Six rules for navigating the academic culture as a university-licensed station

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During my first stint as manager of a university-licensed station, I managed to make every conceivable mistake. Through a combination of inexperience, unrealistic expectations, ineffective communication with the licensee, and idealism run amok, it was — shall we say — hideous? Yes. That was it.

I decided that if I were to succeed in this setting, or any other institutionally licensed setting, I had to figure out how to deal with a culture that was so very different from that of the stations. But how to start?

It seemed that a good first step would be to observe successful administrators and see how they could function in such a bureaucratic maze. And learn I did. Once I got outside my own shell and viewed the world through the eyes of the licensee, it was fascinating! That and the wisdom gained from this experience led me to create a series of survival axioms.

Axiom #1: Understand the culture and blend

Every university has its own culture. And if you observe successful administrators on your campus, they will provide marvelous clues on how to survive and flourish. Even though each campus has its nuances, you’ll find that most successful administrators have a few things in common:

  • They display an even-tempered demeanor.
  • They are not quick to react.
  • They rarely say no when someone who has some power on campus approaches them with a bad idea.
  • They have mastered the art of compromise.

So, let’s look at these things:

  1. An even-tempered demeanor. Seasoned administrators and wizened faculty know that anger is as contagious within an academic culture as smallpox. And it can leave as many scars. If university people see the administrator (or station manager) reacting to something with anger, one of two things will happen: 1) They will react in like fashion, and the situation will escalate; and/or 2) It will reap the offender a reputation that’s not pretty.
  2. They are not quick to react. If you’re going to work effectively within a university culture, you have to accept the fact that universities work at a glacial pace. Compared to the necessary response time within the station, you might expect moss to be growing on the north side of some university staff! So yes, it’s bureaucratic. Yes, it’s inefficient. Yes, things could work better if some fundamental things were changed on a campus. But the operative word here is fundamental. In other words, ain’t gonna happen. Or at least not anytime soon. Part of the academic culture includes a great need on the part of faculty members to assert a viewpoint and opinions. If administrators took every conversation seriously, they’d go postal. They have to stay somewhat aloof, and they must assume an attitude similar to: You can’t take life too seriously. You won’t get out alive anyway. By not reacting quickly, they don’t offend anyone unnecessarily, and they appear cooperative and respectful. That kind of reputation helps a great deal when they need to accomplish something within the university framework. In other words, they know how to play the game.
  3. They rarely say no when someone who has some power on campus approaches them with a stupid or unworkable idea. You simply won’t hear them say “No” very often or “That is truly a stupid idea, you imbecile.” Instead, they will scratch their heads and either say something like, “Hmmmm. That’s interesting. I must think about that,” or, if it is something truly dangerous, they will appoint a committee to study it.

    Why do they do these things? They understand the culture. They know that if they react in this fashion, one of two things will happen. First, the issue will often go away, if they just wait long enough. Second, by carefully appointing a committee, either the catharsis provided by discussing the matter will be enough to defuse the issue, or whatever the result of the democratic process, the president or administrator will be protected. Why? Because the result will have been arrived at through consensus and will not be the responsibility of that individual.

    So. If the result is good, they’ll say, “Thank you.” If not, the response will be, “I’m sorry, it was the committee’s decision.”

    In other words, they know how to play the game.
  4. They also have the art of compromise down to a fine art. Ah, compromise. This is, perhaps, one of the most important things that seasoned administrators use to their advantage. And it is one of those things that is collectively and terribly difficult for us as an industry. Public radio attracts people, after all, who are bright, talented and highly principled. So for us, compromise is often translated as “selling out.” And that attitude is terribly destructive in a university culture — not only for ourselves, but also for all the stakeholders. Compromise is an essential part of the university culture. You will not be able to win on every issue. If you’re to function effectively in an institutional environment, you must learn how to lose a battle now and then in order to win the war. And compromising doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you a smart person who has adapted to the culture and knows how to use it to accomplish your goals. So the bottom line here is: I found out that these people are successful because they know how to play the game. And they keep their psyche in game-playing mode. Why?  Because they know that as soon as your ego becomes involved, you lose your objectivity — and your edge.

    This attitude is not unique to successful university administrators, by the way. It is one of the traits they have in common with people who are successful in the business world or any other arena, for that matter.

Axiom #2: Don’t fight the culture. Make it work for you, instead.

