Suddenly, Iowa teamwork talks go public
Bill McGinley had a few ideas about Iowa’s public radio stations working together. He didn’t know his higher-ups had some bold thoughts of their own.
Earlier this year, McGinley, g.m. of WOI at Iowa State University in Ames, started talking with colleagues at two other Iowa college stations about how they could collaborate to save money and improve programming and public service.
Those behind-the-scenes talks erupted into public view last month when state newspapers, seizing on a higher education budget report, collected some strong opinions on the topic from members of the state’s Board of Regents.
One regent asked whether each school needs its own independent operation. Another expressed interest in having one manager run all the stations. A third seemed to suggest the stations were economically inefficient.
The regents oversee three universities in Iowa, each the operator of multiple stations: University of Iowa in Iowa City with WSUI/KSUI; University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls with KUNI, KHKE, KUNY and KRNI; and Iowa State with WOI-AM/FM.
The regents’ suggestions overtook the three stations’ own collaborative efforts in programming. The stations have yet to explore the possibility of any management-level overhauls.
Regents told Current that they’re months away from decisions and are looking to the stations and universities for guidance. But their published remarks surprised McGinley, who says they sparked “a little bit of a feeding frenzy” in the media. A public memo from the office of the Board of Regents alluding to McGinley’s forthcoming report on collaboration piqued reporters’ interest, he says.
After the articles were published, two alarmed public radio listeners even asked the office of the Board of Regents if their stations were heading toward mergers.
The sudden attention added urgency to the collaboration talks. “Given that several [regents] made some pretty bold statements, we’ve probably got to come up with some pretty engaging ideas about collaboration and sharing and resource efficiencies and that sort of thing, or they may do it for us,” McGinley says.
The growing interest in collaboration stems from Iowa’s worsening finances. Declines in corporate income tax revenue and increases in tax refunds left the state with a $60.3 million budget shortfall in fiscal year 2004.
Many other states have grappled with shortfalls during the weak economic spell, but Iowa shows signs of recovering more slowly. It was one of just 10 states to report a budget gap this fiscal year, according to a National Conference of State Legislatures report.
Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) responded in October by cutting state spending by 2.5 percent in all areas, spurring the three state-controlled universities to assess their priorities. As at many other universities, broadcasting is coming under more intense scrutiny, though at least in this case the station managers are being asked for feedback.
“It’s not that the radio stations particularly have been targeted,” says Regent Amir Arbisser, who told the Iowa City Press-Citizen the radio stations might be inefficient. “It’s just that they’re not on the front line of students’ education.”
“We’re running out of things that we can cut around the edges of,” says Regent Mary Ellen Becker.
Iowa State University, forced to cut $8.3 million from its budget, lowered aid to WOI, denting the station’s budget by 9 percent.
But talk of collaboration preceded the latest cuts by months. The three stations rarely worked together until recently. WOI and WSUI both signed on in the ’20s, and KSUI and the UNI stations came decades later. Over the years they focused on building their own audiences, even encroaching on one another’s turf with repeaters.
Earlier this year, however, KSUI and WOI began co-producing a two-hour morning talk program, Talk of Iowa, with one hour emanating from each shop [story below]. WOI also carries Live from Prairie Lights, a program of readings produced by WSUI at a local independent bookstore.
A Charting the Territory strategic planning project, conducted with the Station Resource Group, got McGinley thinking more seriously about deepening the collaborative efforts. Attending system meetings, he also heard Tom Thomas, an SRG c.e.o., and Vinnie Curren, CPB’s senior v.p. of radio, stress the importance of working together.
“In response to what we’re seeing with public television, I think we’ve got to get our act together, or we could suffer some of the same indignities they are,” McGinley says.
His superiors at Iowa State prodded him to prepare a white paper on the subject, and he drew his counterparts at the other regents’ stations into the process. They plan to finish their report this month and present it to the regents in February.
Collaborative options include working together to sell statewide underwriting, says John Hess, director of broadcasting for the UNI stations. The stations could also pool resources for special fundraising events and share a Des Moines news bureau, he says.
