Based on an interactive WSPR (Western States Public Radio) Zoom conversation among station managers along with panelists Virginia Dambach, Executive Director of the University: Station Alliance, Rima Dael, General Manager at WSHU, Fairflied CT, and Jeff Signe, partner and founder of the Brain Group and also a member of the NPR Board, and former trustee of the American University. The session was moderated by Kerry Swanson, Station Manager at Northwest Public Radio in Pullman, WA.
WSPR President, and General Manager at Boise State Public Radio, Tom Michael, introduced the session. Kerry Swanson started out our topic by observing that while public media area faced by challenges even in the best of times, during Covid we’ve been facing even more, particularly economic challenges. And we know the old adage, “We’re all one vice president away from total disaster,” so today’s conversation will focus around, how we build and maintain our relationship with the University administration.”
Kerry went on to note that “Many managers try to stay below the radar and have the university stay at arm’s distance. But sooner or later, you’re going to have to really think about it – is that the best long-term strategy? Can you answer the question, ‘Why does my university have a public radio or TV station?’ If you can’t answer that question, neither can your university President, Provost or Chancellor. And we all know it’s a question they’re going to be asked and it’s a question they’re going to be asking you.”
Your job is to help the University answer that question about why they have a station, and why it matters, and how it works, and why is it more than just a piece of property that sits on campus.
The Big Picture – Virginia Dambach, Executive Director, University: Station Alliance
Dambach started off the discussion with the observation that while there are hundreds of university licensees, each one is unique in how their managed and perceived. She also observed that the public media station is probably the most outward facing element at the university – with much more in common with the athletic department, the alumni association or the University Foundation than they are like an academic department or a division of communications or arts and sciences.
At the Dean level and below, most of the focus is inward, towards students. And while many stations have an element of student training as part of their mission, most stations are focused outwardly toward service to the community. And that is exactly where the tension comes in when you’re building your relationship with the University. If you’re reporting to someone at the dean level or below, you’re gong to be evaluated by the same measures that their success is measured by – and those measures are inward facing. You want to be evaluated and measured based on your community service, and your public relations, and your intrinsic value to the university within the community – all outward facing.
Based on surveys conducted between 2009 and 2019, we know that statistically, only 12% of general manages report to the President, Provost or Chancellor – the people with the most outward facing, biggest picture view of the university’s role and success in the community. Approximately 48% report to a Vice President/Vice Chancellor/Vice Provost, who are usually only one step below decision makers. It’s really good that over 50% of managers report to outward-facing managers. But that also means that over 40% report to someone that is inward facing and the challenge is going to be to get that broad recognition of the stations’ importance and place within the university hierarchy.
Building the Relationship from Scratch – Rima Dael, General Manager, WSHU, Fairfield, CT
Hired 18 months ago as the station manager for WSHU, Fairfield CT, a part of a planned executive transition. The Sacred Heart University President mandated that all specialty departments at the University needed to have an executive transition plan in place. Because Sacred Heart knew that the station founder and GM, George Lombardi was nearing retirement, WSHU was the first guinea pig to go through the process.
It took the University two years to figure out what the right mix of engineering, programming and fundraising/financial management skills they were looking for in a successor. I was hired (from New England Public Radio) and report to the Vice President of Communication and Marketing, an avid public radio listener, and also Chief of Staff to the university President. I also have reporting responsibilities to the CFO of the University.
As station manager, Rima had a year to make her way, build relationships, and position the station. She reached out to the University: Station Alliance to conduct a Qualitative Worth Analysis for WSHU which would help develop a shared lexicon to discuss the intrinsic worth of WSHU and to share that worth with the university and internal staff.
U:SA provided a detailed slide deck which I simplified and shared with my boss. Mar Comm (marketing/communications) was literally blown away. They didn’t realize the number of hours we provide publicity for them, and the number of touches we give to the university. Grad admissions was like, “Wow, we really need to use you guys more in promoting our open houses!”
