Scale: Wisconsin net has economies of size and local bureaus, too
Nothing comes easily to public radio, not even a good idea. About 30 years ago, Wisconsin Public Radio veteran Jack Mitchell came up with the concept of banding together small stations throughout Wisconsin into a centralized system, within which a mothership would handle overhead and distribution, thus freeing up resources for stronger local content.
Today, Wisconsin Public Radio operates 33 stations that benefit from strength in numbers - some of which might not exist today were it not for a centralized system. Each station is tied to one of two statewide networks, one featuring the NPR newsmagazines and classical music and the other mostly state-oriented talk programming.
WPR “has twice as much programming” as a single network, said Mitchell, who now teaches at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and the networks don’t air the same programs at the same time. “There’s local material in each location without the expense of running an entire CPB-qualified station. It’s the most efficient use of resources. But it was very complicated to put together.”
As federal and state funding dry up, it becomes more likely that some stations in public media will have to move toward collaboration and consolidation. CPB’s business plans for 2012 encourage stations to find ways to reduce overhead and infrastructure costs, in part because Congress ended the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program equipment-replacement program last spring (separate story).
“The more resources that are devoted to overhead and infrastructure, the more challenged the station will be in achieving its goal of community indispensability,” according to CPB’s business plan. “Our strategy will utilize approaches that encourage economies of scale to maintain and even improve station capacity while reducing cost.”
CPB backed one such plan last fall. It granted $6.6 million to equip a centralcasting shared master control facility in Syracuse, N.Y., for all nine pubTV stations in the state plus four in New Jersey. Instead of nine or more completely staffed and redundantly equipped master controls, there will be one, saving an estimated $2.5 million a year for the combined stations, said CPB’s Mark Erstling.
CPB is offering planning grants for other stations to consider collaborations, Erstling said, and those that do formal collaborations and fiscal mergers will get larger community service grants.
The corporation is now vetting grant applications from three other station groups to create similar master controls. “The beauty of the master-control project is no one loses control,” said Erstling. “They can have their own schedules, their own graphics, their own everything. Each stream is customized.”
Fear of losing control is just what Mitchell faced in 1980 as he set about consolidating resources and slowly building Wisconsin’s statewide dual network. None of the stations wanted to cede control to WPR. “There certainly was a lot of heartache,” recalled Mitchell, who was director of WPR for 21 years. “In fact, they all resisted. People were already quite happy doing what they were doing.”
But Mitchell tried to sell the idea by emphasizing its benefits to the stations. Instead of worrying about overhead costs, underwriting, membership, equipment problems and distribution, WPR would handle the tasks from Madison. In doing so, the network would free up resources to hire local reporters to better serve the regions and communities of the state. The new system would be designed to allow a station to insert local programming into the statewide feed.
Mitchell’s goal was for every Wisconsin community with a public radio station to have two channels, and today many do. One stream, the NPR News and Classical network, offers music and NPR staples such as All Things Considered and Morning Edition. The other, known as the Ideas Network, offers talk radio with local hosts based in Madison and Milwaukee.
WPR started its networks around WHA, its home station at UW–Madison, plus 10 stations licensed to the state’s Educational Communications Board. Other stations associated with outlying UW campuses joined in the 1980s when the state was trimming its support for the university system. Each campus had a strong incentive to shed the cost of running a public radio station if its alternative was cutting faculty positions.
Inspired by BBC and early NPR
The concept came about partly for political reasons and partly because it seemed a better use of resources to have two statewide networks with local inputs, said Mitchell.
He began thinking about how a centralized system might work when he was at NPR in 1973. Just before joining the young network in Washington, he spent a year at the BBC studying its system of four channels, each with a different focus and target audience. Radio 1, for example, has rock music and entertainment, while Radio 4 offers the latest news. The BBC also used cutaways from the national feed to accommodate regionally produced newscasts.
Mitchell adopted this partly centralized, partly decentralized regional structure for WPR in 1976.
Minnesota Public Radio has a similar set-up, but it was built from scratch and decisions were made in St. Paul about where transmitters and stations would be most effective. “They also had lots of money,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell had to work with an existing system and rely on transmitters already in place, regardless of whether they were where he wanted them.
He began reaching out to stations. “We made an offer to all these stations in the state to bring their transmitters into one or the other of our networks, and then provide local services,” said Mitchell. “None of these agreements came easily.”
Mitchell and others had to arrange deals with seven UW campuses that operated stations, plus a couple of other state schools. Three student-run stations opted not to join.
The mothership is in Madison, the state capital and home of UW’s main campus. “The key,” said Mitchell, “is a statewide master control in a central place for all the radio and TV stations in our network.” The center monitors all 33 transmitters associated with WPR. Madison also operates a recording and operations center that takes in feeds from satellites and sends audio around the state for both networks.
Negotiating toward a network
To best understand the challenge Mitchell faced in building WPR, take a look at how the arrangement works with WLSU in La Crosse. Before 1996, WLSU operated independently, and not surprisingly, station officials fought becoming part of WPR. “Essentially there was a courtship that occurred,” said Mike Crane, who is now head of WPR. “It was on again, off again, before WLSU finally became a full part of WPR.”
