Uncomfortable, as promised

Three years post-merger, Iowans feel more oats, less loss

By Steve Behrens

IPR celebrates plans for new transmitters in Ottumwa. (Photos: Donald Baxter, IPR.)

IPR celebrates plans for new transmitters in Ottumwa. (Photos: Donald Baxter, IPR.)

Cindy Browne never promised them a rose garden. In fact, the founding executive director of Iowa Public Radio repeatedly promised the network’s 50-some staffers a long passage through anger, grief and confusion, before things would get the least bit rosy.

Over the past three years, events delivered some of the expected benefits of combining the public radio operations at Iowa’s three big state universities, as well as the promised discomforts for both listeners and staffers.

The next steps are up to a new set of executives. In coming months, IPR will hire, besides an executive director, a content director, a music director, a development director and a Cedar Rapids reporter. Browne resigned for health reasons in June, and her content director, Todd Mundt, had already moved on to a new job in March.

“I assumed I would be the first one out the door,” Browne remarks. “You build up baggage and you make a graceful exit.”

“We’ve had bumps in the road and will continue to have bumps in the road, to be honest,” says Don Wirth, IPR’s director of finance and administration. “Did we throw the train off the tracks? No. Would we like to make it smoother and less troublesome to some folks? Yes.”

Given the human friction that a merger generates, it’s understandable why so few pubcasting stations combine forces, even though management advisors and others say many stations are simply too small to meet audience expectations and survive. In a commentary in this issue, Susan Harmon and Marc Hand, heads of the nonprofit Public Radio Capital, discuss the case for mergers at IPR and two other pubradio stations.

Cindy BrowneIPR didn’t hire Browne for her radio know-how. She had worked most of her career at Twin Cities Public Television.
“My job was to help [the staff] see the opportunities that working together provides,” she says.

Though she and her team wanted efficiency, Browne said, that wasn’t the kind of goal that inspires many people to leap out of bed in the morning. Instead, she talked in terms of enabling them to make great radio.

IPR broadcasters say they’re hearing and feeling the payoffs in those terms.

Before IPR’s invention in 2005-07, there were typically matched sets of duplicative station job titles at Iowa State University’s WOI stations in Ames, at the University of Northern Iowa’s KUNI and KHKE in Cedar Falls, and at the University of Iowa’s KSUI and WSUI in Iowa City.

When IPR began its unified news service in January 2007, one of the three Morning Edition anchors, Iowa City’s Al Kern, kept getting up early to host, while the other two added depth to the combined news team — Ames’s Rob Dillard providing reporting muscle in Des Moines, and Cedar Falls’ Greg Shanley beefing up the talk show team as producer.

With Dillard reporting full-time, says Jeneane Beck, IPR’s Des Moines bureau chief, “If something breaks in Des Moines, they don’t have to yank me off a story to cover it.”

“The great thing is you’re out and about more often,” says Beck. News sources see you more often, she says. “You’re on their minds. When something does come up, they’ll call you.”

The changes gave Beck time to report a two-hour 2006 feature on social workers’ efforts to prevent child abuse, an investigation that won a regional Murrow Award. Beck’s IPR co-workers pitched in to produce a followup talk show.

With a more substantial staff, IPR’s talk shows are “enormously improved,” says Steve Carignan, interim executive director. The network added a second daily talk show and assigned two producers to the talk shows.

Before the merger, Iowa City’s talk show was in the hands of staffers taking turns as host/producer, developing a topic and then hosting the show, according to Nancy Hagen, a former host and now pledge producer.

Reassigning staffers also helps on the revenue side, giving IPR the troops to devote to major-gift fundraising, says Wirth. The stations together could afford the up-front investment in salaries, he says, without having to generate immediate payback.

Major gifts would contribute to the fiscal foundation that IPR aims to build before the three universities’ own needs force them to stop subsidizing it. The schools gave the stations a total of $2.4 million a year in their peak year and, after cutbacks early in the decade, now contribute $1.7 million a year, says Browne.

There was no guarantee against further cutbacks, so the stations took control of their own financial future, Browne says.

Listeners’ biggest complaint about the IPR merger was from those located in a fortunate area of east central Iowa, including Des Moines. They previously had the luxury of choosing among several schedules aired from the three campuses. Now the only pubradio news choices are two or more IPR stations playing the same thing.

IPR Deputy Director Joan Kjaer, who heads an audience response team that tries to return every listener call promptly, remembers hearing from an Iowan who said the new schedule “tore my heart out.”

The network didn’t hear complaints from the listeners who could now tune in a Triple A station for the first time.

For favors such as that, IPR gets thank-yous at pledge time, says Hagen.

When IPR pitches for donations now, it speaks to the whole state, not three college towns, and Hagen says she heard from callers in places she has never heard of. “More people feel like IPR is their public radio station,” she says. Some had listened for years but didn’t understand that pubradio needed their donations, too.

Membership giving was down about $100,000 on revenues of $2.3 million this year, says Wirth. Hagen attributes some of the shortfall to irritation over the schedule changes, which she believes will subside.

Steady expansion of IPR broadcasts will also help with funding. The network added three stations last fiscal year and will add three more this year, says Carignan.

IPR serves areas with 90 percent of Iowa’s population but wants to reach the remaining 10 percent, he says. It covers most of the state with separate classical and news networks and plans to add a third network with a Triple music format similar to what Cedar Falls produces forevenings on IPR.