However, the biggest winner in using the analysis that Virginia (U:SA) provided was with my staff, because they had no clue how integral we were to the university system in providing advertising/pr dollars and fundraising dollars as well as visibility, more so than Division I sports! It was a huge way to reframe who we were on campus for the staff, and helped boost morale among staff.
While I was working with Virginia on the QWA, I also developed a simple concentric circle stakeholder map.
You can see on the chart that we are a unit of Sacred Heart University. And while the University is only 3 rungs out for WSHU, it was our weakest link. We’re communicating well with our audience and the news hubs that we belong to, and our major donors. But we were prioritizing those kinds of relationships when we really needed to prioritize our relationships within the university, especially since we’re not a separate 501 (C) 3. We function as a department of the university, and our budget is embedded in the university system.
Once I was able to frame this well for the staff and for our Board of Visitors, I could start working on the relationship with the university. And when you’re working on that, you have to ask yourself
- What is the power dynamic?
- How valued are you,
- What is the current state of your relationship?
- Good, or bad or mediocre, can you build it up?
So, I have 4 steps – its pretty straightforward, and you might think it’s oversimplified, but it works.
- Make a good friend at the University. My new BFF at Sacred Heart University is the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. I promote her good work to other people at the university and she does the same for me. When our relationship started taking traction, we were offered a chance to work on a project together. We are planning the first Women’s Conference for Sacred Heart University. WSHU gets equal billing with the College of Arts and Letters. And I’m moderating the conference because I’m at the radio station…which provides lots of visibility for WSHU.
- Find one small thing you can participate in at the University that has nothing to do with your radio station. For me, that was working with Father Tony, the Chair of Catholic Studies on a pilot program to pull small groups from across disciplines and across staff/faculty to have a social time together during this time of Covid. In participating in that I got to know people from other departments and as a newbie on campus, that was a great way for me to show the university thsat I’m not only the manager of the station, but that I also participate in university-wide efforts beyond the station.
- Prove our worth to the President by demonstrating how we contribute to the educational mission and how we improve the quality of life and support that mission. You can’t just “do” things, you have to tell people you do them. We have articulated the involvement of graduate fellows, and student interns in our newsroom, fundraising, communication department and production. And we have to keep doing that over and over.
The University Perspective – Jeff Sine, American University Board of Trustees, NPR Board Member
At my very first board meeting as a trustee of American University in Washington DEC, there was a motion to sell WAMU to a religious broadcaster for $18 million or so. I think the other trustees expected me to endorse the proposal because I’m a Wall Street guy, an investment banker, and I must love every deal. In reality I almost climbed over the table and said “This is stupid! This is Crazy! What an asset, what a gem that American University has in WAMU!
While they weren’t executing at every level, the potential was clear. The issues were with financial management. We hired a new GM (Caryn Mathes) and she turned the station around. We didn’t sell it off, and some years we break even and some years provide a surplus for the university. More importantly, she discovered a lot of what Rima was just talking about with the synergies that are possible between the university and the station.
We have a school of communications, the overlaps with the station are obvious, and they’re mentioned every hour during call signals. And mentioned “broadcasting from the campus of American University”. So what’s that worth in a big market in terms of just identity and presence. And I think the station values the benefits of a huge HR department when facing complicated issues, and union issues. They can call on the University resources and the skill sets that a larger organization provides.
As the media has morphed from broadcast to multimedia, even more opportunities to collaborate have emerged. WAMU has launched a number of outstanding podcasts recently, with the support of university faculty and staff. There is no longer any question that the station is part of the university and the university is part of the station. We have a liaison in the Presidents’ office – the number two person works directly with station management. We’re constantly looking for more opportunities to build that relationship and drive it deeper.