Think about it. The culture on your campus has evolved over decades. It’s not going to change. They like it that way. And if you think that you can change it even a little bit, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

So, when you hear yourself thinking or saying that “X” shouldn’t be like this, quickly respond with, but it is! How can I get around it without causing myself or the institution problems? Or, how can I make it work to my advantage?

Let’s face it, many of us like to tilt at windmills. We’re good at it! But often the result does not turn out as we expect, and it’s an exhausting process.

Axiom #3: Avoid the “Misery loves company” syndrome at all costs.

This common and dangerous behavior pattern manifests in many settings but is particularly prevalent in public radio. We’ve all been there. Our university has done us wrong in one way or another. We could keep it to ourselves. But we really need to share our pain. It feels good to tell our staff about the bad old licensee and how unrealistic and insensitive it is. The more we talk about it, the more agitated we and the staff become. And the more we engage in that kind of behavior, the more comforting it becomes. We are victims, after all! It’s kind of like climbing into a nice warm mitten. Well, let’s look at the results of that sport called “trashing your licensee.” At the very least, it keeps your staff upset and off balance, wondering what those unfeeling bastards across campus are going to do next to the poor little defenseless station.

As a manager, it’s important that you make the working environment for your staff as positive and as productive as possible. If you stop and think about it, you and your staff often spend as much if not more of your waking time at the station than at home. That time should be as pleasant as possible. You might say, “I’m doing all I can. It’s the university that is creating the unrest.” That may well be the case, but you aren’t helping matters by “sharing your pain.” In addition, trashing the licensee to your staff fosters a destructive “us vs. them” attitude.

Axiom #4: Take responsibility for your own destiny.

Don’t allow yourself to buy into the “they don’t understand us” routine and throw up your hands in despair. If the university doesn’t understand your station’s value, why doesn’t it? This is a very simple question, but exceedingly important. Why doesn’t it? What has the station done to help it understand? You’re clearly a different animal from the rest of the menagerie. But you’re all in the same zoo nonetheless.

We’d been doing some very good things at my station. The staff had worked very hard. Both audience and development efforts were increasing nicely. Lots of good, tangible things were happening that positioned both the station and the institution favorably.

But I wasn’t telling the chancellor. I thought that somehow he should know those things. I had been saying to myself, “The station has been doing a marvelous job on behalf of the institution, and he should know that.” Well, he didn’t. How could he when I hadn’t told him?

University presidents and administrators are awash in endless meetings. Their schedules rival and in many cases exceed the ambitious nature of ours. They may not even listen to your station. Nor do they always have time to read the newspapers. Therefore, they may not see your press releases or feature stories.

The bottom line is: They don’t know what’s going on at your station unless you tell them, effectively and repeatedly.

Axiom #5: Market yourself to the licensee. 

The process of telling them effectively and repeatedly is called internal marketing. Internal marketing is how a station makes its university aware of it on an ongoing basis and positions itself positively in the licensee’s eyes.

We understand and accept the need for marketing our stations externally to the community and audience. We see the merit in creating and sustaining awareness of our programming product. But when it comes to the licensee, we give little thought to marketing ourselves internally to the university.

You might say, “Why should I? They don’t understand the station. They don’t give us much money, and they cause us a lot of trouble!” Let me ask you a question. When you think about all those things that go into making up a radio station, what do you consider your most important asset? Is it programming? People? Development? Engineering?

Those are all essentials. But the hands-down primary asset is the license. So when you why you should market yourself to the licensee, consider:

  • Best Reason? They own your most important asset — your license.
  • Another Good Reason? They own your license.

They have control of your lifeline. If you stop and think about all the important elements required to do good radio — programming, people, development, engineering — it doesn’t mean anything without the license.

The reality of the situation is they have the ultimate control. It is therefore in your best interest to help the university understand all the assets you bring to the table. It is also wise to foster a good relationship so that they won’t feel obliged to remind you that they hold the license or, heaven forbid, sell it to rid themselves of a “constant irritant.”

Axiom #6: Make yourself indispensable.

What can you do to illustrate your value to the institution, to make yourself appear so valuable that they see you as an essential part of the institution — instead of some ancillary thing they may not understand? The thing is, you already are an essential part of the institution. They just don’t know it. And it is critical to your future that you help them understand.