Today, WLSU relies on WPR to handle its fundraising, membership, underwriting and distribution. Locally, WLSU has an underwriting rep, as well as three reporters to cover its area. “A long time ago, WPR established the idea that there are many things we can do more effectively together, and so we do those,” said Crane. “But certain things would be done more effectively by staying regional.”
Rather than producing one-size-fits-all programming, WPR allows local stations to retain local flavor.
“Over time, we planned our network schedule to allow local inserts,” said Crane, who joined WPR four years ago. He said WPR borrowed the idea from former NPR executive Jay Kernis, a founder of Morning Edition. That two-hour show is sent to member stations in a format that allows them to replace segments with local inserts.
The two WPR streams from Madison are supplemented by output from seven regional offices around the state — generally one office for every four or five transmitters.
Functions that are more cost-effective to perform centrally are located in Madison; others, such as local news reporting and local underwriting sales, have regionally based staffers.
For underwriting sales, offices in the more populous regions have two full-time underwriting reps; small ones have a part-timer. In Wausau, for instance, underwriting amounts to about one-third of the job of Rick Reyer, regional manager of stations serving 17 north-central counties. His underwriting clients, such as a hospital or a florist, have neither the need nor the money to buy statewide underwriting spots.
Besides Reyer, Wausau has the major- and planned-gifts director for all of WPR and her assistant, a reporter and talk host, a part-time producer/intern and two engineers.
Reyer, who has been with WPR for 22 years, returned to his hometown of Wausau 12 years ago to open the office, which also houses a regional news reporter.
“Jack Mitchell had a vision in growing this network,” Reyer said. “He saw that in order to grow in listeners and members, we needed to have our people where the people are.”
A station can either take WPR programming as is or run a mix. On Thursdays during the 5 o’clock hour, listeners in western counties get The West Side, about issues near Menomonie-Eau Claire, while other regional audiences hear the second hour of a WPR talk show.
UW–Eau Claire originally operated the Eau Claire station, once a powerful student-run station. WPR needed it for its dual-service plan, but the students were not interested. The vice chancellor, however, found some of the student programming embarrassing and cut a deal with WPR, as Mitchell tells it. The students picketed, but WPR won. In return, WPR provides a local reporter and the local manager to keep the focus on Eau Claire.
Some stations that participate part-time in the network might not be able to exist without WPR’s help. One is WRST, a student-run station licensed to UW–Oshkosh. That station joined WPR’s talk service in February 1993 and carries the network part-time from 2 a.m. to 1 p.m. every day. The rest of the time, it runs student programming.
“We carry whatever [the programmers in Madison] send,” said faculty advisor Randall Davidson. “Their pledge drive runs on our air, but in the local hours, we have our own underwriters that the students get. The daytime programming is all jazz, and from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. it’s student-produced programming.”
Davidson wasn’t sure whether his station could stay on the air without WPR, but more importantly, he said, “it gives us credibility to be part of WPR since they are so well-known in Wisconsin.”
The biggest resister since WPR broached the idea of consolidation in the early 1980s has been Milwaukee Public Radio (WUWM), an offspring of UW–Milwaukee.
“Jack wanted WUWM to drop our news programming and air WPR’s classical music service,” said Dave Edwards, g.m. in Milwaukee. “That would mean WUWM would cease to exist as a local operation, and we’d have to fire our staff.”
Mitchell disputes that recollection and says he promised staffers would be retained. But he acknowledges that it was a tough battle with WUWM that has left scars even today.
For starters, Edwards said, Milwaukee already had a commercial classical station. The bigger issue, according to Edwards and his predecessor, George Bailey, is that Milwaukee is an urban area with different demographics, problems and interests from the rest of the state.
“I think WPR does absolutely great programming,” Edwards said. “But in Milwaukee, we just have a whole different take. Our agenda for our news programs is dealing with southeastern Wisconsin issues.” WUWM runs locally produced news and newsmagazines plus NPR programs.
The station manages to thrive on its own. It receives no state funding and gets only a $200,000 annual subsidy from UW–Milwaukee. Yet WUWM raises about $2.7 million a year from the community, Edwards said.
“Jack had a theoretical academic model, but it didn’t make sense for listeners in southeastern Wisconsin, and now 25 years later, we’ve proven our model works,” said Edwards. “Both stations now have larger audiences, and we are both drawing more dollars out of the community.”
But he, like WPR’s head, Mike Crane, foresees that as public funding evaporates in the next decade, stations will look harder for efficiencies and economies of scale.
“You will see more consolidation around the country,” said Edwards. “But it will happen where one party is facing a dire financial situation and can’t continue on its own. Here in Wisconsin, you have two vital stations that are much stronger than they’ve ever been.”
Alicia Shepard, former NPR ombudsman, is a freelance writer in Washington and mother of a Sundance Film Festival winner. Comments, questions, tips?
Copyright 2012 American University