Bring on the NPR board, I’ve noticed that many of the big urban NPR affiliates get quite a lot of support from their boards. And because WAMU is a university, not a community licensee, the trustees are expected to support the university, not necessarily the station. So, after a year of analysis, we’re addressing that structural problem by creating a Board of Advisors for the station. They have no fiduciary duty, but a lot of other responsibilities. They will be leading citizens, and they’ll work with the GM, and, we hope, support the philanthropic mission of the station.
Moderator Kerry Swanson asked Jeff to answer the question, “Why do you hold an FCC license for a public media station”, Jeff responded, “The relationship has benefits in both directions. Some years it may go more one way than the other, but in the fullness of time, I think it’s pretty equal. There is great reputational benefit to American University being associated with that quality journalism. WAMU is the number one rated station in the market, and that’s worth a lot. I think the brand of NPR is shiny, and one we can be proud of. It’s really a learning laboratory for where the media industry is going. We all know we can’t just rely on the signal anymore. American University is proud of the association with the station and with the opportunities for faculty and students, and we can’t put a price on that. And I don’t think anyone’s questioned it in a long time.”
Rima Dael jumped in to add, “Our situation is just so wonky. Sacred Heart had a station because our former GM, George Lombardi started it. And for years it was heavily supported by General Electric whose headquarters were right down the street so there were no questions. But when GE moved, and the funds dried up, WSHU began a long 10-year slog. This is the first year that we’ve been asked to quantify our worth, and we’ve never had to do that. And we’ve succeeded with a lot of help, but it wasn’t an easy road. And part of the reason it worked is because my boss likes NPR. He listens 23/7. But my president couldn’t care less about NPR.
With that opening, Moderator Kerry Swanson opened the conversation about what happens when that person who loves you leaves, calling on Neil Best and Joey Cohn to share their stories. Neil, soon-to-be-retired General Manager of KUNC has been through that shift from fully integrated and beloved to superfluous. After years of full integration with university administrators donating to the station at leadership levels, a new President decided the station was not an asset and should be sold. The community protested and was given 20 days to raise $2 million. We were able to do it because we had deep community connections outside the university. While we weren’t required to, we had a Community Advisory Board, and they organized within 24 hours of hearing about the sale.
As Kerry said, we’re one person away from disaster. You need someone on the outside that really likes you. And you cultivate them. That’s your conduit to the community and with them you can prepare the glide path to leave the university.
A Place at the Table
When the University is doing strategic planning, do you have a seat at the table? If the athletic department is there and the campus book store, you need to be there too. If they are and you’re not, how do you change that?
Joey Cohn, General Manager at KPLU has worked with a number of university administrations who valued the station. At one point the President had received a purchase offer and turned it down. We were valued. The president liked what we did, and supported what we did. The buyer went on to purchase a different Washington station. But when a new President and new VP of Marketing came on board, I asked if he had plans to sell the station? He had a history of working for a university that sold its station. His response was that he wouldn’t do that. But, as time went on, the university was having financial issues and needed to generate revenue. Both the new administrators had come in from outside the area and while they saw us as a financial asset, they didn’t see us a community asset. That was their mistake. They didn’t realize the strong community connection we had. The university was quietly trying to sell the station for about 10 months. During that time Joey tried to get permission to form a community group to fund raise to buy the station, but the administration thought it would take to long. When the news of the sale became public, the community responded strongly and we were then given 6 months to form a community group raise $7 million. We ended up raising $8 million. You need to make sure you have the ear of the President, or a vice president who has the president’s ear. The university board has 35 members, and they’re spread out across the country. If you have the ability to get to know the board, to present to the board, to tell them about your work with students, your impact on the community, take it. You need to get to know those decision-makers.
At Kerry’s station, at the end of a $1 billion capital campaign, the administration discovered that 20% of the donors who gave were Northwest Public Broadcasting viewers and listeners. That was a much bigger influence than they’d realized. It gave the station a notch up in our profile at the university.
The discussion then turned to whether staff should feel like station employees or university employees?
