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The Path to Significance

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By Tom Thomas

Not long ago I had the opportunity to work with the board of Southern California Public Radio, the organization created to operate KPCC-FM under an agreement between Minnesota Public Radio and Pasadena Community College. Bill Davis, SCPR’s President, asked me to reflect on the experience of public radio stations that had made a “transformative leap” in their organizational stature to attain genuine significance in the civic or cultural life of their communities.

Bill suggested four organizations to consider:

    Minnesota Public Radio
    Colorado Public Radio
    Chicago Public Radio
    WNYC

Different observers might create a different list and each of these organizations has its detractors as well as its many admirers. But most in our field would place these operations among those defining the higher levels of public radio accomplishment, service, and significance.

I set out to surface the common themes, if any, in the storylines that took each of these groups from their early days to their current performance. I have had occasion to work closely with all of them over the years, so I was able to dig out notes, reports, and various snippets of their histories, both official and less so.

It was soon apparent that there was a remarkable convergence – eight key steps repeated across each group’s history that I have dubbed The Path to Significance.

1. Capacity for independent action
All four of these organizations began as part, sometimes a very small part, of another organization. Minnesota Public Radio was once KSJR, the radio station of St. John’s University. Colorado Public Radio began as KCFR, Denver University’s radio outlet. WBEZ/Chicago Public Radio was owned by the Chicago Board of Education. And WNYC was the broadcast voice of the City of New York.

In different ways, and for different reasons, each of these operations evolved into independent entities, self-governing and focused on their public service broadcast mission.

2. Compelling vision of service . . . that works in radio terms
The growth of these organizations has been driven by powerful visions of service that both inspired and informed their leaders, staff, and supporters. For Minnesota and Colorado, the key notion has been to extend, throughout their states, internally consistent programming streams that would come to be seen as the most trusted sources for information and classical music. Max Wycisk says that “once the Colorado Public Radio board embraced this basic idea, everything else became simply a matter of execution.” WBEZ and WNYC share ambitions that turn in a different direction: to be heard as an “authentic voice” of and for the cultural and intellectual riches of their respective cities and to be places of creative ferment.

3. Strong sense of place
Thousands of conversations, surveys, and listener diaries have told us that much of the value public radio delivers comes from our best national programs. Research into the core values that public radio listeners expect to hear within our programming reveals that many of these core values cut across format, genre, and community. These organizations understand those principles and deliver on them.

But they also capture, in ways both large and small, a sense of the place in which they work and the communities they serve. WBEZ talks about being a convener of community. Minnesota Public Radio delivers the nostalgia of Lake Wobegon that is one sense of place. It also pushes itself toward “interactive journalism,” bringing its listeners directly into the news making process with polls and tips and expertise. That delivers a sense of place, too.

All these stations are engaged in national production. But Laura Walker notes that her WNYC board is careful that the programming works in New York most of all. “It may be a little of that New-York-full-of-itself thing, but they feel New York is different, maybe with tougher standards, and they don’t want our reach for a national audience to weaken the power of what we do for our audience right here.”

4. Concrete focus of energies
Each of these organizations took on a defining and specific task that in some fashion symbolized their emergence as “something larger.” For MPR, it was acquiring its own building in downtown St. Paul, complete with electronic news ticker on the outside. As Bill Kling put it, “MPR made a choice in 1979 to build a building that would emphasize ‘professionalism’ and its stature as a major ‘institution.’” Kling believes this was a major turning point internally and externally for MPR.

WBEZ had a similar experience in moving to a prominent location on Chicago’s Navy Pier. For Colorado it was the quest for a second channel in Denver. For WNYC it was the high profile $20 million sale of the stations from the City to the WNYC Foundation.

5. Willingness to assume risk . . . and debt
These four groups have been innovators within our field in their financing strategies. Calculated risk has been fundamental in the evolution of every one of them, most evident in the fact that each of them has taken on significant debt to finance an important step in their growth. Debt financing as a strategy to grow services that will eventually pay for themselves is no stranger among the major institutions of the nonprofit sector. Universities, hospitals, museums, and performance centers have long tapped the tax exempt bond market and other mechanisms of debt financing to build their capacities. We in public radio are largely novices in this arena.

6. Confidence in a larger role
Some people look terrific in a nice suit. Others just look overdressed. And a few look like they are wearing someone else’s clothes.

Significance seems to require a certain comfort in playing a larger role. WBEZ’s Torey Malatia recalled the nervous staff that prepared for the station’s first fundraiser after they had moved to the new digs at Navy Pier. “Maybe the listeners would think we were too rich, or too full of ourselves, or too something to need their support. Instead, we had one of our most successful drives ever. Instead of what we feared, it seemed that because we were taking ourselves seriously, the audience took us seriously . . . at a whole new level. It was an important lesson.”

7. Engaged and committed civic leadership
All of these organizations are led by strong, skilled, visionary leaders. It is difficult to imagine them being where they are without the people at the top. But these leaders have strengthened their hands by building and nurturing boards of civic leaders who are deeply engaged in their organizations’ success and publicly committed advocates within their communities.

Most public radio stations, including many community licensees, are still operated under what I think of as the “conspiracy of professionals.” It takes some courage to consciously pass power and authority to genuine community-based leadership. It takes hard work to find, cultivate, and retain the best talents of one’s community. But the dividends can be profound. Meaningful civic leadership within the public radio enterprise grounds our public service, enhances our accountability, connects us with major financial resources, and ensures our enduring strength through the inevitable transitions in professional staff.

8. Bold ask for community support
These organizations have used the strong platform created through the preceding steps to approach their communities with bold requests for support. In capital campaigns and special initiatives they have redefined expectations for public radio’s place in the hierarchy of individual and organizational giving, both in their own communities and, as role models, for others.

* * * *

The concept of The Path to Significance is a work in progress. But I am certain that there are elemental steps that these organizations have done right, that they follow in a common direction, and that others can replicate their success. Every time someone suggests that public radio has reached its full potential or is brushing up against natural limits to its growth, our leading stations have shown that we have far more opportunity than most imagine. The Path to Significance leads to that opportunity.

I would like to hear nominations for others amongst us that deserve a close look and welcome ideas for how to improve the framework – or challenges to its basic concepts. Contact me at tthomas@srg.org

May 2003

This report was developed as part of Charting the Territory, SRG's national planning initiative for public radio that is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and SRG member stations.

Copyright © 2003 Station Resource Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.