University Station Alliance

Linking public broadcasting stations and their university partners since 2001

Managing a Budget Cut

The following recommendations are from a session at the PRDMC where Pat Monteith, WUMB-FM, Boston, MA, General Manager; and John Hess, KUNI/KUNY-FM, Cedar Falls, IA, General Manager, were panelists. Pat offers sage advice to help managers avoid making mistakes when emotions can easily supersede one’s normally objective approach to management.

1.    Don’t panic – when you panic, you do dumb things.

  • The possibility of budget cuts don’t happen over night – you usually know there’s a crisis happening around you — state budget crisis, dropping enrollment, a major event has happened on campus that you know will take lots of money to repair (cooling chillers on top of state budget problems, on top of decreases in enrollment, on top of early retirements), etc.  Hopefully you’ve prepared your staff for the possibility this might happen.
  • If you’ve been called into a meeting to be told about the cut…ask for a day or two to absorb the info — and set up a meeting at another time to discuss this further.
  • DO NOT REACT OR OVER-REACT IMMEDIATLEY. Try to be sympathetic…”I’m sure it was difficult for you to tell me this.” “This doesn’t come as a total surprise…(let them know you are aware of the specifics of some of the problems…let’s them know you’re on top of things).
  • Let your staff know immediately – this is not something to keep secret – People are more afraid of the unknown than of the known. And the sooner they know the magnitude of the problem, the sooner they can think about solutions. The unknown magnifies fear and encourages rumors. Not knowing the magnitude of a problem increases staff’s frustration; one can neither estimate its impact nor begin to seek solutions. Also, if staff find out from someone else they’ll be very upset and suspicious that their job is in jeopardy. You need to let those whose jobs are in jeopardy know…as well as those whose jobs are secure.
  • When cutbacks occur – don’t whine or bad-mouth the administration. Continue to conduct yourself professionally and instruct your employees to do the same. The cutbacks are most likely not personal, and do not reflect a complete disregard of your years of hard work. Individuals just like you must make tough decisions during periods of cutback and they don’t deserve personal attack and criticism.
  • If you found out by memo…set up a meeting with your boss to ask questions and discuss options. Is this a final budget cut? When will it take place? Is there something you can do or someone you can talk with to change the situation? Where does your department stand for future cuts (1st on the list…or last on the list?) Can you have some control over how the cuts are made – if salaried positions get cut…can you use other funds to save these positions? Again, involve your staff before you meet with your boss so you can collect their questions and get them answered. And, they may think of things to ask you haven’t.
  • You must have a unified voice: if there is dissension within your radio station about how to handle cutbacks, keep it behind closed doors. In public, all staff should communicate the same message.

2.  Adopt a constructive mindset.

  • Engage in image-building immediately and on a continuous basis. People generally don’t have the faintest idea what you do or how great you are unless they see it or are told about it. Many organizations labor in virtual obscurity, provide wonderful services, and are dumbfounded when they receive cuts.
  • Situations involving cutbacks often present unusual opportunities to highlight the quality and excellence of your program and services to high-ranking individuals. It is an opportunity to educate and inform individuals about your department or organization. In fact, if well done, it can enhance the image of your organization.
  • In every tragedy, there is an opportunity – in this case, a fundraising opportunity. For example, it’s a good excuse for another on-air fundraiser – share the problem with your listeners – let them be a part of the solution. You also have a compelling case that can be made through a direct mail appeal for additional $$$$$$$. This situation might also help you garner additional in-kind donations.
  • If you approach it in the right way, this crisis kind of crisis can become a good staff team-building exercise.
  • This is an excuse to partner with other departments on campus…and maybe get some allies for the future. In addition, try to gather information on other departments that are incurring budget cuts

3.  Explore options.

  • Have a “focus,” – present your station as unique, dynamic and high-profile. You want to show you have a kind of service that individuals don’t want to lose, because it “showcases” the university in some manner that is valuable.
  • Do a cost-value analysis of all your programming – include Arbitron data, fundraising statistics, listener feedback on programming, any surveys you’ve done – to determine if all the shows are cost effective. Maybe this is the time to make some program changes. Make sure you check out the hidden costs.
  • Cost-value out your ancillary services and special events. Is it really worth your effort and costs to get involved in that annual festival you produce, or duplicating service?
  • Again…involved your staff in coming up with solutions. It will make them feel like they have some control over the situation.

