For over three-and-half decades Current newspaper has been journal of record for public broadcasting. People working in public radio and television have counted on Current’s coverage to stay up-to-date on changes, issues and new ideas. Current is often the sole voice for this key information.
Recently, Current has won praise for adding new digital features such as The Pub podcast, screenings on OVEE, Currently Curious and the social media campaign (#IamPublicMedia).
But, Current may disappear if people do not step up and support the publication by subscribing. Julie Drizin, Executive Director of Current, puts it this way:
“We are about to find out if the people working in public media will support other public media organizations.”
In a recent interview, Drizin said a variety of factors have led to this existential situation:
• Like most print publications, Current has been disrupted by digital and mobile technology. Print circulation has dropped from a high of around 6,300 paying subscribers 15 years ago, to 2,500 subscribers now.
• The majority of Current’s subscription revenue has always flowed from stations, but many public media organizations are buying fewer subscriptions for their employees.
• Current’s online presence has been free and people have gotten used to it. Even though online usage is strong, advertisers have been reluctant to spend as much on digital ads than they did on print ads.
• The Great Recession of 2008 – 2009 hit Current particularly hard. Revenue from advertising and subscriptions fell and they didn’t return to prior levels.
• Support for Current by the Wyncote Foundation is tapering off.
• The cost of doing business continues to rise.
KEN’S NOTE: Like many of you, I was once a subscriber to the paper version of Current. But, let my subscription lapse because I read Current online. I wasn’t alone. Once approximately 1,000 individuals subscribed to Current. According to Drizin, the number is barely 300 today.
INSIDE CURRENT’S FINANCES
According to Drizin, Current’s annual operating budget is around $1.1 million, an amount typical of a small or medium sized public radio station.
Revenue comes from three major sources: subscriptions, paid advertising and grants from the Wyncote Foundation, based in Philadelphia [link]. Subscriptions account for about 12% of Current’s revenue, hence the sustainability problem. Subscribers and ads brought in about half a million dollars last year.
Wyncote has been particularly generous to Current. In 2011 and 2012 Current was going through a number of big changes. WNET transferred “stewardship” (meaning fiduciary responsibility) of Current to American University’s School of Communication, where it remains today. Editor Steve Behrens retired and longtime reporter Karen Everhart became the new managing editor.
Wyncote recognized the importance of Current to public media, stepped in to provide bridge funding for the transitions and the transformation to a digital-first news source that is self-sustaining.
According to information on the Wyncote website, in fiscal year 2015, the Foundation provided $467,077 in support. In fiscal year 2016 that number grew to 638,142. But, in fiscal year 2017, Wyncote’s grant dropped to $275,407, and that amount will decline further in the next two years.
Moving forward, Wyncote has given Current a commitment for a new three-year grant for $1.2 million. They want Current to nearly triple their subscriber revenue over the three-year period. And, Wyncote wants to see a big jump in subscribers during the next 9 months. Drizin described Wyncote’s challenge:
“Wyncote wants us to increase revenue from all sources. If we don’t, we may need to cut back on our services, precisely at a time when we should be expanding them.”
ENTER THE PAYWALL
Recently Current changed its business plan and began requiring subscriptions for access to news content. Visitors to Current’s website can now view three articles per month before the paywall kicks in. Subscribers have the option for a print and/or digital subscription for $89.00 a year or a one-month digital subscription for $10.00.
Discounts are available for advertisers, stations that purchase group access for employees and licensee board members. Access to job listings and Current’s podcast The Pub are free. More information about subscriptions is available here.
Drizin described the changes as an opportunity to get more public media people involved:
“We are truly excited to finally give you a chance to help fund all of our content that you enjoy. We gave our content away for free, just as public radio and TV do. But that’s no longer an option for Current. The future of Current is up to you, the people of public media.”
The key words in Drizin’s announcement are “fund all of our content.” This fight for Current’s future began then.
Current’s job now is to convince the estimated 25,000 who work in public radio and television to become subscribers. This means overcoming a couple of prevalent myths: Current is supported by CPB, and American University provides direct financial support.
Neither of these misconceptions are true. Decades ago, CPB did underwrite publication of important projects, such as David Giovannoni’s research about public radio listeners. However, CPB does not fund Current, beyond having a basic subscription. AU provides Current in-kind services and a connection to a School of Communications, but does not provide any cash.
SYSTEM SUPPORT FOR CURRENT
During the course of assembling this article I was in touch with several public radio leaders and I asked them for thoughts about the importance of Current to the system. Here are a few of the responses:
“For years, Current has been such a valuable publication for public radio and public television and digital media. It provides industry-wide news and updates on emerging issues, plus important think pieces from public media veterans including Mark Fuerst, Tom Thomas, Mike Arnold and others. I'd hate to see it fold.”
Jo Anne Wallace
Jo Anne Wallace
Vice President & General Manager, Radio
“In my early days in public media (now, more than 30 years ago) Current was an important tool in learning about public media and the key events and issues in the ecosystem. More than 30 years later I still read Current and cannot imagine being without a source of information about public media.”
President, USC Radio
"Current in an invaluable resource for public media. I have been in and out of public radio for years, but I have continued to subscribe to keep up on important news, trends, research, jobs, and people moves. How would we learn and share what's happening in our field without Current? I can't imagine that!"
Managing Director, Classical Music Rising