the University of Northern Iowa.

KUNI/KHKE’s Hess and Bill McGinley, g.m. of WOI, express interest in filling the top job. Their counterpart at WSUI/KSUI, Joan Kjaer, says she will not pursue it.

Better news and fundraising?

The Bornstein report suggested assigning the executive director to supervise three regional managers, one at each university, plus a membership director who would oversee fundraising for the system. The regional managers would manage engineers, local hosts and underwriting staffs.

The stations’ three program directors, each governing a stream of programming, would have their own staffs and also report to the executive director.

Bornstein and Associates suggested creating three program streams:

  • a dual-format news-and-classical stream for WOI-FM and KSUI,
  • a news channel for the AM stations, WOI-AM and WSUI, with a heavier mix of local and regional content, and
  • a news service with more NPR news, for use on KUNI.

For station staffers, the restructuring could mean new responsibilities or even unemployment. McGinley believes combining budgets, retraining staffers and creating a uniform pay scale could pose some of the merger’s biggest challenges.

But he looks forward to the efficiencies that a shared newsroom and membership department could bring. For example, the number of Morning Edition and All Things Considered hosts among the stations could fall from six to two, freeing four staffers to file more stories.

A new structure could let reporters adopt topical, statewide beats, improving coverage and encouraging them to find exclusive stories, says Greg Shanley, KUNI’s news director.

New program streams are months away, but McGinley says the stations could soon share an All Things Considered host over the T1 line that already connects the WOI and WSUI/KSUI studios. They might also begin using the Iowa Public Radio identifier with some existing joint ventures, including their reports from the state legislature and on Talk of Iowa, a co-produced daily talk show.

Go west, new network

With the university transmitters concentrated in eastern and central Iowa, the Bornstein report also advises the network to expand service to the west by inviting two stations operated by community colleges to join — KIWR in Council Bluffs and KWIT/KOJI in Sioux City. Western Iowans receive no FM service from the three stations and AM service only during the day.

But the directors of the stations say they have little interest in joining. Gretchen Gondek, g.m. of KWIT/KOJI, says her station receives strong community support and wants to preserve its local programming. “We’re doing just fine the way we are,” she says.

A former manager of KUNI/KHKE also fears for the merging stations’ local character. Over the decades, the stations have greatly burnished the images of their parent institutions, says Doug Vernier, who served as director of broadcast services at KUNI/KHKE for 30 years, until retiring in 2002.

“The study really glosses over how that can be maintained,” says Vernier, who was interviewed for the Bornstein report.

The Bornstein report included case studies of mergers in other states, many of which foreshadow kinks that could arise in Iowa. Listeners often fear losing their favorite programs, while employees can bridle at reorganizing. Veterans of other mergers advised the Iowa stations to sell their plan well, anticipate a backlash and stand by a clear vision for the new network.

Listeners have expressed “deep concern” that WSUI/KSUI could cancel local shows, says Kjaer, the station’s interim manager and p.d. of its FM classical service. The task ahead, she says, is determining “how to make a statewide service feel like it comes from your home.”

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