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  • How Vulnerable is Public Media to Political Interference?

    By Nikki Usher  
    Reprinted with permission from Neiman Lab, Neiman Foundation, Harvard University

    With higher education at the crossroads of the culture war, public media is vulnerable to growing political interference over its operations.

    For many who are concerned about declines in local news, shoring up the existing journalism infrastructure for public media in communities seems like a no-duh solution.

    But it is important to approach, eyes-wide-open, any solution for journalism that involves government, public money, or public institutions.

    The political fight over public media is often framed in terms of government spending (Mitt Romney threatened to all-but-cancel Big Bird in 2012), even though direct government subsidies are tiny — 2023 estimates put federal funding at just $1.40 per capita, compared to $100 or more in the UK, Norway, and Sweden. 

    But government funding is not the only way that political meddling can impact the editorial independence of public media.

    About two-thirds of NPR’s 1,000-plus stations (https://www.npr.org/about-npr/178640915/npr-stations-and-public-media) are licensed to or affiliated with colleges or universities. With higher education at the crossroads of the culture wars, public media is vulnerable to growing political interference over its operations.

    As foundation funding and member drives pour money into the cause, strengthening the walls to protect editorial independence at member stations is perhaps more important than any reporting resource.

    Even if a university is not providing direct financial support to a station’s operating budget, it may provide in-kind support such as buildings and facilities. At public colleges and universities, journalists may be considered state employees.

    As local newspapers dry up, public media will become even more important to communities looking for local news and information. We’re already seeing the signs: In February, 2021 NPR announced its Stations Investigations Team providing resources and reporting heft to member stations across the country, and ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network includes public radio stations.

    While the stations see themselves as editorially independent from the schools they are affiliated with, there are early warning signs that the co-mingling of university resources with public media operations leaves them vulnerable to meddling — from right-wing political pressure to universities attempting to squelch unfavorable stories. Even previously good relationships with university partners might sour as the scope of what public media covers continues to grow.

    Given how much conservatives have bemoaned the so-called liberal influence on public media — Republican presidents from Nixon to Trump have threatened to defund public broadcasting—it’s unsurprising to see this play out on a more local level.

    Consider recent history at UNC’s North Carolina Public Radio (WUNC). In September, UNC Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees appointed two new board members to North Carolina Public Radio. While the rationale for the selections was not publicly discussed the new appointees raise concerns about potential conservative pressure on the station.

    In 2015, UNC Chapel Hill trustees created a separate governing board for WUNC, with the stated intention of serving as an oversight board focused on the station’s business operations. Even though WUNC is both financially and editorially independent from the university, the university’s influence is not so removed — the Board of Trustees owns its FCC license.

    New member Allie Ray McCullen is the longest serving current trustee on the University’s Board of Trustees and voted against Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure case. He has also been outspoken about his support for the Confederate monument on campus known as Silent Sam and referred to student protesters as “criminals” and “entitled wimps.”

    The other new member, John Hood,  is the president of the John William Pope Foundation, (a conservative foundation that has donated millions of dollars to UNC. His politics and policy newspaper columns are syndicated across the state. In a 2006 column, “Public, not government, radio,” he wrote that, while he is a supporter of public radio, it shouldn’t receive government support:

    If only it did not subsist partly on funds forcibly taken from people who do not listen to public radio and never will.

    It is true that the taxpayer subsidy for stations such as WUNC-FM in Chapel Hill and WFAE-FM in Charlotte is less egregious than it used to be. The state budget no longer includes direct appropriations to university-based public radio operations. But they continue to receive subsidy in the form of grants from the taxpayer-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The extent of subsidy varies widely according to the size and penetration of local markets. For example, WUNC pays for more than 90 percent of its annual operating budget with voluntary contributions, be they checks from individuals and institutions or underwriting contracts (essentially, short-form advertising) with businesses. But at other stations, the percentage of expenses paid by forcible expropriation is much higher.

    It should be zero. It should be zero in the Triangle or Charlotte markets, where an end to government funding would almost certainly result in higher private funding to offset the loss (I’d be among the first donors). And it should be zero even in smaller markets, where philanthropy and entrepreneurial thinking should be harnessed to generate the necessary funds.

    (Hood did not respond to a request for comment; we’ll update this post if we get one.)

    Faculty, staff, and students at UNC are already concerned about political interference in campus decisions. These WUNC board appointments could be another reason to worry.

    Public media’s editorial independence is a vulnerability that exists in red states and blue states alike. Journalists at NPR Illinois found themselves subject to a different sort of soft censorship when reporting out University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s spotty history of penalizing faculty for sexual misconduct.

