By joining forces, stations find new potential for boosting revenue, content

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Dan Page

When Vermont PBS and Vermont Public Radio formally join forces in July, the merged station will have the largest staff of any media outlet in the state.

It’s a distinction out of reach for some of the biggest public media stations in the country’s largest markets. It’s also a sign to officials at both stations of the impact and reach that public broadcasting can have in a state with fewer than 650,000 people.

Vermont PBS Board Chair Marguerite Dibble, who will become vice chair on the new organization’s board, said the merger is “a way forward in a world where many local areas are losing control of the media that serves them.”

Marquee mergers like the one planned in Vermont are part of a larger wave of consolidations in public media in the past decade, made in the name of increasing local journalism and growing membership and financial resources. The subtext is that public broadcasting may need more mergers to finesse its way through today’s media landscape.

“Growth is often constrained in our business by external factors,” said Maine Public President Mark Vogelzang, citing budget conflicts with state agencies and university licensees. Vogelzang, who led WBFO when it was sold to WNED in Buffalo, N.Y., said mergers can lead to increased fundraising and expanded programming.

“I think consolidations, mergers and joint operating agreements are the future,” he said. “I’m very much in favor of them.”

One recent entry is the creation of New England Public Media in western Massachusetts, which struck a deal in 2019 to maintain its ties to GBH in Boston and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Combining operations has helped the organization create a new radio program and multimillion dollar fundraising effort.

Recent years have also seen the combining of KCET and PBS SoCal in Los Angeles, the merger that created South Florida PBS and continued growth for the WNET Group in New York.

CPB has been involved in some of these deals. Since 2011, the corporation has funded 37 mergers and collaborations involving at least 50 individual stations, said VP of System Strategies Beth Walsh in a statement. Walsh said CPB is developing a request for proposals to study how CPB’s support helps mergers.

“Mergers and significant collaborations can lead to stronger public media service and provide a path to sustainability for stations in volatile times,” Walsh said. “However, they are challenging and must be undertaken by motivated partners to achieve specific outcomes.”

How boards can lead

The process of combining Vermont PBS and VPR started approximately five years ago, when board members from both stations spoke generally about working together. This led to collaborations on several projects, including gubernatorial debates, polling and This Land, a radio initiative that covered rural communities.

Ravlin

Two years ago, a Vermont PBS board member formally approached VPR’s board about merging. “It’s been kind of a long road,” said VPR Board Chair Nicole Junas Ravlin, who will serve as chair of the new organization’s board. Ravlin said the boards established small working groups to see “if this would really make sense or not.”

During the research phase, the board sought advice from Kit Jensen, who helped create the joint licensee ideastream in Cleveland. They also contracted Public Media Co., the Colorado-based consultancy, which authored a study about a possible merger in Vermont.

Ravlin said the boards learned that some viewers and listeners assumed that Vermont PBS and VPR had already merged because of their similar missions. That makes it easier to market the transition to the community and for development purposes, she said.

In addition to the boards, Holly Groschner, who retired last year as Vermont PBS’ CEO, guided the initial merger talks. She laid the groundwork, officials said, by growing the station’s membership, co-leading collaborations with VPR and overseeing the station’s $56 million sale of spectrum in a 2017 FCC auction.

Steve Ferreira later assumed the role of interim CEO for Vermont PBS and will become COO of the merged station, while VPR CEO Scott Finn will lead the new entity.

Ravlin said “Vermont Public” — the working name of the organization — will initially carry over all current board members from both stations, but she expects that the board’s membership will naturally decrease to a more “manageable” figure.

Station leaders say they have no plans to make cuts. Finn said they’ve tried to bring together employees from both organizations by creating eight teams of staffers from different departments to discuss topics like development, vacation days and establishing a new mission.

“It’s taking us longer to do it this way, but we think it’s important that staff has a say in how the organizations come together, because they deserve that, and also because we think we’ll make better decisions if we get their input,” Finn said.

Finn and Ferreira

Ferreira agreed with Finn’s assessment that their working relationship has become a marriage between leaders with complementary skills. They’ve taken the time to get to know each other and have divided up their responsibilities as managers of a merged station.

Ferreira

“Scott has been part of a television station in the past, so having that experience is very, very valuable,” Ferreira said, referring to Finn’s time with West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “He has a lot of experience in the content, fundraising, brand development world, and my background is in finance, so I can focus more on the internal operations, human resources, facilities.”

“Steve is a really good implementer, a guy who just gets stuff done,” Finn said. “We’re joined at the hip.”

Ferreira acknowledged that there’s more work to do, such as navigating the station out of the coronavirus pandemic, but he’s optimistic about the merger. “We’re playing the long game here,” he said. “We’ll be judged based on our success two, three, four years down the road.”

Due to its newfound power, officials said, Vermont Public is poised to grow its membership of 46,000. They also said journalism and kids-focused content will be increased.

So far, Vermont Public has announced that Jane Lindholm, the former host of VPR’s Vermont Edition, will produce special news projects and help expand the popular children’s program But Why: A Podcast for Curious Kids. “To have a station of our size doing not just one but two successful children’s programs is really unusual,” Finn said (Vermont PBS produces Mister Chris and Friends).

Vermont Public will likely increase collaborations with local media outlets like VTDigger, an online news outlet, and Seven Days, a newspaper that has partnered with VPR to produce reports about assisted-living facilities and homes for older people.

