University Station Alliance

Linking public broadcasting stations and their university partners since 2001

Corporate Citizen? Campus Citizen?

by Linda Carr, Carr Communications

Stations are facing a difficult economy, as are universities. Linda Carr takes on the issue of how to posture oneself in this new environment…and why.

If you’ve had occasion to work in the private sector within the structure of a major corporation, you’ll recall that omnipresent feeling of having little control over your own destiny. Often, dictates from above were out of touch with the realities of the day-to-day operation. Those mandates might well have defied reason–not to mention Total Quality Management principles! At best you might have felt

frustrated. At worst, management’s actions might have disrupted what your department was trying to do, even though you were doing your best to provide a valuable service on behalf of the corporation.

From your perspective, the directives might have been ill conceived or even harmful to the company in the long run. You might have groused about it, but frankly you had little choice. The corporation had control of the entire situation. And, whether its decisions were harmful or not, the reality of the situation was that it was merely acting out of a motivation to preserve and enhance the bottom line. It was not out to make your life miserable. Frankly, you probably weren’t even on its radar screen.

This is not so different from the realities of a public radio station that is a part of a university setting. You know you’re doing a good job on behalf of the institution. However, that doesn’t mean that decisions won’t be made by the university that are frustrating or even detrimental to what you’re trying to do on behalf of the institution. Like the corporation, a university’s goals are to preserve and enhance the bottom line (not to mention keeping its image as positive as possible with legislators, tax payers, parents of students and other stakeholders). Like a corporation, you may not even be on its radar screen when it makes its decisions. Further, like a private sector business, the university has ultimate control over your existence. This is a fact we like to ignore and, in some cases, even refute.

But like it or not, your university does have ultimate control over your existence. Why you say?

Let’s ponder the word “licensee.” That noun that we toss around indiscriminately in reports and occasionally take in vain in conversations. Licensee. The entity which holds your license… That little piece of paper without which you have a bunch of equipment and talented people but no place to go, so to speak. If a decision is made that you feel is harmful, you can try to reason. You can cry editorial integrity. You can even bring the wrath of the listening public down on the heads of the administrators. You might even win that round (albeit at a high

cost since the institutional memory of a university is right up there with a pachyderm). But the ultimate truth is it has control over your existence because it hold your license… Because of that, in the end it’ll do what it wants and needs to do because it can…

This article is not being written merely to tip your blood pressure into the danger zone. Instead, the purpose is to provide a heads up. Many universities, A.K.A., licensees, have either sustained cuts within this fiscal year or are looking at substantial cuts next year. This means they will be looking at you harder than ever before and you know what that means. They’ll be passing a portion of their unfortunate financial reduction along to you. At the same time they may well be asking you to do more to raise awareness of the institution.

Given decreased state funding and increased competition for students from peer institutions within the state, distance learning from institutions of higher learning in other states, and the internet in general, many universities are in crisis. They will be looking at all existing services and vehicles they have at their disposal to get as much return on their investment as possible. They don’t have a choice.

You do. You can portray yourself as a partner in this new economic environment because their problems are your problems. At the same time, you can be proactive and try to figure out ways to help without damaging your on-air product. Or you can dig in your heels and explain why it is you’re licensed to that fine institution but your air is your air and they’d darned well better keep their paws

off….. I should warn you though. The latter attitude won’t be greeted with any

degree of warmth. No more than it would be were you working for a corporation in the private sector.

I should also alert you that one of the first things many stations will be queried about will be on-air mentions for the licensee. If they’re not already getting them, they’ll want ‘em. This is neither the time nor the issue on which to dig in your heels. Many stations still have unused inventory in terms of underwriting avails. So call it insurance. Call it being a good campus citizen. It doesn’t matter how you justify it in your own mind. The important thing is that it be done strategically and in a way that helps you in the long run, not hurts you.

It puts you in stronger position to have thought this through before they come to you (OR if you have really thought it through, to go to them). For example, how many mentions and what content would you recommend in this situation? It’s very important to be proactive in this case. One reason is whatever person– make that committee–that has been given the task of creating the copy for those on-air mentions will not have done so with your audience’s reaction in mind. And once it’s been created by that group of people, they’ll be ego involved in it and won’t be so keen on having it altered.

Please understand that I’m not saying roll over no matter what is asked of you.

I’m saying your licensee may be in crisis. The way you handle this situation will color subsequent situations and how you’re viewed by that entity that holds your license. You can either gain the reputation of being someone who is being proactive and is trying to help them problem-solve or you can be viewed as that recalcitrant at the public radio station–why-do-we-have-one-anyway–across campus.

This is really an opportunity. You can finally get your station(s) on the radar screen so that you can become a player within the institution, rather than being at the mercy of its decisions–choices that may not be informed decisions because you weren’t at the table when they were made. Or you can choose a defensive, isolationist stance. Neither path will be easy. However, one choice positions you positively, the other negatively. Speaking as one who took the latter road early on in her career, I can assure you it is not your best choice.