    NPR Illinois isn’t even the NPR member station on campus — it’s run out of the University of Illinois-Springfield. Still, the University of Illinois Springfield maintained journalists were “responsible employees,” according to its Title IX sexual misconduct policy, because they were University of Illinois system employees. This would mean journalists would have to name their sources and share information with the university.

    Despite a shield law in Illinois (https://www.rcfp.org/privilege-compendium/illinois/#a-shield-law-statute) that protects journalists from revealing confidential sources, the University of Illinois System’s Board of Trustees refused to grant journalists an exemption from the Title IX policy. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press went to bat for journalists, noting the move “undermine[d] both freedom of the press and campus safety.”

    The reporting could have ended there, but NPR Illinois was partnering with ProPublica, and ProPublica was able to promise confidentiality to anyone who came forward. ProPublica could resist the university’s rules and regulations, but NPR Illinois was still subject to them.

    In commercial news media, the line between editorial independence and business profit is often discussed as a wall between church and state — one highly imperfect but with predictable, profit-driven conflicts of interest.

    If public media is to be part of the solution for helping to bolster the availability of local journalism at a time when the ad-supported model for local newspapers has all but imploded, there needs to be a stronger wall between who holds the license and who runs the newsroom.

    Right now, we can act before we become overly reliant on public media filling the gaps. Shield laws exist to protect journalists from naming their sources in almost all states, but it’s not clear that journalists working for public media understand how to leverage them — and an unsupportive board won’t help them.

    University faculty can take important steps by anticipating any carve-outs in university policy that might undermine reporting efforts, like the Title IX example at Illinois. Public media supporters can make sure that they push state legislators to affirm the editorial independence of local public media.

    Professor Usher currently teaches at the University of San Diego’s Communication Studies department. When this 2021 article was published, she was an associate professor at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and a senior fellow at the Open Markets Institute’s Center for Journalism and Liberty. She is the author of News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism, and previously wrote for Nieman Lab about metro newspapers and white audiences.

  • Ann Kaplan Joins U:SA Board

    Kerry Swanson, U:SA Board President today announced, The U:SA Board of Directors has long been seeking a university administrator to fill our open board position. I’m thrilled to let you know that Anne Kaplan, retired Vice President for the Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, has been elected.

    Swanson went on to add, Her background, strategic mind-set, and wide range of administrative experience made her the ideal candidate.”

    According to colleagues at the Northern Illinois University, “Anne was involved in nearly every major NIU development over the past 40+ years: she was the person everyone wanted to have at the table. They knew she’d bring good judgement. That she’d listen intently and pull disparate thoughts into a coherent course of action. They knew she’d be a calm and thoughtful presence, the cooler head that prevails.  That she’d bring the historian’s view and a commitment to the long game was a given.”

    U:SA Executive Director, Virginia Dambach noted, Within days of her appointment, Anne has already begun to share insights into how the U:SA can help stations strengthen their relationships on campus, and how the U:SA can more actively engage with university administrators who oversee public media stations.”

    One of the first tasks to engage university administrators is to create a communications channel that includes not only station managers and staff, but those administrators who are involved in station oversight as well. To that end, Dambach appeals to public media managers to please share the name, title, direct phone, and email of the university administrator that the station reports to.  Those individuals will be added to the U:SA newsletter email list and also invited to participate in relevant webinars that would be of interest to administrators. Email information to: Virginia Dambach.

  • Make Time to Build Relationships Before You Need Them

    Building relationships takes time – and public media has a number of important constituencies. While staff can handle the bulk of relationship building with major donors, members, and underwriters, your role is important. Ask your senior staff how you can help with those constituents. 

    Relationships with your staff are extremely important, but the topic for a different article.

    The GM is the point person when it comes to relationship building with

    • University administrators
    • Local, State and National legislators

    And, the best time to build those relationships is BEFORE you need them.

    Unfortunately, with the multiple demands on any GMs time, building relationships often comes far down on the to-do list.

    Make relationship building a priority. It doesn’t have to be done all at once, but keep it top-of-mind by contacting at least one university administrator, or one legislator each week. Put it on your schedule so that a specific time slot is reserved.

