As local as appropriate

Stations’ structures balance site and scale

By Steve Behrens

Much of the work of keeping Cape Cod’s WCAI/WNAN on the air is done in Boston, but the programming is handled right there on the coast. Pictured: the twin stations’ staff in the Woods Hole harbor, Executive Producer Jay Allison at center. (Photo: WCAN/WNAN.)

As different as they are, these public radio outposts share a carefully tuned appropriateness of structure. There’s the young two-transmitter operation on the Massachusetts shore.

Dotted along Alaska’s southeastern panhandle, there are five little stations that survived the contraction of the state’s oil economy.

And there are nearly 30 outlets of Minnesota Public Radio that connect small outstate burgs with the rich resources of a big state and the Twin Cities.

Station operators say their structures handle functions locally that should be done locally, while relying on parent or sister stations to do other jobs that benefit from economies of scale. The combination lets them provide better services than they could afford otherwise.

They enjoy advantages similar to those of statewide networks, which are among the strongest operations in pubradio, says Mark Fuerst, a station consultant who has studied finances of many stations.

But these stations, as examples, divide their labor differently—as appropriately as they can manage.

Cape and Islands: WCAI, Martha’s Vineyard, and WNAN, Nantucket, were adopted, before they went on-air in 2000 by Boston’s WGBH, which handles general management, does the engineering and program trafficking and promotion. Their staff in Woods Hole, 90 miles south, does the news and talk, creates the schedule and develops public events promoting membership. In an unusual experiment, a nearby commercial broadcaster sells the underwriting time.

Coast Alaska: The five panhandle stations — KTOO in Juneau, KRBD in Ketchikan, KFSK in Petersburg, KCAW in Sitka and KSTK in Wrangell — reacted to fiscal emergency in 1995, consolidating their staffs and many functions in a jointly owned nonprofit, while maintaining independent boards, managers and program schedules.

Minnesota Public Radio’s outstate stations: MPR’s stations outside of Twin Cities cluster into five districts that originate local news briefs in the morning, but their reporters work hardest on stories for the statewide news network. Memberships are handled centrally in St. Paul, while underwriting is sold locally and managed centrally.

Cape: what makes a station local

The Cape and Islands twins share very little programming with their parent, WGBH-FM, whose own signal already covers most of their area with its classical music schedule. Instead, they specialize in news/talk, producing their own talk show three days a week plus local newscasts and commentaries and carrying much more of the NPR newsmags than WGBH does, according to Steve Young, broadcast director.

The stations have three fulltime reporters, including one on the Vineyard and one on Nantucket, he says.

“The local staff can focus on what makes the station local, whether that’s programming or development,” says John Voci, WGBH-FM’s operations director, who oversees WCAI/WNAN and regards himself as their proponent in Boston.

Lacking the money for more extensive local programming, the stations localize their sound with more than 500 short “sonic i.d.” modules that sound like the salty region. Some are taped by volunteers—there are a half dozen recorders in circulation at all times—and most edited by staffers and polished by Jay Allison, the station’s founder and executive producer.

Technicians in Boston—and increasingly the computers there—do much of the technical work. Boston handles the routing of programs from the satellite—sending live programs directly to WCAI/WNAN at Woods Hole, Mass., and recording others automatically to be fed at airtime, according to Voci. Servers store mirrored copies of the digitized program inventory on both ends of a high-capacity T-1 phone line.

The two-way T-1 line also allows technicians in Boston to monitor the broadcasts. If the transmitter fails, a computer in Woods Hole automatically dials Boston with an alert. The downside is that the Cape audience misses its show.

Membership functions are split between Boston and Woods Hole. Development Director Susan Loucks taps into the member database maintained in Boston, but works locally to develop events promoting membership and cultivating major donors.

“Part of what makes us so great is we have the infrastructure of an established organization and all the fun of a startup — we get to try so many new things,” says Loucks.

Coast: leaps of faith

The five Coast Alaska stations rely on each other and the cooperative they created, rather than a parent station like WGBH.

If the stations hadn’t pooled their finances, according to longtime Sitka broadcaster Rich McClear, they wouldn’t have many professionals at their microphones—they’d rely either on unpaid local volunteers or satellite feeds from the lower 48.

The stations retained separate ownerships but pooled both revenues and costs and created a joint payroll, says Bill Legere, president of the Juneau station, KTOO.

Despite great geographic distances and differences between communities—and the unnerving loss of separate checkbooks—the stations “have been able to take that leap of faith time and time again,” says Legere.

The local boards still hire their own managers, however, and the stations decide independently what to put on air, he says.

Coast Alaska makes sure each station has at least one paid reporter and a volunteer coordinator. They share centralized membership and finance offices. Membership mailings go out more regularly, McClear says, and the staff doesn’t have to stop everything else to make them happen.

The stations also share engineers instead of relying on a moonlighting technician from the phone company, for example, as the Petersburg station did. (Legere says the sound was awful but the patch panels were impressive.) Another joint staffer coordinates news and acts as relief reporter so that others can take vacations without sacrificing the newscasts.

The resulting stations sound local. KCAW in Sitka has its notable characters like the elderly accordion player Alice McChesney, who rows into town in her boat to play polka music on the radio every Friday, says McClear. “It’s a Sitka program, she’s a Sitka person. It’s the kind of public radio programming you can’t get off the Internet. It’s why Raven Radio raises over $100,000 a year in listener support.”

Outstate: refining the structure

Minnesota Public Radio puts 13 reporters — nearly half of its total — and all but two of its 31 stations — outside of the Twin Cities, creating a medium that reaches the whole state unlike any other.

The “outstate” audience isn’t proportional to the effort, but substantial all the same. Thirty-five percent of listeners live outside Twin Cities, says programming chief Craig Curtis.

