by Virginia M. Dambach

There are many ways of providing public media services – and sometimes those services allow ample time for planning but other times they require bold action. In the first of a series, this article explores how WGLT Bloomington-Normal, Illinois came to manage WCBU in Peoria, which is about 40 miles away on Interstate 74.

Let us set the scene:

Bradley University was tearing down an old building and building a new one. The old building housed WCBU. The new building had no plan to allocate space to WCBU. The former General Manager had left and the Chief Engineer had been appointed as Interim GM. When the President of Bradley University asked him how much it would cost to relocate the station, the Interim GM responded with every dream he’d ever had, along with an astronomical price tag. The president said, essentially, “Enough is enough.”

WCBU had been struggling for years, and according to sources, a lot of the issues were a result of ineffective management, ineffective supervision, and ineffective planning at the station and poor communication between the station and the licensee.

Rather than sell the license to a religious or commercial station, Bradley’s President decided it might be time to just shutter WCBU, at which point R.C. McBride, General Manager at Illinois State University WGLT’s in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, reached out to Bradley to see if there was a way WGLT could help – even in the short-term. This was April 2018.

McBride was appointed WGLT’s GM in January 2017 after a year as interim and had worked diligently to get WGLT into the black with a balanced budget while increasing local news service.  Managing WCBU had not been on McBride’s list of things to do, nor in his long-range plans. However, after consulting with his bosses at Illinois State and reviewing the potential, decided that the right thing to do would be to step in to assure that Peoria listeners retained their public media access. With a massive effort at both Universities and at WGLT, the management agreement was signed and done by June 1, 2019.

Some Peoria listeners did not see this as a gift – they were unsettled, unsure, hostile and suspicious. There was little advance PR from Bradley – no announcements, no attempt to explain what had happened and why. On June 1, 2019, RC got to try to explain – and move forward. The situation was not ideal.

WGLT reaches a large part of the Peoria audience with its fringe signal and could have done nothing and actually gained members, but according to RC, “That is not the public radio way. We want the stations to retain their own separate identities and provide separate local services.”

Bradley fired all the WCBU staff. McBride rehired some but also recruited new members to the team. All local content and news staff, along with the underwriter and the Chief Engineer, remain based in Peoria.  Traffic, business operations, and membership are all now based at WGLT, along with Master control. Merging those operations saved some expense that could then be plowed back into more local and national programming.

McBride worked with Bradley administrators to find new space on the Peoria campus and related, “The new space isn’t necessarily glamorous, but neither were WCBU’s former quarters. Overall it’s an improvement.”  WCBU has moved from triage, to treading water, to rejuvenation. Listeners in Peoria are seeing the results of WGLT’s management with increased news output and added program services. The Peoria news staff has increased from 1.5 to 3 full-time staff and the goal is to double the news staffs at both WCBU and WGLT over the next 5 years. (Though, as with everyone else, the current unforeseen economic crisis has caused the stations to cope with unexpected revenue declines).

Peoria listeners are responding and the station has been able to recover all but a handful of members and underwriters who left as a result of the station’s once-uncertain future.

As the GM at both stations, RC McBride walks a tight line, merging services where it makes sense while maintaining independent services and identities in each market. He credits the staff at both stations saying “They’re doing an amazing job.” McBride also acknowledged that NPR had been very helpful during the transition.