    For administrative calls/visits, create a list of message points you want to get across. Cover one message per contact. Among topics on the list could be:

    • Information regarding an important upcoming local interview, concert, or news feature that you want to make sure the administration is aware of and invite them to listen, attend, or participate in.
    • An event you want to invite the administrator to attend…and if they attend, acknowledge their presence if possible. 
    • Information about a recent award recognizing the stations programming, production, fundraising, or outreach excellence, or recent grants for programming/production or outreach services. 
    • Share an article from the U:SA website regarding how a University and the public media station are alike, or how universities and public media vulnerable to attack, or the results of your most recent Quantitative Worth Analysis Report.
    • Share letters or emails from listeners/viewers that relay how important your service is to the community, or how much they appreciate the services you provide – and let them know how many such letters/emails you get from donors and listeners every month. 
    • Ask for support for a specific project or initiative, or thank them for their support on a recent issue.
    • If you’re visiting in person, always leave something in writing behind – a newspaper clipping, fact sheet, or invitation.

    Be sure key administrators and legislators are on your marketing mailing lists for invitations to events, concerts, premieres, tours and other activities at the station.

    Phone calls may be best, especially when a bill is up for a vote, or when you need to express appreciation immediately following a favorable vote.

    If you’ve spoken to or seen the administrator/legislator recently, remind him/her of the contact. Administrators and legislators meet with many constituents and may not remember precisely when they saw or heard from you last. Reminding them can help break the ice and lead to your reason for calling.

    Doing all these things means that when you need administrative or legislative support on an issue or a piece of legislation they will know who you are, they will be familiar with what you do, and understand the impact you have on the community.  

    Make the time. Make the efforts. See the results.

  • Board Candidates Encouraged to Apply

    U:SA is always looking for qualified candidates to serve on the Board of Directors. Currently we are working to expand board diversity and encourage nominations that will accomplish that goal.

    Currently we have 3 women and 7 men on the board that includes one male Hispanic and one black woman.

    The majority of board members are station managers along with one CFO and one attorney. We seek candidates with development and marketing backgrounds as well as GMs.

    Your commitment as a board member is to attend 4 meetings a year – one per quarter, to read any materials distributed prior to the meetings, and to engage in discussions.

    Officers make a commitment to 11 meetings a year with specific responsibilities as outlined in the by-laws.

    Board members may also be called on to write newsletter articles, host zoom discussions, or work on committees as required.

    Nominate yourself or a colleague by sending a letter of interest and resume to Virginia Dambach, USA Executive Director at virginia.dambach@us-alliance.org

  • Rules of Engagement: Telling Your Station’s Story

    Thursday September 22, 2:30 pm E/1:30 pm C

    A number of universities don’t want their station GMs to contact Members of Congress regarding various legislative or policy issues – be it federal funding or bills that would affect public media operations. However, a lack of any station engagement contributes to a lack of understanding in Congress for the essential public service that public radio stations provide to local communities around the country. Public radio stations are constituents, local nonprofit organizations, and beneficiaries of federal funding, so it is important for Congress to understand their many valuable contributions. Marta McLellan Ross and her Policy & Representation team at NPR will lead a discussion about how public radio stations can engage their Members of Congress, tell their local story, and do so in a manner that respects their university policies. Invite your university government relations office to join you for this U:SA webinar. Marta can answer questions, provide examples, and illustrate the importance of engagement efforts outside of lobbying.

    Register for the webinar at https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZMkc-ytqj4tGtCZm4R6CFz4fXDmIXcwDDLG . After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

  • Cohort Discussion Take-Aways

    If our discussions during the PMDMC University/Institutional Licensee Cohort meetings are any indication, General Managers have a lot of internal work to do in order cut through the red tape and increase productivity. You may, or you may not be aware of all the obstacles your staff face on a daily basis.

    It could be time to have a discussion with your staff about what stands in their way of doing an outstanding job. I’m sure some of these areas will come up.