Each of MPR’s five outstate districts—Duluth, Bemidji, Moorhead, Collegeville/St. Cloud and Rochester—has a reporter or two or three, a traffic director, an office assistant, a development officer and a station manager, says John Snee, longtime district manager in the northeast corner of the state, based in Duluth. The managers oversee the transmitters, sometimes go after major gifts and help arrange member events.

MPR has been weighing centralization against localization for years now, and made major adjustments in the mid-1990s.

The news department, which has 13 outstate reporters in the field, changed what it was asking from them. Previously they spent much of their time producing six-minute local morning newscasts, plus segments for later in the day, says Snee. The focus was quite local in the five towns where reporters were located.

“With our precious resources we were essentially trying to do exactly what the commercial stations in the markets were doing already,” says Kate Smith, MPR’s managing editor.

Now the reporters pretape local morning updates lasting only a minute, though there may be as many as four different ones each hour, Snee says. For exceptional news, including candidate debates and election-night reports, MPR can divide the network and carry additional local fare.

“We no longer want those reporters to spend all their time covering only local news,” says Smith. “We want them to cover the region.”

That’s a beat that neither newspapers nor commercial broadcasters attempt to cover any more, says MPR news chief Bill Buzenberg.

The reporters are emphasizing higher-quality reporting for the statewide network, such as the prizewinning series Broken Trust: Civil Rights in Indian Country as well as features on contests for dogs jumping off docks in Anoka County, says Buzenberg. (The winning dog jumped 26 feet, he recalls.)

MPR also adjusted its outstate structure for non-news functions, cutting the local operations manager and membership manager positions, according to Snee. Station managers absorbed some of their functions and the St. Paul headquarters took the lead on membership. Familiar voices from St. Paul began hosting disciplined and entertaining statewide pledge drives instead of less-familiar local voices, he says.

The network keeps five underwriting salespeople in the field, however, says Tim Roesler, MPR’s v.p, underwriting. When there’s no local salesperson on the job, revenue goes down significantly, he finds.

Outstate staffers sell 20 percent of MPR’s underwriting, which mostly airs only on the outstate stations, Roesler says. But he says those stations are also important to at least half of MPR’s other underwriters, which want exposure statewide.

The underwriting staff in St. Paul backs up the field staff.

“We can hire a good deal of experience in those five markets but what we couldn’t afford to do is provide a backup team—a manager, a copyrighter, training materials—and that’s where the home office comes in,” says Roesler.

Exceptional circumstances

Despite scattered successes with appropriate structures, however, the norm in public radio is a single station with a single major transmitter.

“Consolidation has been in the wind since the early ‘90s, but there’s been so little of it you have to be more struck by how few times it succeeds,” says Fuerst. Managers and boards just don’t want to submit to rule by a committee or a distant boss—and they generally don’t have to.

“The single public radio station is a remarkably durable organizational unit,” Fuerst observes.

In Alaska there was little choice when Alaska state subsidies dried up in the 1990s—the result of falling state oil revenues and rising legislative conservatism.

The stations had some ugly meetings in 1994, after the state threatened to defund the tiny stations in Haines and Wrangell, McClear recalls. He was back in Alaska temporarily from his broadcaster-training work in the Balkans and moderated talks that led to the Coast Alaska deal. Station reps got serious about talking only when they faced the smaller budget numbers the legislature was likely to approve, he says.

Coast Alaska wasn’t for everyone. The station in Haines, KHNS, joined a looser six-station consortium, Community Radio of Alaska. It was “a much better way to go,” says Haines General Manager John Hedrick. The sister stations independently but jointly produce a morning newsmag Alaska Edition and pool funds for specific purposes. They also pitch in to help each other, sending someone to Fort Yukon to help the station write a foundation report, or flying a transmitter part to Galena.

The trick is trust

Like Coast Alaska, the deal for Cape & Islands benefited from extraordinary circumstances. The founder, independent producer Jay Allison, didn’t want to be a general manager! “Fundraising would have become my life,” he says. Instead, he wanted to keep producing.

The 1997 agreement with WGBH provided for that, putting Allison on a part-time stipend for five years. WGBH also rented space to Allison’s founding nonprofit, Cape and Islands Public Radio—now a nonprofit production company called Atlantic Public Media. Allison remains executive producer at the station while working on the NPR series Lost & Found Sound and founding such projects as Transom.org and the Radio Exchange.

The deal was an outright sale with no structural guarantees by WGBH, says Marc Hand, who worked on a CPB project to aid WCAI/WNAN local programming. The founders and WGBH based their agreement on common objectives.

“Our vision matched what Jay’s vision was,” says Voci. Both groups wanted to start a news/talk service with strong local content.

“The trick here is trust,” Allison says.

“We realized we would be duplicating so much infrastructure,” he says. “It made much more economic sense to go into partnership, not just for us but for the whole community.”

WCAI/WNAN listeners responded appreciatively. After two years, membership income has reached the level expected in three years, Voci says. The budget last year was $750,000 and it’s “not quite halfway” to break-even, he says. He expects the station pair to break even within five years, as originally projected.

Still, the staff and volunteers at Woods Hole are eager for the day when they can afford more local production.

“The frustrations we have,” Allison says, “are the frustrations of any radio station that wants to do more than it can.”

RELATED STORIES

Transforming public broadcasting: Washington State pubcaster Dennis Haarsager argues that duplicated work at stations robs the system of the capital it needs to provide new services, 2003.

A commentary by Mark Fuerst: For fundraising effectiveness, most public radio stations are way too small, 2002.

THE STATIONS’ SITES

“The Cape & Islands NPR station … A service of WGBH,” as it was billed in 2008.

Coast Alaska

Minnesota Public Radio’s station map and page about the Duluth-area stations.

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