Believe it or not, starting with the mission is the first step. Look at the university’s mission and goals statement. What is it trying to accomplish that you can help with? Service to the community? Outreach? Expanding the student experience? Lifelong learning? Then meet with your staff and identify what you are already doing or what you might be able to do that could help further these goals. That is, of course, without damaging your service to your other major stakeholder — the audience. This will help define the station’s role within the institutional structure and  help you better illustrate your value to the institution.

Focus on commonalities: It’s true that the cultures of the institution and the station differ. The available resources differ. Response times are starkly different. . But frankly, it helps to stop looking at the differences and start looking at the commonalities.

For example, universities are facing a future that is as nebulous and as disconcerting as the one public media faces. Too often we think only in terms of our own threats, rather than including the formidable array facing the licensee. Both universities and their public radio stations are facing two major issues.

The first issue is: What will we be in this post-COVID age of reduced enrollment and quickly changing technology? What will our respective “products” be a few years from now, and how will they be delivered? In the case of the university, trade schools are increasing and new technologies are significantly changing how education is delivered. How will AI impact the requirements for highly educated workers?

There will be many options for gaining an education or upgrading skills that don’t require a student to be on campus. What about the student body? What will its composition be? We’re already seeing shifts in the makeup of the student body with adult learning and commuter colleges. What will all these things mean to universities? Looking at a few of the issues facing university licensees offers one explanation for why their public media stations may be only a small blip on the institutions’ radar screens and why they don’t take time to understand us.

The second major issue we’re both facing is budgetary reductions from traditional revenue sources. For us, it’s CPB and the institution itself. For the universities, it is decreasing enrollment and state support, two cornerstones of their financial foundations. We have diversified and established revenue streams to help displace reduced funding from CPB and the licensees. Universities have not. These are both huge issues for higher education.

We could throw up our hands in despair or see this for the opportunity that it is. We have common problems. Why not work together to help solve them instead of at cross purposes?

Showcase the station’s value on an ongoing basis: You’re already doing multiple things that are valuable to the institution, but like my first job on a university campus, you’re probably not telling them often enough or in the right way.

So you’ve identified the many things you’re doing for the university. Examples might include training students, on-air IDs and PSAs for the institution, on-air involvement by faculty, and affording the vehicle for the uUniversity to reach thousands of upscale people and alumni.

What do you do with that information?

Quantify your worth on an annual basis: Assign a dollar value to each of those things you’re doing and provide a report to the licensee on an annual basis. (U:SA’s Qualitative Worth Analysis is one way to do this.) In most cases, the total will be larger than what you’re receiving. As a result, it will either help you hang onto what they’re currently giving you or help you get more dollars.

But it requires more than an annual report to do effective internal marketing. It isn’t a one-time shot. It’s an ongoing process. And part of that is:

Telling your story: In real estate, it’s location, location, location. In terms of the licensee relationship, it’s communication, communication, communication.

You have a great story to tell. So share your success stories. Send copies of listener letters or excerpts from letters to key administrators. Send copies of press releases or clippings from Facebook, newspapers, Current, announcements of awards — anything that will position you positively. Send leftover premiums to administrators as gifts.

In other words, think of the university as your single largest underwriter — even if it’s not. Remember, they do hold your most important asset — that license thing. It will help you treat them with more respect and earn you some in the process. At the same time, figure out ways to build support among faculty so that they will protect you, no matter who is in power.

Talk the talk: Lastly, on each campus there are accepted ways of presenting material, especially to the president. It seems like a small thing, but it isn’t. Some presidents like things only in bullet form. Others want a lot of white space. Whatever they want, try to find out what that is and present the material in that way. You do want it read, right?

Don’t act in haste: When you’ve been wronged and your inclination is to fire off an angry memo, please don’t. Think about how successful university administrators handle things: slowly, carefully and quietly. Count to 10, write it and stuff it in your desk drawer — whatever it takes not to do something in haste that can haunt you for quite some time.

These are only a few things you can do to strengthen your relationship with the licensee. You decide what is feasible and what works best on your campus. But more important than what you do is your attitude. If you rail against the culture, you will lose. If you accept it — flawed as it might be — and figure out ways to make it work to your advantage, you will be more successful, you will be happier and so will everyone else.

Linda Carr is a former station manager and the first executive director of the University:Station Alliance.

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