IPR managers changed things only if they had to, Browne says. They never seriously considered consolidating the staff at a single site; the network’s new leased Des Moines headquarters will house only about 10 employees. Though IPR is a nonprofit, most of its 50-plus staffers are still on university payrolls.

It’s notable that Browne appointed the former g.m.’s of the three station groups — Kjaer, Wirth and Wayne Jarvis, director of network operations — to major roles in the network. Though they have functional rather than geographical turf now, they still supervise staffs around them.

Browne got the job of implementing the state Board of Regents’ merger plan (Current, Jan. 17, 2005). She arrived in September 2005 with plenty of work to do. She launched a Listening Project — audience focus groups widely attended by staffers. IPR invested in T1 land lines to interconnect the three campus sites.

Todd Mundt, the content director hired from Michigan Radio, posted openings for the production and hosting tasks that needed doing, and staffers wrote proposals saying how they’d do them. “Most ended up with something close to what they wanted,” says Browne.

Landmarks followed: Unified news network launched, January 2007. Unified classical network, September 2007. First unified fund drive, October 2007.

Some projects stalled out. The network still hasn’t picked an automation system to replace the three different brands now in use, says Carignan.

IPR also faces difficult choices about weather reports and other content whose localness is valuable. IPR has established statewide underwriting rates, Wirth says, but companies still buy underwriting station by station. Wirth wonders how many corporate underwriters, who tend to be local, will want to be statewide underwriters.

Browne was attracted to the job as soon as she heard about it. She had studied the mechanics of change and the chemistry of human loss, and wrote about them in Current in 2003 and 2004 (see links on this page).

radio0816kjaerWith so many changes afoot in Iowa, staff members were feeling loss both as individuals and as members of groups. A handful left when their jobs changed or someone else was promoted. Others switched to new jobs. Kjaer, who announced classical music for two decades, still does some hosting but no longer rises every weekday by 4 to go on air by 6.

“I miss it every day,” she says.

Some miss the group identity of their stations. Differences in classical programming from one Iowa campus to another might not be so great, says Kjaer, but she still occasionally hears a music broadcast and thinks, “Whoa, we wouldn’t play that!”

“When you invest yourself in a job, you have the sense that the way you did it was the way to do it,” observes Wirth. But when thrust into the new context of IPR, managers began examining whether, for instance, Cedar Falls was right to offer so many pledge premiums and whether Ames was overdoing its matching challenges, Wirth says.

Making choices came relatively easily because the new Iowa colleagues already agreed about objectives. “The thing that held us together is that we are all very passionate about public radio,” says Carignan. “I’m stunned at the kind of values agreement that we had from the very beginning.”

Browne kept the spotlight on values and audience service, having staffers interview each other about why they got into public radio. They shared the Listening Project experience of hearing directly from listeners at numerous focus groups. She consistently reminded people of their shared objectives, Mundt says.

When an argument among top managers became heated on one occasion, Mundt recalls, “Cindy just calmly stepped in and walked us back to the big picture.”

“I would be more likely to get into the heat of it,” says Mundt. “Cindy doesn’t go there.”

RELATED LINKS

The network’s website is up, but the Ames (WOI), Cedar Falls (KUNI and KHKE) and Iowa City (WSUI, KSUI) sites hang around.

IPR has 60 employees, has revenues of $7 million a year, and operates 18 FM and 3 AM stations, according to the network’s 2008 annual report to the Board of Regents, August 2008.

Bornstein Associates’ 49-page final report endorsing the Iowa merger, 2004.

In 2005, the organizers of IPR as a nonprofit hired Cindy Browne as the first executive director of IPR, salary $120,000, according to the Iowa Board of Regents’ concurrence.

In 2006, IPR began its Listening Project, involving hundreds of phone and online surveys and in-person focus groups with 81 listeners.

The state Board of Regents adopted an operating agreement with the new nonprofit IPR in May 2007. If the regents don’t renew the deal in 2013, the nonprofit will return the stations and other assets to the regents.

Todd Mundt, IPR’s first content director, discusses network developments in several posts on his blog.

Browne’s resignation announced in IPR release, 2008.

Also in May, the network hired Jonathan Ahl as its first news director.

Ottumwa, in southeast Iowa, got its first IPR station in March 2008, but its second IPR station has been delayed and may not fire up until November, the Ottumwa Courier reported in September 2008.

COMMENTARIES ABOUT THE SCALE OF STATIONS

In their op-ed, 3 stations where bigger is better, Marc Hand and Susan Harmon of Public Radio Capital discuss Iowa Public Radio and two other station groups that benefit from merger.

For fundraising effectiveness, most stations are way too small, by Mark Fuerst and Steve Behrens, 1998.

Transforming public broadcasting: We need not bake our own cookies, by Dennis Haarsager, June 2003.

EARLIER ARTICLES

As local as appropriate: Stations’ structures balance site and scale, 2002.

Bill McGinley of WOI in Ames began talks about cooperation among three major state universities with stations.

The schools backed a 2004 proposal to create the statewide net.

Shared news sked will debut on Iowa network in January, December 2006.

Browne stepping down after assembling Iowa network, May 2008.

BROWNE’S COMMENTARIES

Strategic advantage: women as station leaders, 2003.

Transforming public TV: human traits are the major barriers, June 2003.

Accountability and transparency: Required filing: a chance to show your stuff!, January 2004.

Are you ready for some change? Analyzing change models helps you beat the odds and succeed, February 2004.

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