Tuesday, September 15, 2015


[Reader no-doze alert: Today’s column contains plenty of bureaucrats, university governance systems and broadcasters who toil to serve the greater public. Though boring, this is a vital part of noncom media.]

One of the least known and most important noncom trade groups – the University-Station Alliance (“USA”) – recently released a survey of leaders at university licensed stations indicating considerable management turnover in the next few years. Here are the details:

Universities were and still are the backbone of the public radio system. When the CPB-funded system began in the 1970s, many universities upgraded their stations by hiring more fulltime staff and adopting professional broadcasting standards. Today 63% of public radio stations are licensed to universities, schools and state agencies.

USA [link] was founded in 2001 to assist stations and their licensees develop effective plans for governance, station autonomy and public service. This is important because university leaders and boards typically are not broadcasters. In some cases, universities hamper the wise use of the public media outlets they own.


Craig Beeby, former GM on KOSU, Stillwater, is the founding President and Executive Director of USA. According to Beeby, many baby-boomer managers will be exiting and their replacements may not be ready to step up. The USA survey showed that three out of four current managers said that successors are not being trained to take over after they leave:

Beeby says the problem isn’t the lack of people in the management pipeline. The need is for mid-career on-the-job training opportunities for those who want to move up:


BEEBY: There are plenty of capable younger managers out there [but] current managers are not training their successors. How to successfully work within complicated governance systems. [New managers] need this capability.  It is a skill that is difficult to train for and learn. Having worked behind the scenes is critical to success.

Some shops have glass ceilings because current managers have remained in their chairs for a long time. In other situations the current manager has developed an intuitive understanding of how university licensee works.  This context needs to be passed on.


University governance of stations comes in many flavors.  Some university stations exist in far-flung corners of the bureaucracy, typically in semi-independent foundations. These arrangements are typically successful because they allow independent decision-making.

Often university stations are administered by academic departments and “Dean-ships.” This can get ugly.  When I managed KCSN at CSUN in LA it was jointly overseen by two competing departments: Journalism and Radio/TV/Film. There had been years of conflict and hard feelings between the departments that manifested themselves at the most inconvenient times.

From what I’ve seen, the most problematic university-station relationships are at places where development, fundraising and publicity are in charge of stations and other media. I asked Beeby about KUNC GM Neil Best's famous quote:

At a university licensee you are only one new vice president away from oblivion.

Until 2001, KUNC was owned by the University of Northern Colorado. One morning Neil Best came to work and had a major surprise. A new university VP told Best that the station had been sold to Colorado Public Radio. Best was likely out of a job.

In case you don’t know the story, Best organized a community group, nixed the CPR deal and the organization purchased KUNC from the university.  We covered this story in May [link].

I asked Craig Beeby if this risk is prevalent today:

Neil’s comment still echoes today, but, in reality, there are more successes than failures. It is often a more complex than the KUNC situation. Sometimes the best thing that can happen is when a threat to [the station’s] existence occurs.
No university wants it to become common knowledge that they considered “pulling the plug”. Why? Because [in] their review process, they come to understand the public media’s importance.  That is why the USA was created. It is also why you almost never hear the success stories, which are numerous.
So, the current state of university-station relations is dynamic. It always has been and always will be.
For more information about the University Station Alliance, contact Craig Beeby
 at craig.usa@att.net or go to the USA website [link].


  1. I love the USA. They provided one of the most useful passages I've ever seen in explaining how problematic university ownership can be here: http://www.us-alliance.org/IPC/ur_ua03.doc It zeros in on something most non-university people...even within a radio station owned by a university...have a hard time understanding: the President doesn't matter. Not much, anyways. Presidents have bigger problems to deal with than the radio station (at least, you better hope things stay that way!). No, what really matters are the Vice Presidents. They're the ones that rarely understand what the station does, but are routinely under enormous pressure from many different directions to "perform". And "perform" usually translates into "raise money for the college" (in one way or another).

    It's so good, hopefully Craig won't mind me posting it here as well:

    Over the past two decades as a station general manager at one institution, (this author has) worked under no fewer than five full-time or interim presidents, and I have gotten along with them all, more or less. Each seemed to respect the importance of public radio to the university and the community. Some enjoyed the classical programming. All enjoyed the news. Most were contributing members. Each had a minor grumble now and then, but there were never issues that couldn't be resolved.

