Current Online

Far from shedding FM station,
this university adds public TV

Originally published in Current, March 26, 2001
By Karen Everhart Bedford

Ozarks Public Television, a community licensee serving a 57-county region of southwestern Missouri, has always struggled to make ends meet. Every year in its 26-year existence, Ozarks either barely made its budget, or fell just short. The expected costs of converting the two-transmitter PBS outlet to digital posed an impossible challenge to its board and management.

But Ozarks may soon have reassuring help. At a time when some educational institutions are considering selling their stations (see links at right), Southwest Missouri State University is not only committed to run public radio station KSMU-FM but also willing to assume the license of a public TV station and help it go digital. The FCC is expected to approve the license transfer before July 1.

If all goes as planned this summer, SMSU will establish a new unit in its public affairs building, the SMSU Public Broadcasting Service. KSMU, the university's existing radio station, and KOZK will coordinate programming and other activities and become "national models for university-licensed public radio and television stations."

Leaders of SMSU and the public TV station describe their educational-service missions as compatible and closely aligned, especially with the multichannel possibilities offered by digital broadcasting. By delivering public media via three platforms—radio, television and the Internet—SMSU is taking on "not just major educational opportunities, but responsibilities," said John Keiser, SMSU president, an NPR Board member.

"This will make a perfect triangle of total media serving the region extremely well with digital's educational potential," said Pat Walker, board chairman of the public TV station.

"It's fair to say that Ozarks Public Television was a station that was not in very good financial shape," said Don Mullally, g.m. of WILL in Urbana, Illinois. "It was sort of bleeding, and by my analysis, things were not getting better—they were getting worse more than anything." The university retained Mullally to examine whether it should establish ties with the station, and permitted him to discuss his findings with Current.

Not that the station's leaders hadn't tried to put the station on solid footing. For the past few years, the Ozarks PTV board devoted its meetings to "highest and best use planning" for the station's future. Since 1996, the station received aid through CPB's Transition Fund, a special pool for small and rural sole-service stations, to help it develop "operational efficiencies."

OPT outsourced programming and trafficking to Florida Public Broadcasting's program service, participated in a special development study for small-market stations, and hired a fundraising firm to manage its membership activities. With the outside help, "we saw increases in our viewership, and pledge almost immediately began doing better," said Sara White, general manager. "This allowed us more time to focus on local services and outreach."

"I think it's a tough market," said Mullally. "It's spread out." In fact, Ozarks serves two markets—Springfield, served by KOZK, and Joplin, by KOZJ. Both communities receive "different economic sustenance," he comments, and "you would have to have sophisticated fundraising systems to appeal to both markets simultaneously."

On top of these challenges, "the digital stuff made it more scary," said White. Neither federal nor state conversion aid was forthcoming, and the prospects of raising the money privately seemed dim. Last year, a capital campaign feasibility study, backed by CPB's Transition Fund, confirmed everyone's gut instincts about this. Local consultants found that the estimated $5 million it would take to convert the station was "just beyond what we could anticipate raising in this region," said Walker. They recommended that the station seek an institutional partner.

After informal talks with Drury University, a small liberal arts school that leases space to the station, Ozarks approached SMSU. "Immediately it seemed the light bulbs came on," said White. She expected university officials to mull it over for a few weeks after the first meeting, but she got a call from Keiser the next day. "There was great interest on their part."

"We're into it because we're already a strong NPR station," said Keiser. "I've been involved with NPR for 30 years. I've also been involved with joint licensees." Keiser's interest in improving relations between pubcasting stations and their university licensees in 1999 helped launch a new affinity group, U:SA—the University: Station Alliance.

"This is a university with a strong statewide public service mission, and a strong commitment to serving it well," said Mullally. "As universities go, it has a strong grasp of the potential of public broadcasting in doing the job of education."

Nevertheless, taking on Ozarks is "going to be a stretch" for SMSU, he adds. The university made a "conscious choice about what kind of institution it wants to be. It wants to be cutting-edge. One has to applaud them for having the guts to take chances and recognize the potential for education" in the digital environment.

SMSU is close to securing antenna space on a tower for Ozarks and has identified potential outside funders for KOZK/KOZJ's digital conversion costs. "We think we're on top of the funding," said Keiser. Mullally is working on a policy to establish the station's editorial independence from the university. "It will be clear that editorial journalistic freedom is just the same as academic freedom," Keiser said.

When the license transfer is finalized, Ozarks' 23 full-time staff members will become employees of SMSU, and will move into the public affairs building where KSMU and the university's production facilities are housed. Ozarks' senior managers will be retained for at least a year, and any staffers whose jobs are eliminated will receive three months' notice. "Merging the two cultures is going to be a lot of work—it already is a lot of work—but it's extremely rewarding," said White.

Ozarks will retain its PBS programs, but "there will be more local programs and more collaborations with public radio," said White. KSMU has five producers assigned to different beats, including a correspondent reporting from the state capital, who will contribute reporting and content expertise to OPT.

"This is opening lots of possibilities for content in our programming," she added, "We haven't had staff who are experts in content."

Licensees rethink their stations
Detroit: School system will keep its radio station for teaching.
Baltimore: Offers for WJHU started rethinking at Johns Hopkins
Greeley: University of Northern Colorado sells to local nonprofit
Idaho: State likely to maintain public TV network
Omaha/Council Bluffs: Iowa college drops plan to sell station
Pasadena: College leases to offshoot of Minnesota Public Radio
University-Station Alliance: SMSU's president leads effort to improve station-college relations.


. To Current's home page
. Outside links: Ozarks Public Television; KSMU-FM; and Southwest Missouri State University.

Web page posted March 30, 2001
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