    • Membership staff told they cannot take ACH transfer transactions for gift payment – is this a university policy or is someone in the business office or the foundation telling your staff this because they think it will be too much work, or because they’ll have to set up a sub-account to track those payments? Unlike credit card transactions, which can come to a screeching halt when the card expires, ACH payments go on until the donor stops them. If the athletic department uses ACH, or tuition payments use ACH, why can’t the station? Find out what’s going on if your staff has this issue.
    • Major donor staff are denied access to wealth screening data and/or denied the ability to acquire their own wealth screening data – while the university/foundation may think it’s a good idea to keep the big dollar donors to themselves, many donors have no relationship with the University other than through the station. Segment your file and see what percentage of donors are alumni and what percentage or exclusive to the station. Make your case and gain access to much needed data.
    • Looking into separate 501(c)3 status could solve a lot of issues – staff are frustrated because some foundations won’t allow the station to apply for grants (Google and Facebook among others) because the Tax ID belongs to the University and only one entity can get the grants. If the licensee won’t share wealth screening data, an independent 501(c)3 could get it for you. Having an independent 501(c)3 would have allowed stations to participate in the PPP loan program, and would assure the station in a better position should the relationship with the university deteriorate. If station underwriting sales staff aren’t allowed to, or are restricted from approaching larger corporate prospects, the 501(c)3 could make the approach rather than the university employee.
    • Other less common but frustrating experiences included
      • Not being allowed to seek underwriting from various university departments, including performance venues.
      • Not being allowed to solicit underwriting from other area universities or colleges
      • The station website is a sub-section of the University website and consequently hard for donors to find
      • Web pledge pages are generic and not optimized to make it easy for donors to give – page abandonment is an issue
      • Administrative fees are not in line with the level of service (or lack thereof) being provided.
      • The university/foundation don’t understand the difference between university fundraising and station fundraising – i.e. annual campaign vs multiple pledge drives, premiums vs no premiums, major focus on major gifts vs membership level gifts
      • Marketing materials must be approved by university administrative/marketing units
      • All contractors must be hired as part time employees which involves tons of paperwork rather than a simple 1099
    • From the general managers perspective, the lack of control in the hiring process is an on-going issue. Positions must be approved by the university even when the budget is available, job descriptions are generic and don’t reflect the actual job, university follows civil-service procedures which take too long – sometimes up to 3 months to advertise and fill a position, and HR can decide independently to close the position and re-open, not because there weren’t qualified candidates, but because they wanted a bigger pool from which to choose…the station needs bodies on the ground now

    As the concluding exercise, small groups were asked how to best resolve issues and while the wording wasn’t identical, each group determined that building relationships at all levels was key to success. Among the suggestions for accomplishing this task were to:

    • Solicit members of the Board of Regents to record testimonial spots in support of some aspect of the stations work, and then continue to cultivate and inform them regarding the stations work
    • Appoint one of the senior VPs to the stations Advisory Board
    • Cultivate advocates among senior administration, teaching/research professors, and staff
    • High level of staff participation in university events
    • Present station reports and data that reflect key areas that the university administration values

    If your key concerns aren’t reflected here, be sure to contact U:SA and share your concerns. Your input can help shape the direction of research, reporting and other areas of U:SA station services.

  • U:SA Affiliate NPR Network Discussion Webinars

    U:SA is hosting two webinars to discuss the NPR Network – one internal among managers, and the second with NPR staff. Here are the details.

    On Wednesday, August 17 at 1 pm C, U:SA affiliates and institutional licensees are invited to join an internal discussion regarding various aspects of the NPR Network. The session will be facilitated by U:SA Board members, Kerry Swanson, KUOW and Staci Hoste, WNIU.

    Come prepared with your questions, comments and concerns.
    Following our internal meeting U:SA on August 30 at 11 am Central affiliates/institutional licensee can discuss their ideas, questions and concerns with members of the NPR staff

    Register in advance for the August 17th U:SA affiliates cohort meeting. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

    Register in advance for the August 30th affiliates meeting with NPR staff.
    After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

  • Caryn Mathes Named 2021 Madison Hodges Award Recipient

    Caryn’s leadership during the opening days of the pandemic was helpful to many other stations who also had to employ new technologies and ways of doing business in service of their audience and communities.

    To learn more about Caryn’s nomination, read the full announcement here.

  • Fees for Service Vary Widely from Station to Station/Institution to Institution

    KPBS, with the assistance of U:SA and research firm BDO, conducted a national survey to ascertain the fees assessed by licensees and the comparable services provided to the station.

    As expected, larger stations paid more with amounts ranging from $24,000 to 3.2M annually. The surprising finding is the range of costs when analyzed as a percent of total operating revenue. There, support costs for HR, Taxes, Finance, Accounting, Risk Management, Grants Management etc., ranged from .11% to 12.2%.

    Stations first identified which services/functions were managed by the station, jointly with the licensee/Foundation, by the licensee or foundation only, or outsourced to an agency such as NETA.

    Each row represents a single station.

    Data for the number of FTEs and the Cost of Outsourced Services was provided by respondents via survey and/or interview. Other financial data was imported through publicly available financial statements for FY 2020 or 2021, depending on the most recent data available.

     

    Most stations have no detailed, formal operating agreement in place, and no key performance indicators to monitor or evaluate the service provided to them. Most rely on informal relationships and “as-needed” communications. Issues with services are raised as they occur. Just three stations reported standing meetings/reports as a part of university services.

