Cohesion: It helps when collaborators want the same things

There’s a growing disparity between the haves and have-nots among public stations. Their abilities to expand services and revenues are diverging. And if they were to collaborate on fundraising, they’d want different results from it. That was the scene as described by 20 execs and consultants in the Public Media Futures forum held Feb. 16 in Washington, D.C., by the communication schools of the University of Southern California and American University in cooperation with Current.

Scale: Wisconsin net has economies of size and local bureaus, too

Nothing comes easily to public radio, not even a good idea. About 30 years ago, Wisconsin Public Radio veteran Jack Mitchell came up with the concept of banding together small stations throughout Wisconsin into a centralized system, within which a mothership would handle overhead and distribution, thus freeing up resources for stronger local content. Today, Wisconsin Public Radio operates 33 stations that benefit from strength in numbers – some of which might not exist today were it not for a centralized system. Each station is tied to one of two statewide networks, one featuring the NPR newsmagazines and classical music and the other mostly state-oriented talk programming. WPR “has twice as much programming” as a single network, said Mitchell, who now teaches at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and the networks don’t air the same programs at the same time.

Capacity: Radio’s local newsrooms weigh in

As the chorus calling on public media to add more local journalists grows, let’s be mindful of the specific ways adding journalists can dramatically improve local public service. Just by enlarging its newsroom to four, five or six journalists, a station will gain the human wherewithal to unleash a proper beat system. Beats cause reporters to become specialists. With a news staff of six, for example, a newsroom could have reporters well versed in the actors, history and nuances of a starter set of beats — education, health, business, law, environment and arts/culture. These specialists are more likely to break original stories, to know when it’s important to follow up, and to extract meaningful news analysis from a week’s events.

Local talks and new national rules aim to end wasteful overlap of stations

From here on out, it will be a lot harder to volunteer a public broadcasting station into existence. For a quarter-century, you mainly needed an FCC license that nobody else had snapped up yet, plus a minimal bankroll to show you had local support, and you could lay claim on a small share of CPB’s federal appropriation. The ordeal of starting a station was itself a test of mettle, but the field had no self-imposed or government-imposed criteria to select licensees, or national plans for rational siting of stations for universal coverage of the population. It may soon have such rules. Battered by claims that they are fat and wasteful, and facing the loss of some or all of their federal aid, pubcasters are pursuing cost-saving pacts with colleagues in Louisville, Denver and elsewhere.