KNAU Case Study: Strengthening Your Station/University Relationship

(Note: there are audio clips referred to in this document which are not currently available, please check back later for them)

Being a public radio station licensed to a college a university can be precarious

In the past year there have been several dramatic conflicts

There has always been a tenuous relationship between schools and public radio because it’s not immediately obvious why a university spends money and effort on a public radio station. That’s particularly true as stations have (for good reason) professionalized and moved away from student staffing, and from having professional staff diverted away from their radio jobs to serve as adjunct faculty. It was easy to justify our existence under these conditions but unfortunately it was listeners who most frequently got the short end of the deal. They heard amateur local student programming that was obviously inferior to the professional public radio expected and delivered by NPR.

Over the past seven years, KNAU eliminated student programming and no longer is an inexpensive source of instructors for the School of Communication. So why should the university bother supporting the station? To clarify the answer, KNAU asked itself two questions:

Later in this article, you'll be able to link to an excerpt taken from focus groups we did that definitively and affirmatively answered both questions. But first, here's a short history of how and why KNAU has worked to be a university asset while placing a priority on being an outstanding public radio station.

A Year-Round, Multi-level Effort

It’s important to cultivate university support continually – throughout the academic year and the summer vacation, and to cultivate university support throughout the various sectors of the university community – staff, faculty, and administration.

Using the Power of KNAU

We know that the single most significant strength of KNAU, in addition to our personnel, is our reach, our signal, and our connection to listeners. It allows our message to penetrate into the privacy of people’s homes and offices. KNAU happens to be the one local mass medium that reaches all of northern Arizona, a region separated by great distances and tremendous geographical barriers such as the Grand Canyon. Everyday, every hour and by design, KNAU is a beacon on behalf of Northern Arizona University. In this example, KNAU classical announcer Valerie Kahler does a top of the hour break that includes numerous, deliberate mentions of NAU.

CD cut 1 (1:08) Stopset example – KNAU classical announcer Valerie Kahler//

Assessing the Benefits

Re-positioning KNAU as a university asset required staff to adjust its attitude toward the institution. Instead of us and them, or us versus them, or us having no common ground with them, we acknowledged that we are a part of the university and that it’s actually desirable to be university licensed. It’s obvious financially:

There are other advantages too. Being part of a large institution gives us greater strength in negotiating with outside institutions. Whenever we need to get tough and formidable in negotiating (for instance, a tower controversy) we identify ourselves as Northern Arizona University, the largest employer and the intellectual center in our region. Ultimately we know that we would have a significantly scaled down operation if we weren’t part of the university.

Working the Relationship

When the university comes to us, as it inevitably does, with programming requests, we do not act defensively and categorically reject the requests. Nor do we compromise the quality of our service. Because they are us and their interest is ours and vice versa, we seek out mutually beneficial win-win solutions. Here's an example:

Several years ago the university decided to make KNAU responsible for a dial-up, university events phone line. After all, we are audio production experts and we keep track of public service announcements. Then the university decided to reassign their low power AM traveler’s information service from the Parking and Shuttle Department to us. Instead of complaining about the excessive workload and the intrusive nature of the request, attitudinally we knew that:

Here are two examples of the sound of this new KNAU-produced service.

CD cuts 2 & 3 (:51 and :56)

Last year was NAU’s Centennial Year, its one hundredth anniversary. KNAU staff knew that it was appropriate that we play a part in the event. Knowing that our reach was deep and wide, by simply saying every hour "KNAU is a public service of Northern Arizona University, celebrating its Centennial Year", we delivered the university’s centennial message thoroughly and effectively. When asked –another of those inevitable requests – to produce Centennial Moments for distribution to all radio stations statewide, we readily agreed but on our terms. Since we know copywriting and production, we shaped the spots in a public radio friendly Stardate-style with the right to edit copy and choose the voiceover talent.

