CPB accepts policy revamp proposal from radio CSG panel; first changes since 2005

By Dru Sefton

The CPB Board on April 22 unanimously approved changes to its Radio Community Service Grants program for fiscal 2014, including phased-in hikes in nonfederal financial support (NFFS) requirements for most stations, pubradio’s first transparency requirements, qualification changes for minority-status stations and $9 million in financial incentives over five years for mergers and collaborations.

Current CSG policies, which govern distribution of some $90.6 million in radio grants for fiscal 2013, were last updated in 2005.

Since then, “shifts in technology, audience behavior, demographics, competition, and the economy have dramatically changed the landscape for public media,” said Oregon Public Broadcasting President Steve Bass, a CSG panel member who spoke at the CPB meeting. “That environmental reality was the backdrop for our discussions and influenced our thinking about the CSG program policy that would best serve the interests of stations and better align our system for the future.”

A 20-member CSG panel, more than half of which was made up of general managers from stations, has been crafting the update over the last 14 months.

Bruce Theriault, senior v.p. of radio, told the board that more than 200 stations gave feedback on the document. “That really made a difference” in the work, prompting the gradual phase-ins of changes and new policies, he said.

One of those is the gradual increase in NFFS requirements. The panel decided that higher minimum NFFS requirements are necessary “to provide meaningful public service in today’s environment,” according to the proposal presented to the board.

The current minimum “is not much higher than the $75,000 required when an NFFS minimum was first introduced as a requirement in 1975,” the panel noted, although the Consumer Price Index has grown by almost 327 percent since then.

Rural and minority-owned stations, which continue to struggle to fundraise in the challenging economy, will remain at a $100,000 NFFS minimum. But over three years, from fiscal 2016-2018, stations that now have to raise $175,000 or $250,000 in NFFS must meet a higher threshold, $300,000. Stations that now meet an NFFS minimum of $300,000 must raise the bar to $500,000.

The plan also institutes a “removal path” for stations that repeatedly fail to meet the minimums: an annual warning from CPB for each of the first two years, then a removal from the CSG program by the third year.

Meanwhile, the new transparency requirements establish rules similar to those for television CSG recipients, Bass told Current. The panel decided on eight specific items that stations must post online, such as contact information and compensation data for senior staff, IRS 990 forms, and open meeting dates, times and locations.

“Public radio stations are operating in an environment requiring increased accountability for nonprofit organizations, particularly those that receive public funding,” the panel said in the report. “Increased transparency advances stations’ accountability to those who invest in it — individual donors, foundations and government.”

Other new accountability standards require stations to post online annual reports on local content and service. They must also establish diversity goals and engage in activities “designed to reflect and achieve” those benchmarks.

Diversity was another priority for the panel, the report noted. “There remains strong support for [Minority Audience Service Stations] funding for stations engaged in serving underserved minority audiences and to incentivize increased service,” it said.

For several decades, audience composition was one requirement used to qualify stations for minority status. But over time, there have been “enormous shifts in minority demographics,” the report said.

So in fiscal year 2014, the minority-audience cume requirement will rise from 35 percent to 40 percent, grows to 45 percent in FY16 and 51 percent in FY18. These step-ups will ensure that the requirements “will keep pace as the population shifts continue well into the future,” according to the report. CPB will keep in place existing rules that a station will qualify as minority service stations if they are licensed to a Historically Black College or University or Native American tribe or are  headquartered on tribal lands.

In addition, by Sept. 30, CSG grantees must establish formal goals for diversity in their workforce, management and boards. Stations must send to CPB and post on their websites a “brief statement” reflecting diversity among staff, work accomplished to increase diversity and future plans. And stations must undertake one of five diversity initiatives on an annual basis, such as participating in a minority job fair.

The panel also cited “strong interest in encouraging and supporting strategic alignment” in the pubradio system through cooperative agreements among stations — similar to financial incentives in public television CSGs adopted in 2010.

CPB should encourage multistation mergers and consolidations, content partnerships and back-office and development collaborations, the CSG panel said. A station participating in “approved collaborative projects” will receive a $150,000 bump in its base grant, with total spending not to exceed $9 million over five years.

“Station applications will need to be evaluated on objectively demonstrable criteria,” the report advised.

CPB has posted an overview of the panel’s work and its final report.

 Questions, comments, tips? sefton@current.org
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