[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.
INSIDE USA & TRAINING NEW LEADERS
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.
LEARNING TO SURVIVE AND PROSPER WITHIN THE UNIVERSITY STRUCTURE
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or go to the USA website [link].