WSPR president, Tom Michael noted that at his station there is an organizational disconnect. He said “Our staff works at the station, they didn’t sign up to be a university employee, and I’m not sure I want to discourage that.”
Joey responded saying, “Having worked at a number of university owned stations, there’s a comfort in being a university licensee. We’ve got good retirement and good benefits. I’ve always thought of myself as a broadcaster, not a university employee, but when the station went up for sale it became very clear that we were a division of the university and university employees because we didn’t own the license, the university did, and they called the shots. Something so obvious didn’t resonate with me. When we became an independent 501(c) 3, and had to build all that infrastructure and everything that comes with building an organization rather than being a division.
Jeff chimed in regarding the “town and gown” discussion from a different direction. I support independent journalism, but when it comes to the obligation of a station to reflect the valid interests of its owner. Maybe it’s a bother to have students come and work with seasoned professionals and maybe it isn’t how you want to spend your time, but it’s an obligation. The students and faculty are with you at the table.
Dambach recalled Margret Frieveogel’s comparisons regarding the commonalities between universities and stations. Both teach, both conduct research. Both have their foundations on intellectual freedom.
Rima noted that at her station it is more of an organizational issue than a philosophical issue saying, “the former administration had framed the relationship in a negative way. I’ve framed it in a positive way. But I also think that good fences make good neighbors. If a university and the station share a major donor, I will defend the stations right to go after that donor. Half our staff have graduated from Sacred Heart. Our staff can audit classes, get reduced tuition and after 4 years, reduced tuition for your children. With organizational culture it is a top down thing. If the GM frames the relationship in a positive way, then that builds trust. If the GM frames in negatively, the staff will see it negatively as well. My boss listens to the station. He lets me know what he likes. When I share that with staff, they like it that the administration is listening and paying attention.
Neil agreed saying “The staff needs to appreciate what the university does for them. And while you’re part of the university, you’re not an academic unit. You can’t run a deficit. You have to break even every year. You have to be better than anybody else.”
Paul Westhelle, Jefferson Public Radio, noted, “I wanted to share a piece of an assessment report. Connecting to the processes within the institution and having a seat at the strategic planning table is terribly important. I was given the opportunity to actually lead the civic engagement piece campus wide. That was a gigantic benefit. Every year we highly connect what the station’s activities are and how they support the universities mission. I meet with the President every 6 weeks and let him know what we’re doing that he’s not necessarily aware of.
Dambach noted that the fact that Paul reports to the President is a strength. Rather that having his reports interpreted through the department chair to the dean to the vice present and ultimately to the president where it can be diluted, misinterpreted or undelivered. The closer you are to the person of influence the better you can get your message across.
Kerry noted that often people don’t get to make the choice to which Dambach talked briefly about how to move to the next higher level a step at a time. Paul agreed saying, I’d work to get to be a part of the board reporting structure. At WAMU, as part of the Communications committee, we have structured context for our GM to report to the Board. The administration cares what gets reported to the board. It’s an unfiltered exchange and they want to make sure they know what’s going.
Dambach briefly discussed U:SA’s Qualitative Worth Analysis service which gives station management a place to start in developing conversations with the university administration.
Kerry asked participants whether they had a station statement of integrity. Jeff notes the station has a conflict of interest policy requiring neutrality politically. Virginia reminded participants regarding the widely endorsed Tenents of Public Media Ownership at a University Licensee” which defines roles including intellectual integrity, journalistic fire walls, hiring and firing authority, fundraising and more available on the U:SA website at
Rima noted that her station notes their mission statement notes editorial independence, but one of things I want to do is develop a Standard Operating Procedure. Right now my boss wouldn’t know what to do or how to do it. There is a lot I’m filling in regarding policies and procedures…Operationally we’re a department, but editorially we’re independent.
Kerry and WSPR President Tom Michael thanked panelists and participants for the engaging discussion.
To hear the full live ZOOM discussion, go to: