Public radio feels budget squeeze

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Posted by on March 19, 2009 at 10:07:06:

Public radio feels budget squeeze
Pat Schneider TCT 3/19/2009 9:05 am

Count Wisconsin Public Radio among the media outlets feeling the pinch from the sour economy.

Support in February's pledge drive, when program hosts solicit (and solicit) listeners for donations, actually exceeded its goal of $800,000, raising a total $878,000. But a pledge drive launched last fall, just as stock market losses signaled the depth of the economic downturn, missed its goal, said WPR acting director Mike Crane. And end of year gifts, when listeners who pledge their support during the on-air drives often give again in a mail campaign, were disappointing. All in all, fundraising from listeners is $300,000 off pace this year, Crane reported.

Add to that $150,000 in projected cuts in state funding, and venerable WPR, first licensed to the University of Wisconsin in 1915, and a $45,000 shortfall in corporate underwriting and WPR is looking at about a half-million-dollar drop from anticipated revenues this year on an operating budget of $11.4 million.

WPR joins public radio stations across the country, and the National Public Radio network, in struggling to cut costs and boost income as the economy strains traditional revenue sources.

"It's fair to say that the crisis is having some sort of effect on all of our member stations," said Dana Davis Rehm, senior vice president of communications, marketing and external relations for National Public Radio.

"Nationwide, I can't say the sky is falling, but I can say the forecast for the rest of the year and next year is causing very deep concern. The revenue streams for public radio are under pressure," said Rehm, who was director of WPR from 1998 to 2001. Overall, stations are expecting about a 7 percent reduction in revenue in 2009 and a 10 percent reduction in 2010, Rehm said.

Some stations are using benefit cuts, furloughs and compensation reductions to limit layoffs. But public radio stations in Boston, Chicago, Sacramento, Calif., Pennsylvania and Maine have cut staff. The pinch is being felt at NPR too, where a 30 percent drop in corporate underwriting forced cutting 64 jobs and two programs.

"The irony is that public radio is growing and very healthy in terms of its audience," she said. "Everybody is very focused on maintaining ground level membership and trying new techniques for listeners who haven't given before."

Any look at the workings of WPR has to begin with a sketch of its complicated structure. WPR operates its network of 29 stations as a joint program of the Educational Communications Board, a state agency, and University of Wisconsin-Extension, the outreach arm of the University of Wisconsin System. State funding to Wisconsin Public Radio (and Wisconsin Public Television) is funneled through both, and top executives are paid directly by both state organizations, explained Crane. He is WPR's chief operating officer and is filling in for director Phil Corriveau while he is on medical leave.

The complex structure of the organization is a strength, says Ellen Rosewall, president of Wisconsin Public Association, yet another entity in the mix. "We have protected our mission by being diversified," said Rosewall, who heads up the board of directors of the non-profit membership organization that raises money for WPR and is its fiscal agent. "When the economy is bad, we have our income invested in a number of places, we have income coming in from different sources. We're not relying just on audience members," Rosewall said.

One-third of WPR revenue comes from contributions from members (anyone who donates is a member); 22 percent from the state and University of Wisconsin, 10 percent from merchandise and ticket sales, interest earnings, bequests and other sources; 9 percent from corporate underwriting; and 7 percent from federal grants, according to WPR's 2007 annual report, the most recent available.

Rosewall attributes the continuing strong support by listeners to WPR's essential mix of entertainment and information, and the opportunity to participate in conversations on the issues of the day through the network's many call-in talk shows.

While many WPR supporters are financially strapped this year, listeners with secure incomes may even find that this is the time to donate more than ever before, as Jeanne Simpson of Monona did.

Simpson said she has donated smaller amounts to WPR many times over the past two decades, but when she heard tickets to Prairie Home Companion offered as a premium during last month's pledge drive, she wanted to jump at the chance to experience a favorite program in person.

"I gave myself 10 minutes to think about it, and decided 'I can do this,'" she recalled. Simpson reflected that family obligations had left her feeling exhausted, and because she has learned how good helping others can feel, she figured a gift to WPR might be just the thing she needed.

WPR is the station she listens to most, Simpson said, and a matching gift from her employer doubled the bang from her own bucks. "I felt giddy," she said.

The fact that many WPR staff are university employees under contract shapes its approach to belt-tightening. Layoffs are theoretically possible, Crane said, "but the chancellor would have to declare a financial emergency," before contracts would not be renewed.

So, Crane is leaving job openings unfilled to cut operating costs as fund-raising efforts continue, he said. Staff may find their jobs changing a bit in the effort to cover all bases with fewer hands. And the hiring freeze, which will leave a planned internet producer slot unfilled, will slow WPR's efforts to boost its internet presence and capture younger listeners, an important goal for the organization.

Programming content could be affected too, as a local producer slot for National Public Radio's top-rated Morning Edition goes unfilled. "We will lose some ability to improve local aspects of the program, and it won't be right were we aspire it to be," Crane remarked.

Acquired programming, including such audience favorites as "Car Talk" and "Prairie Home Companion" will be "strategically" evaluated. "The budget gives us a filter through which to look at programming," Crane said. "It may well change."

Capital expenses funded through the operating budget, such as the replacement of the broadcast computer system completed this year, also may be delayed.

Crane hopes to have a clearer budget picture within a month, but cautions that there's no telling how quickly the Legislature will pass a budget.

" We're going to deal with the current economy optimistically and thoughtfully and prudently," he said. "We recognize WPR is an unparalleled resource to the state."

For its part, National Public Radio will try to influence federal spending for public radio and lobby Congress for a one-time infusion of funding to assist stations that are suffering, Rehm said.

The network has weathered funding onslaughts from Republican administrations in the past, and is encouraged by the mention of public radio in Obama Administration white pages, she said. "But it's early days for a position on funding."

"The last year has been a very strong year in public radio ndsh we've seen tremendous coverage of word, national and local events," Rehm commented. "There's every indication we're more valuable to people than ever before."

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