pubcasting feels the pinch

Brent Finnegan -- December 24th, 2008

More bad news from the public broadcasting industry in a souring economy: stations across the country are laying off employees, and WMRA posted “a more urgent request than the usual public radio fundraising message.” Full disclosure: I’m a JMU employee, a WMRA member, and I was laid off from a local pubcasting station last year.

Mike Janssen of Current.org reports that staff cuts have recently been announced at WGBH, WITF, WVIA, WBEZ, Maine Public Broadcasting Network, and KVIE:

Stations from Maine to California are paring staffs in response to declines in most major streams of income — underwriting, foundation support, donations from individuals and state appropriations.

While no staff cuts have recently been announced at WMRA in Harrisonburg, Tom DuVal, GM of WMRA, is urgently imploring listeners to pledge:

Support from listeners is down somewhat from last year. Grant funding has been cut by nearly $10,000. And the largest impact has come from decreased local business support. If listener and business fundraising continues at the rate seen in the first half of this fiscal year, we are projecting a deficit in the neighborhood of more than $200,000 by June.

We have already taken steps to reduce the deficit by eliminating all unnecessary expenses and cutting staff salaries by 10%. Even this is not enough, and we are considering layoffs that will affect our ability to maintain the highest quality of programming that you expect and deserve from us.

You’ll know this is serious when I tell you that we are also looking at what programs we might have to drop from the schedule by the end of January.

This is the most critical need we have had in 15 years.

DuVal mentions the current “economic climate” as a major factor in WMRA’s recent drop in funding, but I can’t help but see this in the context of the escalating news crisis.

10 Responses to “pubcasting feels the pinch”

  1. Josh says:

    How does JMU support WMRA? Physical space? Salaries? Programming budget?

  2. Good question, Josh. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I should know, but I don’t. According to the WMRA website, JMU holds the FCC licenses for the WMRA stations (even though EMU still owns WEMC, WMRA just manages WEMC). All the WMRA email addresses are jmu.edu addresses.

    The DNR has called WMRA “James Madison University’s public radio station.”

  3. Justin says:

    Is public radio going the way of the newspaper? Online podcasting?

    Admittedly, I know very little about how public radio works, how shows are paid for, how content is created, etc.

    What content does WMRA produce on it’s own?

    Is bandwidth and server storage space more expensive cheaper than broadcasting equipment and engineers? WMRA wouldn’t have to maintain their own servers and may even get it donated by the hosting company.

  4. JB says:

    In sad, but rough terms, public radio is going the way of passive, tolerant religions, intellectual societies, and communal, non-egocentric cultures.

    That is to say, because humans respond best to primitive impulses, aggression and self-centered idealism usually prevails.

    In an aggressive Christian based capitalistic society there is no room for tolerance. Its “dog eat dog” “win or lose.”

    Public radio is failing because their intelligent listeners are much more passive than the primitive, aggressive Foxnews listener. Call it social Darwinism.

  5. Tom DuVal says:

    Answers to questions…
    JMU does hold the licenses for the WMRA stations. EMU holds the WEMC license. Longwood U holds the WMLU license in Farmville.

    WMRA staff are JMU employees. JMU gives WMRA $125,000 per year, and charges WMRA $83,683 for space. This is actually a reimbursement to JMU for JMU’s upfront payment for the renovation of the building that JMU made WMRA move into a few years ago. WMRA paid $200,000 down on the “loan,” plus WMRA paid for most of the equipment and furnishings (about another $125,000 – $52,000 of which was a federal grant). WMRA paid the first $83,683 payment last year. JMU was kind enough to postpone the second payment, which was due in April 09, until April 10 because of WMRA’s budget problems. WMRA owes JMU 7 more payments of that amount, after which JMU will begin charging WMRA “rent” for the building at current market rates, which will be in the neighborhood of $80,000 per year again, for the duration of WMRA’s occupancy of the building.

    JMU provides support services, since WMRA is a department of JMU – i.e. payroll, HR, utilities, housekeeping, plowing, trash and recycling pickup, most building maintenance services, etc.

