Florida dean pushes to cut expenses, gets pushback about blurred roles

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When the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications announced last month that it would restructure its media outlets, Dean John Wright had already made one decision: Classical music on Gainesville’s WUFT/WJUF-FM would be cut back and possibly replaced completely by news and talk programming.

Indeed, the college has now set the FM format change for Aug. 3 [2009], and Wright has asked his outside advisors to cut costs by consolidating management of its two commercial and three public stations—creating a closeness that raises red flags for some pubcasters.

News managers from the stations have already fought off a controversial recommendation from one of the advisors, commercial TV turnaround specialist Michael Harding: that the university’s media properties be developed as an “external platform for university publicity.”

After Tom Krynski, news director of the university’s commercial WRUF, objected that this would make his newsroom a “whore for the university,” Wright met with the stations’ news directors in a meeting that participants would only describe as confidential. The proposal has since been revised, dropping any suggestion of a promotional role for the stations.

The FM format change also faces opposition from disappointed music listeners, though it follows a widely adopted playbook for strengthening pubradio stations: Drop classical music to make room for daytime news/talk programming.

Music lovers angered by the change—and there are plenty of those in Gainesville—will be offered a 24-hour classical music service on an HD Radio multicast channel and on an online stream.

Silos, be gone

The format change is part of Wright’s bigger plan, announced June 1, to make the university’s stations financially sustainable by jointly managing them—abolishing organizational “silos.” A new Division of Multimedia Properties is to operate commercial news station WRUF-AM and rock station WRUF-FM as well as public WUFT-TV/FM and Gulf Coast repeater WJUF-FM.

Wright also wants to establish a single newsroom serving both the commercial and public stations, consolidate their technical and web operations and recruit an executive director to run the division.

The plan aims to cut the cost of duplicative jobs and operations while opening more learning opportunities for students, especially through a new Center for Media Innovation and Research that will provide digital media training and promote collaborations across the university system.

The restructuring could have consequences for public broadcasting beyond Gainesville because the university’s communications program at WUFT is a large and esteemed training ground for journalists and managers in the field.

There is a real pattern of leadership and journalistic accomplishment that has come through that station,” said Patti Dodgen, managing partner of Transformations Consulting Group in Tampa. “The journalistic programs of the university are very integrated with the station, and there’s a very high regard for it within the system. It is a great place to have come from.”

Among the pubcasters who started their careers at the WUFT stations are Tanya Ott, news director at WBHM-FM in Birmingham, Ala.; Russell Lewis, NPR Southern bureau chief; Rick Schneider, president of WPBT-TV in Miami; David Hosley, former president of KVIE-TV in Sacramento, Calif.; and David Brugger, ex-president of America’s Public Television Stations.

“On the surface there are elements of this that appear to make good sense” in a time of media transformation, Dodgen said, referring to Wright’s plan. “The questions they are asking are good questions.”

But consolidation of public and commercial stations raises all kinds of problems, both mission-related and practical, Dodgen said. “I’m not sure how you go about melding commercial interests with the mission of the public broadcasting stations. The question of editorial integrity also rises to the surface with that.”

Ditto questions of financial propriety. For one thing, should some commercial stations have the competitive advantage of sharing a newsroom that has state and nonprofit support?

In addition, CPB would require separate accounting of employees’ time, Dodgen said. “Keeping track of all of that … could eat up all of the efficiencies they hope to accomplish,” she said.

Wright looks to trim $1.6 million from the college’s $10 million budget. This year, state grants to public stations have dropped about 15 percent from last year and about 25 percent from fiscal 2007, according to Janyth Righter, chief operating officer of the Florida Public Broadcasting Service, which represents the stations in the state capital.

Since his appointment as dean in 2006, Wright has come to view the media units’ structure as impossibly antiquated, and the absence of a clear chain of command as frustrating.

He described how a simple request to designate a parking space for students to unload equipment was blocked because no one could be counted on to follow through. “I sent 30 e-mails about that,” Wright said. “If you talked to one person, they needed to talk to another person, and it didn’t get done.”

His higher-ups, Provost Joseph Glover and President J. Bernard Machen, “don’t have anything to do with the changes that are going on in the college and what I have endured as dean,” Wright said. “It became apparent to me that a total transformation was necessary.”

“There are even silos within the silos,” he said. “There are good people working within them, but it’s not functioning efficiently at all.”

Chief restructuring officer

Wright brought in two alumni with commercial broadcasting credentials to help revive and restructure the stations. Mike Harding, the consultant who proposed a promotional role for the stations, is the dean’s chief restructuring officer and head of his “change advisory team.” Paul Gordon, who has been an ad sales exec with Cox Target Media, is directing the commercial stations on an interim basis. “They both work for me and aren’t going to be making changes that aren’t approved by me.”

Both have encountered faculty resistance and questions about their roles, though Wright credited Gordon for recent improvements at the commercial stations. “Things have gotten better under his leadership,” Wright said.

Critics of Harding’s advisory task force have fought for greater transparency in decision-making as well as against the proposed promotional role for stations. Both issues came to a head in a June 16 meeting, according to an audio recording posted on the task force website in an attempt to comply with Florida’s sunshine law.