But managers are less forthcoming about the possibly of consolidating management and operations responsibilities — issues that were raised by the regents. Such a move might lead to dramatic changes such as layoffs and a reshuffling of audiences the stations have cultivated for decades.
Becker wants to study whether uniting the stations under one manager would save money and improve programming, assuming the outlets would maintain their reach through much of central and eastern Iowa.
“At this point, it’s just too early to tell,” Hess says. The stations “have worked diligently over the years to build their stations and carry the brand of their university with the citizens of the state,” he says. “It would be a shame to see that investment go away.”
Hess also notes that the stations serve different audiences. “We really have to take into account the listeners who have invested their money into this situation, too, through their membership dollars, and open that process up a little more to see what they think,” he adds.
Managers of the stations might consider whether they are hurting or helping themselves by airing duplicate programming. McGinley cites some evidence that head-to-head duplication of programming actually has increased audiences for some stations sharing markets. “Whether that’s happening here or not, I don’t know,” he says.
A recent NPR study of head-to-head programming in the 25 biggest markets revealed that listeners generally seem to stick with one station during timeslots when programs are available from more than one outlet. NPR is considering extending the study into smaller markets.
Two morning call-in shows on Iowa public radio stations are fusing into one, hoping to draw more listeners and build on shared resources.
Talk of Iowa, the combined two-hour daily talk show about all things Iowan, begins airing in July on WOI-AM in Ames and WSUI-AM in Iowa City. It puts two hourlong programs, WOI's show of the same name and WSUI's Iowa Talks, back to back. Each retains its own host and staff, but producers will coordinate topics. They will trade audio via an ISDN line.
The stations already have much in common. Founded at land-grant universities in the 1920s, both have a tradition of tapping academic experts at their respective institutions as guests. In mission, therefore, the talk shows already complemented each other — in fact, when WSUI launched Iowa Talks three years ago, it was inspired by WOI's example.
The joining of the two began with WOI's involvement in Charting the Territory, a strategic planning project led by the Station Resource Group. The station sought to amplify the character of its newsy AM format, which General Manager Bill McGinley describes as friendly and easygoing, like "an old pair of overalls."
Talk of Iowa stood out as a unique local offering that embodied this folksiness. The question was how to make it even better. The prospect of adding staff dampened the appeal of producing a longer show. Why not just bring in WSUI's show as the second hour? McGinley called his Iowa City counterparts and, in short order, a new baby was born.
Executives at both stations cite several plusses to the deal, including the new audiences the programs could reach. The stations have strong signals — WOI's 100,000 watts blankets almost the whole state, with most listeners in Des Moines and the surrounding area, while WSUI has stronger coverage in eastern Iowa.
Dennis Reese, WSUI's p.d., hopes the broader coverage will lure a higher caliber of guest to Talk of Iowa. WSUI will try to book the state's governor: "When he's reaching all 99 counties, I imagine that's going to be appealing to him," Reese says.
Each station will also get to enlist the other's array of academics. Iowa State University, home of WOI, is rich in agricultural experts.
"The veterinary hour will come from their place," Reese says. "I was just using private vets."
WSUI's University of Iowa, meanwhile, boasts a stronger liberal arts tradition, including the country's most prestigious writers' workshop, which draws literary heavyweights from around the globe.
Not least of all, Talk of Iowa could foster a newly cooperative spirit in a state where stations sometimes joust for listeners and news scoops. In recent years they've vied to cover the state legislature, McGinley says, and started eyeing each other's turf for transmitter sites. And, come the presidential caucuses, the competition regularly peaks with stations' reporters rushing to file spots for NPR, Reese says.
But in a state where funds are declining and population grows slowly, muting the gamesmanship may be wise. Talk of Iowa moves in that direction, according to its fathers.
"We've fought ourselves far too long in this business," McGinley says. "The real challenges and competitors are not ourselves, but the other media — satellite, everything else — coming at us."
Web page posted Dec. 8, 2003
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.