    If you did not participate in this survey, I encourage you to send me the relevant figures. Or, at the least, gather the data and plug it in to see if you’re paying above or below average fees for the services you receive.

    For those who cannot get detailed financial reports from their licensee, the fee you’re paying may be considerably more than NETA would charge for full service financial management, reporting, taxes and ancillary services. Use this data to negotiate better rates or to be allowed to outsource. Or, you may find that the fees charged are “not so bad” after all.

    Having this kind of benchmark statistical data can be an important element in negotiation/management which once again underlines the importance of your station’s participation in research surveys.

  • Why Should University Funding Be Used to Support Your Station?

    Sample Case-Building Statements

    [LICENSEE]’s [STATION] was directed by the chancellor’s office to provide a document listing reasons “Why university funding should be used to support the station.” The station used the campus’ actual mission and goals statements in crafting a response.

    [STATION] is not just an auxiliary enterprise which uses the Campus as its home. The station is an integral component of the Campus’ mission, goals and operations, through its broadcast and non-broadcast activities:

    • The station provides access, to information and entertainment for diverse audiences with varied social, cultural and ethnic This is clearly evident throughout the station’s broadcast schedule, with unique program offerings of different genres of folk music, daily programs of interest to African-Americans, and annual specials for Hispanics, Asians, Native-Americans and others.
    • The station fosters excellence by providing an annual experiential learning activity for our students as part of a collaboration with the Communications Studies Many [LICENSEE] students have received six academic credits to work alongside seasoned professionals for ten hours/week during two semesters to learn the business. One of our graduates who participated in this program recently became Production Coordinator of ANOTHER STATON . In addition, the [STATION] employs students in various capacities at the station throughout the year.
    • The station is a public service, forging linkages between the Campus and the For the past two years, [STATION] has worked with several dozen community organizations and businesses to help preserve folk music into the 21st Century by producing a Boston Folk Festival. This event brought 7,000 people to the Boston Campus last year. Performers included international Nigerian drummer Baba Olatunji, a local Brazilian dance troupe, the only Asian Women’s Lion dance troupe in New England, the Silver Leaf Gospel Singers, and hundreds of local, national and international folk performers.
    • The station works with the Cultural Council and others to develop programs to assist the economic development of the folk [STATION] has a long-term commitment to highlight folk performers and folk venues, and the station is considered an essential factor in the growth of the Commonwealth’s folk community over the past fifteen years. [STATION] has a proposal pending with the Office of Travel and Tourism to work with them and the Greater Boston Convention & Visitor’s Bureau to develop and implement innovative ways to encourage cultural tourism.
    • [STATION] is very serious about its commitment to improve the quality of life in the area. Through daily informational features on the air, and through the production of two annual, week-long summer music camps for adults, [STATION] works to educate teachers, performing artists and others to enrich the culture of, and bring diversity to, its listening audience.

    [STATION] is also a source of free advertising and image enhancement for the Campus, and generates goodwill:

    • Eight times each day, on the air, the station identifies that it is a public service of [LICENSEE].
    • Four times each day, [STATION] airs “image spots” about the Campus and its many unique programs, thereby giving the station’s tens of thousands of listeners a positive impression of the Campus.
    • [STATION] routinely airs, at no cost to the University, pre-produced commercials about [LICENSEE]’s programs and events that the Campus spends tens of thousands of dollars to have advertised on other local
    • The station helps to recruit new students by handing out informational material about [LICENSEE]’s undergraduate, graduate and continuing education programs to attendees of its monthly concert series and at annual special
    • [STATION] promotes faculty research through a monthly feature it produces in association with our University Communications Department, which has resulted in positive reaction and calls from the station’s listening
    • The station highlights the expertise of faculty and staff on a variety of its shows, and provides the Campus with an opportunity to have our faculty appear as guests on the nationally-syndicated shows which [STATION]
    • Because [STATION] is broadcasting live on the internet, the University’s reputation is not only being enhanced locally, but 
    • The station helps to maintain contact between [LICENSEE] and its alumni, by reminding alums who are station listeners that the Campus is providing a service to them through the
    • [STATION] helps to make important friends for the Campus by providing programs of interest to corporate executives, state and local government
    • [STATION] provides non-broadcast promotion of [LICENSEE] through the press releases that include mention of the Campus, articles about the station mentioning its affiliation with the Campus, and [LICENSEE] logo placement on various station-produced