University:Station Alliance formed
University stations consider refurbishing old school ties
Originally published in Current, Aug. 16, 1999
By Steve Behrens
Broadcasters at about 120 public radio stations have expressed interest, as of last week [and 164 by November 1999], in joining a movement to improve relations between the stations and the universities that own them.
The project--initially called the University:Station Alliance (U:SA)--aims to create a better understanding with the universities that began founding noncommercial radio nearly 80 years ago, and still oversee three-fifths of public radio stations.
John Keiser, the dryly humorous, poker-faced president of Southwest Missouri State University and an NPR Board member, last month offered to pay for a meeting to get U:SA rolling.
The alliance will start building on the station side, but Keiser said he also will reach out to organizations of university presidents.
The flawed relationship between colleges and their stations "keeps us from living up to our potential," said Linda Carr, a Missouri-based public radio consultant who is helping plan the alliance with Keiser and Arlen Diamond, g.m. of KSMU at Keiser's university in Springfield, Mo.
Among other things, the alliance may help train station staffers in "internal marketing" of their stations to campus officials, and may do research quantifying stations' benefits to their licensees.
CPB began a project with similar objectives about five years ago, but it never got very far.
This project grew out of conversations between Keiser, Diamond and Carr when they were preparing for a session about university licensees for the Public Radio Conference (PRC) back in May. They talked through the list of perennial problems, Carr said, and were soon asking themselves, why not do something about them?
The organizers said they have no preconceived solutions or priorities. "It should be the system that decides these things, not us," insisted Carr. "We're merely the stimulus."
But the organizers do have an idea how to operate the alliance. It will be guided by a resource council made up of a cross-section of station managers at universities. And a larger corps of managers will serve as "U:SA Advocates," each staying in touch with one or two other managers in their states. The alliance will also communicate through an Internet mailing list.
Talking their talk
Though the university is likely to be the largest single underwriter of many university-licensed stations, many of those stations don't communicate attentively with campus administrators, said Diamond of KSMU during the session at the Public Radio Conference.
A station manager should know the language for talking with the university, just as an underwriting rep must know how to persuade underwriting clients, he said.
Diamond and his predecessors have had a lot of experience at talking with administrators since KSMU has, at one time or another, reported to Speech & Theater, Arts & Sciences, University Advancement, Arts & Letters and Administrative Services. Now it's in Information Services.
With deans and presidents changing jobs so frequently, the relationship is always "one person away from disaster," said Carr.
Diamond said KSMU has put more emphasis on public affairs, and hired a governmental affairs producer, after realigning its mission statement with the university's emphasis on public affairs.
The relationship clicks when the university realizes that the station is a strategic asset in fulfilling its mission--in lifelong learning about public affairs, in the case of Southwest Missouri State.
Involvement with public radio and NPR makes the university part of "the most reasonably priced, highest quality distributed education program we can manage," Keiser said, and it "keeps the university name in front of the public in a quality fashion."
In his view, the objective of good journalism is the same as the faculty's. Both are educators; both aim to develop citizenship. And the station vastly exceeds the university's reach.
Keiser encourages deans to keep track of how often their people get on the air. The university moved KSMU into the public affairs building, where commentators on every subject are available.
But Keiser didn't put the station under an academic dean. "It's a mistake to have the station report to [an academic] department, even if the manager is a member of one," he advised. At his school, KSMU reports to Information Services--which also includes the libraries, computer services and distance learning, where there are many possible media synergies. Diamond doesn't report directly to Keiser, but talks with him every week.
What about those times when college vice presidents pressure the station for airtime? asked session attendee George Lombardi, g.m. of WSHU-FM at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.
"Vice presidents are specialists," replied Keiser. "What you need a president for is to say 'no' to special interests."
NPR President Kevin Klose, also speaking on the PRC panel, said the network may be able to help strengthen campus connections by offering specially tailored news programming for use on college stations, and by creating new summer fellowships for student journalists and performers. Most pubcasters have had the advantage of a university education, he said. Now public radio "can give something back."
Getting public TV back in view
Public TV leaders also are discussing repair of relationships with university licensees. CPB's Television Future Fund has backed Reforging the Links, a project involving stations at the University of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania State University, among others.
It's a major change in attitude for stations to nurse their bonds with their licensee universities. "In most cases, the stations have done as much as they could to stay out of the eye of the university, to preserve editorial independence and to develop a separate fundraising strategy," said Steven Vedro, a consultant who is project manager.
The thrust of the project is still evolving, according to Vedro, but it started with the observation on several campuses that the universities were diving into web-based distance learning without involving their television units. To avoid reinvention of the wheel, said Vedro, the schools could benefit from the stations' long experience in video-based distance learning, and the editorial skills and business procedures they've learned in presenting academic knowledge.
For more information about the University:Station Alliance, contact Linda Carr.
Later news: Though there are fewer public TV stations licensed to colleges than public radio stations, clashes do occur, as in Milwaukee, where the public TV manager resigned after being suspended by the college, 1999.
Web page Nov. 23, 1999
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