University Station Alliance

Linking public broadcasting stations and their university partners since 2001

Approach: Avoidance A.K.A. to “Blend” or Not

by Linda Carr, Carr Communications

Is it better to hide in the shadows, hoping the licensee won’t find you? Or is it better to assume a proactive, high profile on your campus? The following article makes recommendations on your safest strategy in the current environment.

The earlier philosophy of “out of sight, out of mind” used to be a safe haven for public radio stations. But that is no longer the case. In fact it’s one of the most dangerous positions a station can assume at present. Not only will they find you, but it will usually be at the least opportune time, and more than likely they’ll be cranky. The reason? Some unpleasant circumstance has caused them to finally come looking for you.

It is a far wiser stance to assume a high profile and to be viewed as a partner rather than–at best– that station in the basement of building “X” or–at worst–that bunch of malcontents across campus.

As an analogy, when your station is going after significant “bucks,” whether that be from a large corporation, major donor, or foundation, your Development staff would be remiss if they didn’t do their homework first. If they walked into a corporate office without knowing, for example, what products that corporation produces, or whether it has a new product line, or if it’s having an image problem with customers, they wouldn’t know how to craft their approach to the Prospect. And you would probably be thinking in terms of a visit to the “woodshed.”

Yet, if you buy the premise that the university is probably your largest underwriter (when you combine the direct and indirect support), how much do you really know about the institution? Have you done your homework? How much do you know about its product(s)? The obstacles it is facing? Its primary needs?

We expect universities to understand and embrace our value to them. We also expect them to understand that we are unlike any other Department on campus. Yet we don’t always do our research to know how to better craft our approach to the licensee so that our message is more effective. And we’re so busy that we don’t feel we can take the time to find out about the politics with which the institution is dealing, or sit on committees, or attend the myriad events, or generally be a more active campus citizen.

As a start, let’s look at some of the problems many universities are facing. The difficulties fall into two basic categories: financial and the future role of the institution. Such issues as decreasing enrollment and state support are eroding the institutions’ financial foundations. It is also the case that the malady of limited resources is not unique to the public radio station. The impact of decreasing funds affects academic departments, as well. This leads to faculty unrest and

pressure on the administration to divert monies from ancillary departments to core academic activities.

The number of trade schools is increasing. The internet, distance learning and other technologies are significantly changing the methods for delivering education. Corporations are also beginning to deliver staff development on technical issues via the internet, a particular threat to technological institutions. As such, there will be many options for gaining an education or upgrading skills that don’t require a student to be on campus. What about the student body?

What will its composition be? We’re already seeing shifts in the makeup of the student body with adult learning and commuter colleges. What will all these things mean to universities? Looking at a few of the issues facing university licensees offers one explanation for why their public radio stations may be only a small speck on the institution’s radar screen.

If you don’t make a conscious effort to get on the screen and remain there in a consistent and visible fashion, when the institution makes budget cuts, they’ll easily find you. And, unfortunately, they won’t know how many listeners you reach. Nor will they remember anything you’ve done for them lately…

If you can do nothing else, put a line item in your budget for the Chronicle of Higher Education. If you read that publication, you’ll start to see what the issues are for your university. And you’ll see that there are common problems that both you and your licensee are facing, such as a loss of revenue from traditional sources. You’ll also see that neither of you can predict with any certainty what your product will be in the future nor how it will be delivered. You’ll also start to see the semantics that are a part of the higher ed vocabulary so that you can better craft your conversations and documents.