CD cut 4 (:59)


Setting Ground Rules

Operating a news organization within a university creates inevitable editorial integrity issues. If the university asked KNAU to be their mouthpiece, their propaganda arm, our news department would walk out immediately. We’ve figured out a mechanism for the university to get their message across on KNAU. When the President’s Office or University Development wants us to announce that the President is serving as Chair of the United Way, or that the university has received a major corporate donation to its capital campaign, we simply format it into an underwriting announcement that fits station guidelines:

20 words

no advocacy

no puffery

no pricing information

written in accepted broadcast style.

In addition to effective dissemination of the university’s message, this arrangement leaves the journalists in KNAU’s news department to freely engage in legitimate coverage of the institution. In addition to the Centennial Moments, the news staff produced an award-winning centennial series in the public radio longform, in-depth, audio portrait style. Here’s an excerpt that was recently reversioned into a Newsweek "My Turn" column.

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While the administration understands the value of locally produced pieces like the Centennial series, they get absolutely enthusiastic when we place pieces on NPR. And while our journalists feel no obligation to cover NAU on NPR and because we have a respectful relationship between the administration and the news department, pieces do pop up on NPR that cite NAU. Such mentions, such as this recent Morning Edition excerpt, are gold to the university.

CD cut 6 (1:35)

Being Part of the University Community

KNAU’s marketing and development department plays a central role in what we call internal marketing of the station. Our marketing strategy of cultivating our relationship with the university parallels how we cultivate our relationships with underwriters. We service them and interact with them to constantly promote the perception of the value of our station. When underwriters perceive that the station is valuable and high quality, they stay with you. We do the same with the university. We service them by serving on numerous committees such as Commission for the Status of Women; Public Affairs and Marketing meetings, and search committees for other departments. We communicate our success through university publications. Whenever we receive awards, get Arbitron ratings, exceed pledge drive goals, get a grant, extend our service, we let the entire university community know. We shape the perception that KNAU public radio is a center of success at the university. During pledge drives we bring the university community directly into the station with numerous departments staffing the phones and a variety of university guests on the air assisting in the pitching.

Since we have production facilities we assist the university with tape dubbing and audio production for all kinds of departments - Statewide Distance Learning, History, Parking Services. We edit their copy, our producers record the spots, and copy them for distribution.

Just as numerous businesses and corporations underwrite on air, numerous University departments use KNAU to sell their tickets and publicize their events. Underwriters give the station a type of insurance policy too. The more high powered clients, such as utilities and banks that you have on the air, the more your stations image is viewed as region wide and strong. These businesses have numerous marketing outlets to choose from and they have chosen US!

Whenever KNAU places print ads, columns, or news releases in local media we always tag the item "KNAU is a public service of Northern Arizona University."

Listeners Hear and Support this Mutually Beneficial Relationship

After several years of concerted effort to market KNAU with Northern Arizona University, last year we felt confident in asking focus group respondents in Flagstaff and Prescott whether KNAU is an NAU asset. Bruce Fohr of FMR in Tucson moderated. We edited excerpts into this approximately 5 minute tape that was presented to the university’s primary decision making body – the President’s Management Team.

Tape (approximately 5 minutes)

A Job That's Never Done

All seems well with our relationship with the university. But we refuse to be lulled into inactivity. In consultation with Linda Carr, we have a special ad hoc station group that is working on quantifying the station’s value to the university. Our first step was to elaborate all the services we provide the university. You’ve heard about some of them. Then we read the university’s strategic plan and carefully identified all the areas we addressed. We sorted and cross-indexed our services with the strategic plan. Now we’re assigning dollar values to the services. Like the video, the final report will go to the President’s Management Team.

Our station is a founding member of the University-Station Alliance, the "U:SA" which we’ve established to create a support system for stations licensed to universities. Our web site is We urge other institutionally-licensed stations to visit our website and join our efforts.

So to return to the initial question of why a university should support public radio we refer you to the listeners’ powerful words. And as to why it’s in the station’s interest to be university affiliated, we refer you to your station’s annual CPB financial report Schedule A Line 5. There are also many other, non-financial advantages to being a university licensee. Clearly our listeners from their external position clearly believe that it is in KNAU’s interest to be allied with the university.