    More importantly, they all had much bigger fish to worry about than a public radio station.

    During that same time period, however, I have had seven or more vice presidents, and each one of them pretty much found themselves having to deal with something they didn't really understand. From my perception and based upon their practices, each VP had the same charge: elevate the institution's image, engage its alumni, and raise money.

    If the station didn't appear to engage and support those three mandates, then it was either perceived as “problematic” or relegated to a "subordinate agenda" status.

    Part of the problem, I think, centers on differing agendas. The station's agenda essentially is customer-focused and external. The university's agenda essentially is institution-centered.

    From the university's perspective, the station benefits from the "leverage" the university provides: support services (both direct and indirect), funding, institutional affiliation, and protection. Also from the university's perspective, it may appear that the university does not receive a like return on that leverage.

    From the station's perspective, the university may be viewed as a slow bureaucracy that:
    1) Doesn't understand the nature or functioning of a radio station,
    2) Mandates inefficiencies through institution-focused protocols, policies, and personnel protections, and
    3) Tries to "leverage" station resources (particularly station personnel, member/contributor databases, outreach efforts, advertising and programming) to the university’s own, rather than mutual, advantage.

  2. Speaking very broadly, there's two other aspects of colleges/universities I've found play particularly poorly when it comes to public radio.

    First is that people tend to view universities as monolithic institutions when more often they are a large group of smaller, highly segregated, institutions. Each academic department, each administrative department, each athletic sport...they're all fighting each other internally for power, prestige and funding. So getting in the good graces of one group does little to help in working with other groups. In fact, depending on the politics of the moment, it can actively hurt you. Similarly, a college's endowment may be a huge number but it's not one number; it's thousands of much smaller investments all added up for marketing purposes. And many, if not most, of those investments are rigidly controlled about how they can and cannot be spend. In some states, if the value of those investments is underwater (a common problem since 2008 or so) you can't touch the principal, or even the interest generated off the principle. That can paralyze a major source of funding for any one affected party within a college. Now multiply that by hundreds, if not thousands of investments and affected parties/departments.

    This is why it's always a good thing to be on good terms with a University president. But only in the sense that it's better than being on bad terms. Being on good terms will do little to help you in real ways during a problem, much less a crisis.

    Second is that there's a persistent mindset of "collaboration" within academia. All viewpoints are welcome. All participants are equal. "Synergy" is highly valued. So people are always trying to figure out a way for a station to "partner" with them. Up to and including an idea that always seems good but can be a horrible trap for everyone involved unless you're VERY careful: the LMA.

    The problem is that the core missions of a public radio station (esp. a news station) and a college are diametrically opposed to each other, but it's not obvious as such until a crisis hits. Like when (not if) a student on campus sexually assaults another student, and the story becomes newsworthy for whatever reason. Suddenly the college has a hard time understanding why the radio station is unfairly attacking their partner with all this negative coverage that's hurting enrollment and marketing efforts. And the station is wondering why on earth this Communications Director is being such a douchebag and insisting that the station sweep this big story under the rug...don't they know anything about journalism?

    Or the station needs to spend $100,000 on a new transmitter to replace the failing 20 year old transmitter, and the college is like "you can have a new transmitter, or we can keep having a chemistry department...you're not getting a new transmitter. Besides everything is going on the web these days anyways."

    Whenever a station partners with a university, it's exceedingly important to know who the stakeholders are (often many of them aren't at the table initially, and may not even realize they're stakeholders until much later in the process) and have them all be very clear about exactly what each side is expecting to get out of the partnership, and what they're NOT willing to give. And sometimes that means backing things off a lot, or even entirely. The urge to collaborate just for the sake of collaboration has to constantly be fought against; you've got to have reasons that both sides are comfortable with.

    (note: I have a lot of experience in this realm, but don't necessarily take what I'm saying as indicative my current or previous academic experiences; I've also spoken at length with many other souls at college-owned stations, some of which have had very positive experiences...others with very negative. This is a broad amalgamation of those discussions and my own experiences.)