Sweetening the deal for partnering stations

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NEW ORLEANS — CPB is considering a proposal to allocate $3 million annually over six years to support collaboration among public radio stations, with the amount to be drawn from Community Service Grant incentive funds.

The money would support upwards of 20 collaborations among 80 or so stations, each of which would receive an additional $70,000 to $90,000 annually. That financial boost would help stations develop content, streamline operations, plan technology and infrastructure, and undertake other collaborative activities. The program would start in fiscal year 2015 at the earliest.

Bruce Theriault

Theriault (Photo: CPB)

By encouraging collaboration, CPB hopes to “unleash the potential of the network effect,” said Bruce Theriault, senior v.p. of radio, at the Public Radio Regional Organizations Super-Regional Meeting in New Orleans Nov. 14. The fund could potentially help stations achieve economies of scale that allow them to produce more content, including local news, and boost audience service while spending less than they would separately.

A survey conducted by Current for the fifth Public Media Futures Forum, convened Nov. 13 as part of the Super-Regional, found that a large majority of station executives wants to build their stations into premier sources of local news in coming years. Yet only 3,000 journalists work in all of public radio, compared to 40,000 in the newspaper industry, Theriault pointed out.

“We think the evidence is clear that without greater capacity and scale, many stations won’t be able to compete,” Theriault said. As another plank of its strategy to foster collaborative journalism, CPB will fund another round of Local Journalism Centers. It plans to issue a request for proposals for new LJCs within a few weeks, CPB President Pat Harrison said at the Super-Regional Nov. 13.

Theriault: no hostile takeovers

The concept of a collaboration fund was developed as part of an ongoing review of CPB’s radio CSG program. The review panel, which consists primarily of station managers, is scheduled to conclude early next year and deliver final recommendations to CPB’s management in April.

Under the current proposal, CPB would create a review panel to consider requests for collaboration funds; any grants awarded would have to be renewed annually. To create the fund, CPB would slightly reduce CSGs for stations that receive matched incentive funds. Larger stations would see bigger reductions, while CSGs for smaller stations would remain the same.

Some station executives told Theriault that they fear CPB will use the fund to force collaborations among stations or that providing incentives for collaboration will jeopardize localism. Theriault tried to assuage both worries. “We have no intentions of forcing hostile takeovers,” he said.

As part of the conference session, the radio v.p. introduced pubcasters who have led cross-station collaborations to extol the benefits of such relationships. Jamie Waste, executive director of CoastAlaska, described how his nonprofit provides fundraising, engineering and editorial support for radio stations in southeastern Alaska, as well as back-office financial systems.

“It’s surprising that so little of this has taken place within public broadcasting,” said Waste, who believes that large stations would benefit from the model as well.

CoastAlaska inspired a similar partnership now forming among six community radio stations in Colorado’s Western Slope region. For 20 years, 16 stations in rural Colorado have worked together under the umbrella of Rocky Mountain Community Radio, sharing content and funding a state capitol reporter. Now a subgroup of the stations is working to create a development hub with help from DEI, the Minneapolis-based nonprofit that supports fundraising and philanthropic efforts in public radio.

“CoastAlaska has had a huge impact on our thinking,” said Sally Kane, executive director of KVNF in Paonia, Colo. “We’re in a similar situation in a rural remote area.”

When should CPB step in?

Some Super-Regional attendees asked whether CPB could use the collaboration fund to help stations and their license holders initiate dialogues with each other. “The earliest discussions are the hardest, and that’s where leadership from CPB would be most appreciated,” said Flo Rogers, g.m. of KNPR in Las Vegas.

But the collaboration fund would be focused on “build it” money rather than “talk about it” money, Theriault said. A separate merger and collaboration fund supporting both radio and TV stations could be tapped in such earlier stages, he said, as well as CPB’s pot of money dedicated to general system support.

Public Radio Capital can also help pay for consulting that would assist stations in the early stages of collaboration, said Dennis Hamilton, PRC’s director of consulting. The Revolving Public Media Fund, backed by PRC and a New York–based philanthropic investment nonprofit and unveiled Nov. 12, will provide matching grants to help cover the costs of consulting and strategic planning services.

Other recommendations under consideration by CPB’s CSG review panel include:

  • Raising the minimum amount of nonfederal financial support required of CSG recipients. Some smaller stations that can’t meet the new standards would be exempted, but could receive smaller CSGs.
  • Setting a higher threshold for minority service grants, which are awarded to stations based on the percentage of minority listeners in their audiences. This change would reflect demographic shifts since CPB last set this requirement.
  • Revising Audience Service Criteria to reflect the new data being gathered through Arbitron’s Portable People Meter methodology.
  • Shortening the window for phasing out CSGs to stations that fall short of eligibility requirements.
  • Maintaining current funding levels for rural stations.

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