Finn

Finn said that to grow content, he wants to be intentional with diversity, equity and inclusion hiring practices. So far, the station has hired Connor Cyrus and Mikaela Lefrak to succeed Lindholm as co-hosts for Vermont Edition. The station’s first hire was a VP of people and culture, and Marlon Hyde was hired in March as the first news fellow for VPR as part of a diversity initiative funded by donors.

“Vermont is currently one of the states with the lowest percentage of BIPOC individuals, and yet we realize that for the future and health of our state and our station, we just have to get a lot better at telling stories and reaching new audiences,” he said. “When we’ve done that successfully, we’ve handed the mic and the camera to younger, more diverse people.”

“We can continue serving the existing audiences we have, but now we’ll have the resources — it’s our mission,” Finn added. “We’re here to serve everybody.”

New England Public Media plans growth

The creation of New England Public Media two years ago was not a merger — the organization is an umbrella group that operates New England Public Radio and WGBY-TV in Springfield, Mass. GBH Educational Foundation still holds the license for the television station, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst holds the radio station’s license.

As with other consolidations, financial considerations contributed to the creation of NEPM. Leaders at both stations said the fastest way to grow revenue was to work together and scale up, a model that for-profit media regularly follows.

(Map: Kelly Martin/Current)

The plan took two years to develop and led to GBH agreeing to provide $6 million over six years to expand New England Public Media’s operations. Much of the GBH money was frontloaded, according to NEPM President Martin Miller, and the organization has begun the quiet phase of a fundraising campaign. NEPM has raised $1.2 million toward a goal of approximately $8 million over the next seven years.

“One of our major goals was to be a multiplatform organization. As a radio station standing alone or as a TV station standing alone, we didn’t have the resources to do that,” said Miller, who has announced plans to step down from his role as president to focus on fundraising. “We see our competition more as national from big corporations vying for our audience than on the local level.”

Hayes and Miller

Miller said that thinking nationally does not mean that the organization has to sacrifice its coverage of local issues. But he said public broadcasters should accept the reality that commercial stations, national publications, online news outlets and streaming services all cut into the media space.

“We need a public media system in this country that is not just surviving but thriving. I think the people who run public media organizations in this country need to think very hard about what is the best way to accomplish that,” he said, adding that decisions to plan for mergers should factor in the impact of a loss of federal funding or another Great Recession.

NEPM addresses content, staffing and boards

NEPM received valuable feedback from members about its creation, said COO and GM Anthony Hayes. Fans of the radio station in particular emphasized the importance of adding daily audio programs that can serve diverse audiences.

With the additional financial resources from GBH’s contribution and the silent fundraising effort, NEPM has launched And Another Thing, a 30-minute radio program that focuses on topics submitted by listeners.

CCO Maxie Jackson III, who was hired last year, is the brainchild behind that program, Hayes said. After joining, Jackson decided to make the daily television program Connecting Point into a weekly broadcast. With increased focus on And Another Thing, Hayes said NEPM will address Connecting Point at a later date.

NEPM is “actually at a point now where we’re about to reap the rewards of the combined entity,” said Board Chair Robert Feldman, noting the new radio program as an example of NEPM’s “enormously exciting” and “enormously ambitious” creation.

“Obviously we struggle like every other public station in terms of getting viewer and listener buy-in, and getting them to give us their dollars,” he said, “but I think the opportunities are greater due to this ‘merger.’”

Get ‘buy-in,’ include staffers on decisions

Donald Boswell, who leads Buffalo Toronto Public Media, said that he’s also in favor of consolidations but that it can be difficult to get buy-in from the community. That means coming up with merger plans isn’t just the responsibility of CEOs.

Boswell

“Sometimes it can’t be done at the management level. I think it has to be done at the board level to really get to some of the opportunities,” he said. “Most boards have a nice makeup of business people,” who may have expertise in setting objectives for mergers and can foresee challenges.

Boswell, who is retiring this year, led WNED’s acquisition of WBFO in 2011, which ended competition for the region’s NPR news listeners. The purchase was intended to increase investment in WBFO, which had been underfunded while overseen by its university licensee. But staffers pushed back against job cuts, Boswell said.

To address such friction, leaders must be as transparent as possible about decisions to reduce staff and board members, Boswell said. Managers should try to refer former employees to other stations whenever possible and also invite board members to participate in other ways, like on the community advisory board.

Vogelzang, who also led VPR from 1993–2009, argues that mergers among other stations could help them better serve members.

“Television and radio should be getting together. Joint licensees have advantages that neither one of us have individually,” he said. “It’s hard work, but joint licensees have the ability to cross-promote, they have the ability to build on each other’s inherent strengths as different mediums, and donors want that. Donors expect that we would be friends, that we would be supporters across town.”

Vogelzang

Vogelzang said many donors give to both PBS and NPR stations in their area and may wonder why they’re writing separate checks for public broadcasting. He also said station leaders should be honest with donors about the challenges and uncertainties of starting a merger.

“The donors who have deep, long-standing commitments to PBS and NPR stations will understand that when they hear it from the leadership of an organization,” said Vogelzang, who is retiring this year.

Boswell said smaller stations in particular face issues when they compete for the same funders and duplicate content in a geographic area. Both he and Vogelzang advise station managers who are interested in mergers to contact them and other leaders in the system who are willing to share war stories and best practices.

Public Media Company CEO Erin Moran said a focus on day-to-day operations can prevent managers from taking the necessary time to consider mergers. But the coronavirus pandemic and its associated economic challenges have proven to her that stations should consider consolidations.

“The mergers and collaborations are really important for organizations in terms of helping them expand their missions,” she said. “It’s a reflection of society as a whole and folks needing to work together and not be an island unto themselves.”

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