Harding was looking for the stations to help raise the university’s profile in national media, but during the meeting no one volunteered to work on the task. “Basically, you’re going to be a whore for the university,” said Krynski from WRUF.

News directors, concerned about protecting the editorial integrity of the stations, met with the dean later in June to discuss the promotional role.

“We’ve always had a strong firewall around the news divisions here, and the university’s department of public affairs has never sought to influence us,” said Kevin Allen, news director of WUFT-FM, who attended the meeting with Wright. He declined to discuss details of the discussion.

Mark Leeps, news director of WUFT-TV, who also attended the meeting, told Current in an e-mail that he has gone through similar reorganizations at commercial stations and thinks the change to university’s media properties is “in some ways” overdue. “We’re naturally brainstorming about some ‘big’ things, and big change can be a little scary, especially in a university setting, but the industry has been changing rapidly for many years now and we cannot afford to be left behind,” he wrote. Leeps declined to discuss the issues or describe the meeting with Wright.

Wright denied that journalists would be drafted to promote the university. “I told the news directors that as long as I’m dean something like that would never happen,” he said. The university’s public affairs office already works on national media bookings for its academic experts. “I don’t see us jumping in and doing anything without being asked. We’ve got more important things to be accomplished.”

Harding also backpedaled. During a June 30 team meeting, he presented revised wording for this station function: “Offer use of production expertise and facilities to/for external university relations.”

Meanwhile, an attempt to let the public hear deliberations of the change advisory team appears to have been thwarted. Wright initially stipulated that the team was to operate with transparency and use a website to gather input on its recommendations.

WUFT producer Donna Green-Townsend, the team member who volunteered to run the website, consulted with the university’s sunshine law expert and others in setting up the website. But Harding went to the university’s general counsel, who rejected the recommendations to record and post audio from the meetings, she said.

Minutes of team meetings now must be “sanitized” before they’re posted online, she said, and the meetings are no longer recorded for the public record.

Harding, who did not respond to an interview request, warned participants in the June 16 meeting not to discuss ideas involving the commercial stations, “so we’re not just handing over the creative ideas you all are coming up with to our competitors.”

“There is not a sunshine issue as long as we’re a working group acting in an advisory function,” he said.

Green-Townsend said she didn’t anticipate that task force would be getting into “trade secrets” involving the commercial stations when she began pushing for openness in the proceedings. “I feel like the bad guy for continuing to push for transparency,” she said.
AM’s financial survival at stake

Competitive issues may be significant for the university’s commercial WRUF-AM. The long-term financial viability of the money-losing news/sports station is a major objective of the restructuring, according to Wright.

“We are reducing our news on WRUF-AM and increasing sports because we can sell it,” Wright said, referring to the advertising potential for sports broadcasts from the university. “I don’t want to do that, but we have to make sure that station is self-sustaining.”

As part of that shift, the college’s student-produced news program Front Page on the Air will migrate to public WUFT-FM, Wright announced last week. The FM station has a long tradition of integrating award-winning reports by student journalists into the news programs it already carries, including NPR’s newsmagazines and Fresh Air.

Focusing WUFT on news instead of music is “clearly more closely aligned with the teaching and educational mission of the College of Journalism and Communications,” Wright said. The format change will also help the station hold on to Morning Edition listeners, more than 70 percent of whom tune away when classical music begins at 9 a.m. “We can’t sustain that kind of loss,” he said. WUFT will add daytime talk shows such as the Diane Rehm Show, Tell Me More, On Point and Talk of the Nation.

Green-Townsend, the radio features producer who was an advocate for greater openness in the format decision, is worried about how local donors will react to the change. “I’m in the middle on whether we stay classical or go all-news,” she said, “but I would like to make sure the public has some say, since that’s how we talk to our listeners when we ask for their support.”

WUFT’s g.m. and program director, both of whom know the Gainesville market and have strong connections to the local arts community,  have also have had little input in the format decision, Green-Townsend said. The station recently completed its best-ever membership drive, and WUFT staffers don’t understand the sudden push for change, she said.

“I appreciate that someone is willing to take a look at how the stations are operating, but it’s the process that’s disturbing,” Green-Townsend said. If WUFT staff had been able to work on the format change themselves, they would have had “more respect for the process” and buy-in for the final decision.

Supporters of classical WUFT have spoken up for the educational values of the current service—including the student-produced news pieces that air in cutaways from Morning Edition, Fresh Air and All Things Considered. “I’m worried that the new shows won’t provide the educational component that the current programs provide,” said Mickie Edwardson, a retired communications professor who produces opera specials during WUFT pledge drives. “I taught for 38 years in that college, and I think we do a good job of training students.”

“They’re adding talk programs that to a great extent duplicate what people can otherwise get” from cable TV news channels, she said. “If they cut classical music, I don’t know how that’s going to be replaced.” Edwardson met with Wright on July 1, the day before he announced the decision, and penned an opinion piece to run in the Gainesville Sun next week.

In announcing the format change the next day, Wright pledged to work with Friends of Classic 89 and form an advisory committee that will “provide greater listener input into programming and to gain better community perspective” on the station’s service, he told Current. “I want to bring people in from the community to talk about classical music and what should be aired,” he said.

“One of the complaints that I’ve gotten,” Wright said, “is that people feel they haven’t had as much input as they would like.”

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