A verbal scuffle has broken out in Peoria, Illinois about the future of NPR News/Talk station WCBU 89.9 FM [link] a/k/a Peoria Public Radio.
A report in the Peoria Journal Star published last Tuesday (5/22) blew the lid off years of inaction by Bradley University, the licensee of WCBU.
The most recent dispute involves where WCBU will be located next year when the building that houses the station will be demolished.
According to the report in the Journal Star [link], Bradley University President Gary Roberts said at a recent University Senate meeting that estimates of the cost to move WCBU to a new location were discouraging.
Roberts added that a difficult decisions about the future of WCBU will have to be made.
President Robert’s remarks fit a pattern of benign neglect by Bradley in recent years.
By any measure, WCBU is under-performing:
According to WCBU’s FY 2017 audited financial statement, the station had total revenue of approximately $1.1 million. Listener-sensitive revenue (members and underwriting) was $535,000 (49%); CPB provided $172,000 (16%); Bradley University provided $347,000 (32%). WCBU had a $50,000 deficit in FY 2017.
The amount of support from the University is unusually high. While welcome, this level of licensee support creates dependency that can vanish with the stroke of a pen.
We examined WCBU’s closest public radio neighbor, WGLT in Bloomington/Normal, licensed to Illinois State University. WGLT is based in a market with less half of the population of Peoria. In FY 2017 WGLT had total revenue of $1.8 million, including $843,000 (47%) from listener-sensitive sources; $136,000 (8%) from CPB; and $286,000 (16%) from the University.
|WCBU has excellent coverage of Peoria|
According to Nielsen Audio, WCBU had 27,500 estimated weekly listeners in Fall 2017. In the same survey period, WGLT reached 16,000 weekly listeners in Peoria. A large number of listeners tune to an out-of-market station instead of WCBU.
WCBU has five full-time employees, the minimum number to qualify for CPB support. By comparison, WGLT has 13 full-time staffers. WCBU’s small staff limits the station’s ability to do investigative reporting and local enterprise journalism.
Until a few years ago WCBU was a dual-format station with NPR News and Classical music. In 2011 the station adopted a 24/7 news/talk format and moved Classical to an HD channel. Like most places, HD radio has very few listeners.
WCBU’s schedule looks adequate. They are carrying public radio’s big network shows: 1A, The Takeaway, Wait, Wait… and The Moth Radio Hour. What is missing is locally originated programming about life in Peoria. WCBU needs to become "essential Peoria."
|Downtown Peoria at night, reflected in the Illinois River|
Peoria looks like a good place for public radio to thrive. The metro has around 250,000 people. Though the economy has been uneven in the last decade some sectors are growing such as health care.
To us, it seems that WCBU is not a priority for Bradley University. This is too bad because it could and should be a champion for Peoria's future. Bradley's President Gary Roberts sees WCBU only as a liability. In reality, it could be a key to a better future.
WCBU needs to become an essential part of life in Peoria. President Roberts should either embrace WCBU or let a more competent organization take control of the station.
Roberts should examine the overwhelming success of public radio stations stations at other private universities such as KRCC at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, KCLU at Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks or KLCC at Lane College in Eugene. At these universities, NPR stations bring visibility, goodwill and credibility for everyone involved. That is what people mean when they talk about public radio's "halo effect."