University Station Alliance

Linking public broadcasting stations and their university partners since 2001

Licensees: Friends or Foes?

by Linda Carr, Carr Communications

Imagine this scenario: A major underwriter has been lured to a station. This company has agreed to underwrite the majority of administrative costs, including studio and tower rental, utilities and support services such as accounting, legal and cleaning. In addition, the underwriter will be providing a healthy chunk of change to help fund general operating costs.

The method of reinforcement? The benevolent soul is completely ignored. No thank you letters. No telephone calls. No personal invitations to station functions. No copies of listener letters, press releases or other promotional materials. No Christmas gift. No method of determining the degree of satisfaction on the underwriter’s part prior to contract renewal. In fact, the station offers none of the amenities that are afforded even the most nominal of underwriters.

Sound bizarre? Yet it has been happening for years and continues to happen daily in institutionally-licensed situations. The reality is: The single largest investor in the station is quite often the licensee, itself. Yet that entity receives the least recognition for its investment.

The genesis of this behavior is easily explained and not at all malevolent. In fact, it is actually well intentioned. Managers have been so fearful that the licensee will begin demanding control over the programming (and rightfully so in some cases) that in an attempt to preserve the integrity of the program schedule, some have become overly protective. When carried too far, an adversarial relationship has been formed with the licensee.

Unfortunately, due to decreasing enrollments and dwindling public funding, the lack of strong relationships with licensees is being translated into budgetary reductions to public radio and public television stations all over the United States. Stations are now, literally, paying for an overly protective tendency in regard to that entity which owns the station’s most important document-its license.

This is certainly not to say that stations should bear total responsibility for the current dilemma. Licensees are also at fault. Several decades ago when institutions were getting into the business of public broadcasting there was ample money available for such things. Often there was enthusiasm on the part of the licensee for the potential of the technology. However, there was little

understanding of public broadcasting’s purpose or how the station might fit into the mission of the institution.

Without clear direction and support, most stations licensed to institutions have been living a schizophrenic existence since their inception. On the one hand, a public station must provide the best possible programming alternative to its audience. On the other hand, the station is licensed to the institution. What responsibility does that carry with it? Is it enough to provide a top-notch service, offering an 18 – 24 hour, 365-day per year presence in the community for the licensee? If the station is licensed to a university should that station also offer to train students? Teach courses? Should events and programming related to the institution be included in the schedule? Should the station aggressively seek faculty to serve as program hosts to make the community aware of academic pursuits that might be of general interest? Or would faculty see that as a demand on time that is already too scarce? If a station endeavors to involve the institution actively in programming, how can the independence and integrity of the programming be ensured? Clearly, the station walks a fine line, with vast potential for differences in priorities on the part of it and its licensee.

To make matters worse, even if a manager and his or her staff have worked diligently to form a strong relationship with the decision-maker at the licensee, the station’s future is not guaranteed. Let’s assume for a moment that a university station attempts to build a relationship with the licensee from “point zero” and that the process requires two years. At best, the station might expect to enjoy the fruits of its labors for two or three years. The reason is that leaders of institutions of higher learning currently remain in a position on an average of four years. This means that before a station is a decade old, it might have had the “opportunity” to become acquainted with the ever different priorities and management styles of three different presidents.

The reporting structure may have changed even more frequently. Because the station might not clearly fit into the mission of the organization and because of the lack of understanding of public broadcasting, a station is often seen as a liability rather than the asset that it is. It is, therefore, moved from department to department. Often, the person who inherits the station is someone who is either weak or is not in good favor with the administration, the station being seen as a penalty for past indiscretions by that particular administrator. Additionally, the arrival of each new president and each change in reporting structure might well have brought with it a mandate to justify the station’s existence. This process requires reams of paper documentation, countless hours of effort and takes its toll on the manager’s psyche.

Operating from a chronic defensive posture only makes the situation worse by wasting valuable time and talent. At best, it is frustrating. At worst, talented managers will leave the public broadcasting industry for jobs in the private sector that are financially more rewarding and psychologically less draining.

Is there an answer to this dilemma? There can be, but first more questions must be asked in order to get at the heart of the matter. We must, in fact, be careful to avoid treating the symptoms before we have isolated the disease. Basic questions include: Is an institutional setting the right place for a public station in the first place? Can a public station ever fit comfortably within an institutional setting? If so, how does it successfully do that? And how does it secure its future beyond a four-year time span? If a station cannot fit comfortably within an institutional structure, what are the options? Close the station down? Move to a community-licensed status? Assume a compromise position in which the licensee continues providing indirect support but the station garners direct support from other revenue sources? As you can see, it is a complicated task even to formulate the right questions in order to pursue a possible cure. And the cure will not be the same for all stations.

To address these and other questions, a dialogue must be initiated between public broadcasting and representatives of institutional licensees. A line of communication must be opened between public broadcasting and the academic arena, both on the national and local levels. (Were this a personal situation, a marriage counselor would be in order.) We should then identify the needs and goals of licensees, as well as the assets, mandates and constraints that public stations bring with them. It is only then that we can determine how these findings can be meshed so that the end result is either a strong symbiotic relationship between a station and its licensee, or so that the station moves to a higher degree of independence, perhaps under another license.

Until a mechanism is established to open a dialogue, there are things a manager can do to make the present more pleasant and the future more secure. The following are a few suggestions that can help stabilize a station’s future:

  1. Read the institution’s mission statement and determine how the station might fit into the mission and how the station can help the licensee accomplish its goals.
  • Treat the licensee with the respect and reinforcement afforded the most significant of underwriters.
  • In consultation with staff, devise a set of procedures by which the station can open up communication with the licensee and more firmly entrench itself within the institutional structure.
  • Compile a written statement of worth that speaks to both the qualitative and, especially, to the quantitative worth of the station to the licensee. Then present the findings to the institution on an annual basis.
  • Explore methods for reaping full potential from existing revenue streams in order to lessen dependence on licensee support.

These fundamental remedies are designed to strengthen the relationship with the licensee while simultaneously lessening dependence on that entity. It is only by attaining a certain degree of independence from the licensee that we will ultimately gain more security. We must increase support from noninstitutional revenue streams and further diversify our income sources so that we can build a stronger foundation for the future. By exerting more control over our own destinies, we will not be at the whim of new university leaders or changing priorities of governmental agencies.