4.  Think like the licensee.

  • One of the most critical elements of an effective cutback response is the ability to see things from “management’s” point of view and to craft a response that caters to their agenda, their needs, their vision. What is the strategic vision for your university? How can your department tie into that vision, making you a more valuable resource, and less likely to be eliminated or further reduced?
  • Don’t ask for future promises. If things really are bad…administrators can’t predict the future…short term or long term.
  • Don’t put them in a position to have to guess or worse…to lie to you.
  • Cutbacks often involve eliminating or reducing a large number of units or departments all at the same time. As a result, many cutback responses may come back to those making final decisions, also at the same time. Although you would like to think that your cutback response would receive Your response may be skimmed very quickly; so it should be hard-hitting but brief. Begin with a one- page bulleted summary of your major points — included attachments; but keep the main response very short.
  • When building your cutback strategy, develop a first-choice response, as well as a fall-back position. In other words, if your initial request/response is rejected, counter with an alternative scenario.
  • If you’ve already proved your worth on campus by doing things like providing successful spots for enrollment services, ask if they can convert some of their advertising money into spots on the station…at a reduced rate. An increase in enrollment could help ease future fiscal burdens.

5.  Illustrate that you’re a good campus citizen.

  • When cutbacks occur, they may initially affect other departments with which you are aligned. You may be exempt from the first round of cuts. However, watch these developments closely, and offer support to the other departments. Be extremely concerned and involved when your neighbors begin to take hits, because you may be next. Give the support you would expect from other departments were the situation reversed.
  • If you haven’t done it before — now is the time to be pro-active and visual – make sure as many people as possible see you as being part of the solution…and not part of the problem. Get yourself and your staff involved in as many activities and committees, as possible – offer to help find solutions – especially if it will bring you closer to “those in charge”. It’s harder for them to make cuts to someone they know and consider to be a positive part of the campus.
  • Ask what you can do to help? If a state institution, can you and your staff make calls to your local legislatures…or send a letter out to your members to ask them to do so?
  • Share/remind the licensee of your demographics. Give them spare inventory for enrollment or continuing education messages – again, an increase in enrollment will help ease future fiscal burdens. Make sure they see the value of the spots you’ve run on their behalf. Involve them in creating the message content…or prepare it for them based on the programs you know your audience might respond to – you want to make it a win-win!!
  • Figure out ways to help replace some of the “campus life” that might be sustaining budget cuts. If activities on campus will be reduced, call in a few favors to do some lunch-time concerts on the plaza to help with staff morale – AND MAKE SURE YOU HAVE PLENTY OF SIGNAGE.

6.  Buy insurance.

  • Find ways to get campus faculty and staff involved with the challenges of running your station. Particularly target senior, well-known, and highly regarded faculty.
  • Ask important faculty, staff, and administrators to record pitches for the next fundraiser – provide them with “key” talking points…things about the station they may not know about you.
  • “Make the ask, or “ask for the order” – ask faculty who have come down to tape a news interview to say a few good words about the station the next time they’re talking with administrators.
  • Ask your boss or the president/chancellor to attend an important underwriting or grant solicitation meeting with you to help make the “ask”. If you’re lucky and (s)he can take time out of the schedule to do so, that individual will see you’re trying to control your own destiny and will become a supporter in the process.
  • Hold an “open house” and invite key staff/faculty for a tour of the facility.
  • Send out a letter to key people on campus, offering to provide tours of the station to boy/girl scout troops they are involved with – it will get them down to the station where you can “make the case” during the tour. Oh! And make sure the kids have something to take away with them that they’ll use (not just a program guide…a tape of their voice?).
  • Stations are very careful to avoid putting university-related programming on the air that doesn’t have broad appeal. If you’ve been reluctant to get involved with airing commencement – offer to air the main speech the day after the event…with the chancellor coming down to record the intro…in exchange for an ad in the commencement book encouraging commencement folks to tune in to hear the whole speech again.
  • FIND ANY EXCUSE TO INVOLVE SOMEONE ON CAMPUS… ask your staff for ideas to get them involved also – give your staff some control.
  • Connect with individuals who will be influential in cutback decisions. Right now, build bridges and connect with the individuals who will make budget decisions in the future. Make a point of informing them about the excellence of your programs and services, invite them to events and meetings. Establish the credibility and excellence of programs in advance with those in power.
  • Maintain a reservoir of information. You should immediately gather, prepare and organize a file of information that can be used for a data-based, comprehensive response to cutbacks. Cutbacks often occur quickly, and departments may not have adequate time to prepare a well-organized and thorough response. Every station should have in place an organized file of information, as well as a drafted response that can be used in the event of cutback announcements. The time allowed to prepare a response to cutback announcements is often just a few days. The “cutback response” file should include data that show growth, excellence, need, awards, recognition and achievements, legal mandates for services, political mandates for services, background on notable staff- and a thorough rationale for the existence of the organization and having it remain intact.