    JMU also provides the streaming services for WMRA and WEMC. The number of concurrent listeners is limited to 100, and if demand starts to exceed that regularly, WMRA will most likely have to start paying for streaming capacity.

    JMU does *not* pay salaries or programming costs or anything else beyond the $125,000, most of which is returned to JMU as loan or rent payments.

    So far public radio in general has bucked the trend of declining audiences/readership of other news media. Public radio’s national audience grew by several percentage points in the past year. NPR and most stations that are having to make major cuts are suffering from loss of business support much more than loss of listener support, including WMRA.

    WMRA gets audience data only twice a year. The audience had been in decline for 2-3 years, which was part of the reason programming was changed in Jan. 08. With only one Arbitron survey (Spring 08) since the change, it’s too soon to see if the audience decline has reversed. The next data (Fall 08) will be out in Feb. 09.

    WMRA purchases programming from NPR and some other suppliers at a cost of nearly $200,000 per year. Two-thirds of that is for the NPR news programs. WMRA produces all of the non-classical music programming (except two hours) and two of the five nights of classical. And “Virginia Insight,” “Civic Soapbox” and regional news stories by Martha Woodroof and Tom Graham. “Local news” is by far the most expensive programming on most public radio stations.

    I read into one comment a hint that online “broadcasting” might replace over-the-air. Perhaps in some years. But not until folks can push a single button in the car and hear the online station of their choice, and not until every room in the house can have an internet radio, and not until a podcast can be played as easily as turning on the FM radio at the moment the impulse moves you to want to hear something. And not until internet radios are cheap enough that people buy enough of them to replace the many traditional radio sets they have in their lives. That may be 3 years or 30 years.

    I appreciate the interest and concern about WMRA’s financial situation. Contributions are of course most welcome! And if you control the purse strings of a business, professional office or other organization that would like to help out in excahnge for on-air acknowledgments, please contact the station at 800-677-9672.

  6. Thanks for the information, Tom.

  7. johan says:

    yeah, justin, some are going the way of the podcast–
    our favs include all songs considered’s live concert podcast and sound opinions.
    these national programs alone make me chill at the thought of pub broadcasting crises; and i’d love to see what folks could do locally to bring wxjm, wmra, etc. into new media arenas.

  8. Bubby says:

    Tom: I’m hoping that JMU will see Public Radio as an essential extension of the University mission, every bit as essential as other public extension efforts from State Universities. Public Radio facilitates a level of community conversation that adds to the quality of life, and makes the Shenandoah Valley a better place to live. Good PR attracts good citizens.

    The change in daytime programming was a great move, lots of in-depth news and interview programs, and it off-sets what WVTF is broadcasting.

    One thing I believe you are missing is attractive evening programming. The 8 to 12 slot could be filled with a simulcast of Charlie Perkinson’s fantastic Jazz Tonight program. That show alone keeps many radios tuned to PR for local programming, and has ignited an interest in live jazz around the Roanoke Valley. Every time I hear Rockingham County legend Royce Campbell’s jazz guitar on Perkinson’s show I wonder why this great musician doesn’t get more play in his back yard.

    In times like this I encourage WMRA to reach out not just to your listeners, but also to your sister NPR stations. I would be happy to make the introductions.

  9. Tom DuVal says:

    Bubby – thanks for the supportive comments and the suggestions. I will quote you when making the case to the JMU powers!

    We chose to keep classical music in the evenings because WVTF does not air classical then, so people will have a choice of jazz or classical in most of our coverage area (WEMC airs jazz from 7-9 pm). I appreciate the suggestion, but simulcasting with WVTF in the evening would not make sense in areas where WVTF is also available, which is about 3/4 of our population coverage.

    Looking back at the Arbitron data in recent years for the Augusta and Rockbridge areas (WVTF doesn’t show any significant audience in Rockingham), WMRA outdraws WVTF from 8-midnight by a large amount. In the Charlottesville area WMRA is behind but not by much.

    Keep the suggestions coming. We’re always looking for ideas.

  10. Josh says:

    Tom, Thanks for the information!

    FYI: For those of you that contribute money to JMU, you can designate WMRA by entering “WMRA 14858” on your contribution card.

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