A new pay gap has emerged in public media’s executive ranks. Leaders of university-owned stations have the lowest median pay among GMs and CEOs of all licensee types.
Current’s latest analysis of executive compensation found that the median salary for GMs at university-licensed stations was less than $133,000. That’s about 11% below executive pay at stations owned by school boards, which have the next lowest median salary. Leaders of state networks had the highest median salary, about $276,000.
Current’s analysis focused on public media stations in the top 25 markets, collecting the latest available salary data for GMs and CEOs at 74 stations; 16 of those were university licensees. Salary data for seven stations in the top 25 markets owned by private universities was not available.
The median salary of university station GMs marks a decrease from 2015, when a Current analysis found a median salary of $150,014 at university stations.
Leaders of affinity groups and executive recruiting firms point to a mix of factors that contribute to salary compression at university stations. Station managers’ salaries can be grouped with those of professors or other administrative positions, for example, and the rigid salary schedules of universities often don’t account for the unique demands of their jobs.
Several observers pointed to generous benefits packages of university stations as a factor that might even out the discrepancy. Current’s analysis didn’t include benefits compensation because the data is limited and doesn’t easily allow apples-to-apples comparisons.
“From my own experience, public university benefits are a plus that might explain a somewhat lower salary,” said Ann Kaplan, a board member for the University Station Alliance, the affinity group for public media’s university licensees, and a retired VP at Northern Illinois University. At NIU, Kaplan supervised the GM of Northern Public Radio, which operates NPR News and all-classical stations in DeKalb, Ill.
Still, universities have unique challenges that could be keeping salaries low, including existential threats such as declining enrollments. “There are just lots of small contributing factors,” said Virginia Dambach, executive director of the University Station Alliance. “… But all of them together have this impact.”
The governance and reporting structure of university stations is another point of differentiation in executive compensation. Unlike community licensees, where the CEO reports to a board of directors, university GMs aren’t at the helms of their organizations.
Their proximity to those that are at or near the top — such as a university president or a dean — can influence their pay. University GMs who report directly to the school’s president would be paid more, according to Dambach. Some GMs report to administrators who are lower in the organization chart, such as the head of the communications department or the director of the student union, she said. That reporting structure can further depress salaries.
“The HR division at most universities positions the GM in with their professors or their staff, and … it’s not a competitive salary,” Dambach said. “It’s not what the market would pay, except at the university.”
Salaries for public media leaders can also be affected by which university department the station is assigned to, according to Kaplan. There can be “an enormously wide spectrum” of salaries that are discipline-specific, she said.
Faculty who teach in colleges of business, law, engineering and some sciences are “paid a lot more than the faculty members in the arts and journalism and communications and education,” Kaplan said. “And there’s a fair amount of tension around that.”
“The trick then becomes, what is the appropriate comparison point for the director of a public radio station?” she said. “You don’t have a Department of Public Radio.”
Dambach believes that in many cases the station’s role is not well understood by university leadership. It’s “very difficult to get the right salary for the staff when lots of universities don’t understand what it is that their stations do and what the managers are responsible for,” she said.
And with the financial pressures on higher educational institutions, there is “not a lot of wiggle room” to increase salaries, she said.
Adam Livingston, COO of Livingston Associates, an executive recruiting firm for public media, has observed how limited that wiggle room can be.
When his firm has asked university clients to increase a salary that seemed too low, “almost always they’ll say that they cannot go any higher than the salary set by the university,” Livingston said. “And they don’t have any flexibility to change that and that they wish they did. … Or if they can go higher, it’s only by a little bit.”
When Livingston Associates conducted its own executive compensation report for a client last year, university salaries were not out of line with other licensee types, he said. But the report was drawn from a small sample of stations.
Still, universities that aren’t able to boost salaries can compete with benefits, Livingston said. His firm has succeeded in attracting more applicants to university openings by highlighting the benefits package prominently in job posts, he said.
Even with lower base salaries, candidates are still willing to consider working for university licensees “because the benefits are as generous as they are,” Livingston said.
What’s working against university licensees for some candidates is the level of bureaucracy and the “political atmosphere,” according to Livingston.
“We will have people who won’t apply to university licensees because they don’t want to have to deal with that,” he said.
‘Peer influence’ on pay
Skip Hinton, a consultant for NETA Consulting, tracks executive pay at public TV and joint licensee stations through an annual survey.
In his view, the universities that offer the most competitive salaries “have managed within their HR systems to isolate the broadcast staff,” he said. Instead of assigning generic titles such as “accountant 3 or senior staff 4” to staff positions, the job descriptions and pay are more specific to the job, such as “senior producer.”
A GM at a university licensee might report to a dean or VP, “but you sure don’t report to the board” as you would at a community licensee, he said. And the board members of a community licensee were recruited to serve the station, unlike a board that oversees a university.
“When you’re in an institutional environment, salary schedules are set in different ways, and they are compared agency-wide — not just among public broadcasters,” Hinton said.
At universities, there is “peer influence” on salary levels, Hinton added. The range of pay for any job is based on what they pay everybody in that institution, not just what other broadcasters pay.
“Even at a university, once you can really show peer variances, you can make some headway” with university administrators, he said. “But remember, they don’t usually have the money to support that headway.”