University board approves St. Louis Public Radio merger with St. Louis Beacon

By Andrew Lapin

12/11/13: This item has been updated.

St. Louis Public Radio and the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news site, merged into one organization Dec. 10.

The partners have yet to decide how to brand the combined newsroom. Their website will feature the names of both partners, but St. Louis Public Radio will not change its on-air brand, said Tim Eby, g.m.

Following a mandate from faculty members at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, which holds St. Louis Public Radio’s license, the merger will not require additional financial support from the university. UMSL will absorb the Beacon’s 18 full-time employees alongside St. Louis Public Radio’s 36 full-time and 11 part-time workers.

The university and its expanded public media outlet plan to cover the increased operating costs by raising $3 million by June 30, 2014. So far, donors have contributed $2.7 million.

Budget plans for the merged organization project a 2014 budget of $7 million, a bump of more than $1 million from St. Louis Public Radio’s current $5.7 million budget. The Beacon’s budget in 2012 was $1.5 million, according to its IRS Form 990.

Over a five-year period, the operation aims to raise enough revenue through sponsorships, philanthropy, events and other sources to become self-sustaining in 2018, when transition funding is projected to run out. St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon are also developing a case statement for a $2 million capital campaign to support digital tools and proposals to expand public service and generate new revenues.

St. Louis Public Radio finished 2012 with a surplus of more than $200,000 and $6.7 million in total revenue, according to an annual report.

The Beacon raised $4.4 million in revenue in 2010 almost entirely from individual donors, according to tax documents. The site raised less than $1 million in revenue in 2011 and 2012, with around half the money coming from donors and the remaining amount split between earned revenue and foundation funding.

Both parties regard the merger as an opportunity to build a combined revenue model that strengthens both operations. An April 2013 analysis of the proposed merger by consulting firm Coats2Coats found “low risk that a combined organization would cannibalize existing revenue to either side.”

Under the terms of the merger, which stakeholders have been planning for more than a year, the staffs of the two organizations will combine under one roof, one website and one radio signal. The new entity will work with the University of Missouri–St. Louis, which is St. Louis Public Radio’s licensee, and the nationally renowned j-school on the university’s Columbia campus to jointly offer classes and internships for students.

Meanwhile, the Beacon is likely to retire its name, according to founder and editor Margaret Freivogel

In the new organization, Freivogel will oversee all news operations, including three line editors who will each take charge of politics and education; health, science and innovation; and arts, culture, race and commentary. Bill Raack, St. Louis Public Radio’s current news director, will become “the radio champion within the newsroom,” tasked with improving radio reports, Freivogel said.

“In the beginning we may be a little bit inefficient in how we work, because the Beacon reporters are learning audio and the radio reporters will have an opportunity to do more online than they’ve done in the past,” she said.

St. Louis Public Radio is working with NPR Digital Services to move the Beacon’s content archives to St. Louis Public Radio’s content management system.

“These things always take more time, typically, than what you would expect going in,” Eby said. “The end result is, we’re just very enthusiastic about the service that we can provide to the communities. . . . [The merger is] going to be a powerful statement of what our commitment to local service is really going to be.”

“Our purpose and principles are clear — to provide the solid reporting and thoughtful discussion St. Louisans need to understand the problems and opportunities we face,” Freivogel wrote in a statement. “Our region is reinventing itself. So are we.”

The merger has more than $2.5 million in collected pledges behind it, according to Eby.

Questions, comments, tips? lapin@current.org
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