Kentucky public radio stations evaluate advantages of working together

By Mike Janssen

Leaders of Kentucky’s public radio stations are considering how they might collaborate and consolidate operations, with a goal of cutting costs and boosting reporting on local and regional issues.

Six of Kentucky’s seven public radio stations have enlisted Public Radio Capital to assess benefits of closer collaboration and to help advance the process if all agree to move ahead. Universities hold licenses to five of the stations and may need to join future negotiations as well.

The state has some history of successful station mergers. In 1993, WUOL, licensed to the University of Louisville, and two stations operated by libraries merged under the auspices of the Public Radio Partnership, a newly formed community licensee.

Now Louisville Public Radio, the multiple-service broadcaster has the financial wherewithal to build a new facility and develop an investigative-reporting unit while operating in the black, says Donovan Reynolds, president.

“It’s a demonstration that consolidation and collaboration can really work to turn around failing stations,” Reynolds says.

Discussion of broader collaboration among Kentucky pubcasters grew out of the November 2012 Public Radio Regional Organizations conference in New Orleans, where CPB reps discussed possible new financial incentives for stations to work together. Reynolds spoke on a panel about collaboration.

Asked whether Kentucky’s stations should work together more closely, Reynolds hesitated, knowing collaboration can be a touchy subject, but said yes. He worried about how colleagues would respond, but after the session two told him they agreed.

Station leaders discussed the idea at the next meeting of the Kentucky Public Radio association, which Reynolds chairs. They expressed enough interest to merit calling on Public Radio Capital.

“It’s a huge amount of work,” Reynolds says of the collaboration process. “But it’s really the first time we’ve taken a look at the entire state public radio system.”

Intriguing possibilities

Pressures to cut costs are building on Kentucky’s stations: Universities have been looking to trim their budgets, and threats to federal funding of public broadcasting have been increasing. “It’s time for us to come up with a plan now, before disaster strikes,” Reynolds says.

At the same time, some station leaders see a need to devote less money and staff time to business matters, and to focus on producing local and regional reporting that listeners will value. “The model that everyone has to have a completely separate station is a little outmoded,” says Roger Duvall, g.m. of WEKU in Richmond.

Duvall’s station shares a market with another public station, WUKY. Both are doing well despite the competition, but Duvall asks, “What could we do if we weren’t competing against each other?”

Louisville Public Media’s success highlights the benefits of collaboration, says Kate Lochte, station manager of WKMS in Murray. “All of us are intrigued with the possibilities,” she says.

Lochte and other Kentucky managers are considering how they can work together on both programming and back-office operations. Joint reporting efforts could lend stability to Lochte’s newsroom, which sees half a dozen student interns rotate through on a regular basis.

Kentucky stations outside Louisville have already forged some partnerships. They share a statehouse reporter and have a system for exchanging news stories. LPM has sold underwriting on behalf of other stations and with WEKU co-produces Kentucky Center Stage, a series featuring performances by Lexington and Louisville orchestras.

Time for change?

As the stations move ahead, leaders say they want to preserve each station’s local character. “This is not an exercise in big fish eats little fish,” says Erik Langner, director of acquisitions and legal affairs for Public Radio Capital. “Stations each have value in their local communities that should be preserved.”

One station, WNKU in Highland Heights, is not participating. “We don’t have time to take part in it,” says Chuck Miller, station manager. The station airs more music than others and serves listeners in Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia as well as Kentucky. Some listeners think of WNKU as a Cincinnati station, Miller says.

PRC will examine a wide range of data to sketch each station’s future if it were to continue business as usual, considering demographics, financial data, membership and audience, fundraising and underwriting revenue, and other factors.

The analyses will give participating stations a starting point for determining possible benefits of collaboration, Langner says. PRC is paying for some of its consultation costs from its Revolving Public Media Fund, which was created by New York–based nonprofit FJC.

Stations beyond Kentucky are feeling similar pressures to rethink operations, and not only in reaction to financial pressures. As listeners increasingly find national programs on other platforms, local pubcasters are recognizing that collaborations would allow them to expand local service, Langner says.

Meanwhile, many public broadcasters face flat or falling revenues, and states and universities are cutting subsidies. Four licensees have contacted Langner in the past two months to discuss selling stations, he says. (He declined to disclose who they were.)

“There needs to be a fundamental look at the architecture of the public broadcasting system and how we can work more closely with one another to find efficiencies and free up capacity for local efforts,” Langner says.

LPM’s Reynolds agrees. Public radio’s current system of independent stations with duplicative management structures won’t be sustainable in five, 10 or 20 years, Reynolds says. “We need to seriously rethink how public radio is delivered in this country, or it’s going to be very difficult,” he says.

At some point, stations might have to get university licensees involved in restructuring efforts. That could be challenging, but licensees may also be looking for changes, Reynolds says.

“This might be just the right time to make something happen, both at the station and at the licensee level,” he says.

Questions, comments, tips? mike@mikejanssen.net

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