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Community Advisory Boards

CAB Legal Considerations

Profiles of Community Advisory Boards:

North Dakota Public Radio

New Hampshire Public Radio

WAMU
Washington, DC


WGBH
Boston, MA


WITF
Harrisburg, PA


WKSU
Kent, OH


WPLN
Nashville, TN


WUWM
Milwaukee, WI


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By Kathy Merritt
Director, Public Media Strategies

Community advisory boards are mandated for some public radio stations, but their value goes far beyond compliance with CPB and congressional regulations. In fact, some stations not required to have CABs have established them to benefit from community feedback on programming, guidance on policy decisions or assistance in fundraising. At stations that are committed to making them successful, the boards can provide meaningful input that results in better public service.

[Connect to a review of CAB Legal Considerations]

Different models
The statutory language related to CABs gives stations plenty of leeway to create boards that reflect the unique needs and personalities of their organizations and communities. SRG’s search for successful CABs has found a range of advisory bodies that differ in structure, style and purpose. At the stations required to have them, CABs focus on programming review and providing input on community needs. At stations not required to have CABs, primarily state university licensees, programming review is one part of the agenda and the board often takes on additional duties of fundraising, marketing or liaison to particular stakeholders.

Here are snapshots of eight boards we surveyed, which demonstrate the range of models that exist. More detailed information about each of them can be found in individual station profiles – click the name of the station in the snapshots below or select from the list of profiles on the left of this article.

Stations required to have a CAB:
WGBH, a radio/TV community licensee in Boston, established its Community Advisory Board in 1979. It has 25-30 members and currently meets seven times a year. WGBH has a Director of Community Program Initiatives, who works half time with the board. The stations’ Board of Trustees appoints the Community Advisory Board members to three-year terms, after a process of soliciting nominations from the community. The board has procedural guidelines, a fact sheet and a mandate that spell out its purpose and prescribe its actions. The board’s charge is to review the stations’ programming goals, evaluate progress on the goals and assist the stations in being responsive to community needs. After working with a committee structure for a number of years, it now operates as a committee of the whole.

WITF, a radio/television community licensee in Harrisburg, PA, created three advisory boards in the early 1980s, one in each of the major cities the stations serve. By the late ‘80s, the boards were inactive and station management decided to establish one large regional board whose role is to make sure the content and services the stations provide are relevant and continue to meet listeners’ and viewers’ needs. The board provides very specific feedback on programs and program proposals, filling out “summary reports” that inform staff decision-making. The Vice President of Audience Relations staffs the board and is largely responsible for finding new members. Members are limited to three years of service. The CAB has by-laws and a statement of roles and responsibilities for members. The board has 30 members and meets every other month.

New Hampshire Public Radio is a community licensee that established its community advisory board in 1981. In its early days, the board was often a forum for complaints about the station and even opposed some programming decisions. NHPR worked to make the board more valuable by asking its members to do “constituency interviews,” gathering opinions from community stakeholders. The change has led to a more productive CAB that supplies meaningful input on the stations’ programming. The board has by-laws that call for 10 -16 members and quarterly meetings. The program director is the station point person for the CAB, which underscores the board’s role in providing feedback on programming. Members are elected by the NHPR Board of Trustees and serve a maximum of three two-year terms.

The North Dakota Public Radio Council began in 1999 when the North Dakota Public Radio network was established. The stations in the network are licensed to two state universities and a community non-profit organization. In addition to performing the usual roles of a CAB, the Council monitors the network’s progress and allows for communications between network partners. The Council gives feedback on programming and reviews budget and policy decisions. Six members are appointed by the partners of North Dakota Public Radio and serve terms at their discretion. The council also includes five members from the general public. Council members may serve two three-year terms. There is an informal emphasis on geographic and constituency representation. The Council meets four times a year as mandated in its by-laws.

WPLN, Nashville, became a community licensee in 1996. The station established a community advisory board at that time, but it was dissolved after proving to be ineffective and confrontational. In its place, the station created the WPLN Advisors, an informal focus group whose purpose is to provide a source of independent advice and criticism for the station. The group has no documents to define its procedures but has recently decided to institute two-year terms for its members. It has 18 members and meets four times a year. The primary staff contact is the station’s general manager.

WAMU, licensed to a private university in Washington DC, reformulated its Community Council in 1992 after several years of infrequent meetings and inactivity. The council can have up to 21 members and meets four times a year. The station’s Manager of Community Relations and Special Projects staffs the board on a part-time basis. Station management and the council’s nominating committee work together to recruit new members, who are appointed by the station after being approved by the full board. The council has a Statement of Purpose that loosely outlines its mission and procedures. Its role is to serve as “an extra set of ‘eyes and ears’ for the station,” representing the diverse interests of the listening public to the station and helping with community outreach activities. To help fulfill that role the Council organizes “community dialogues” that bring experts on particular topics to the station for off-the-record briefings with programming staff.

Stations not required to have a CAB:
WUWM is licensed to a public university in Milwaukee. The Community Advisory Board was formed in 1979, but its activity ebbed and flowed over the years. It currently has 17 members, although the station would like to increase membership to 20-25. It meets every other month, with one month off in the summer. The board had no mechanism to rotate members off and began to stagnate. In the past 18 months, the board has worked to institute terms for its members and has developed a self-evaluation for members to assess their performance. Nominations for new members come from staff, the board and the community. After review of the executive committee, appointments are made by the dean of the college of letters and science. Although the board is informed by station staff of programming changes and audience trends, its focus is on marketing, development and government/community relations. In addition, its members sometimes advocate for the station when staff members cannot, for example, testifying before the state legislature. The station’s general manager is the primary staff contact. Much of the board’s work is done in committees.

WKSU, licensed to a public university in Kent, OH, has had several incarnations of its community advisory board. The station created a board in 1978, then disbanded it several years later. Another board, established in 1990, worked effectively for a while and then began to flounder. Current management is rebuilding the board and instituting guidelines. The community advisory council is downsizing from 33 members to 30 and increasing its number of meetings from three to four each year. The council has been discussing its role and has decided to institute term limits for members. It does not focus specifically on programming issues, but receives regular updates from staff about programming decisions. The council has a committee structure that works actively in development and other areas. The station manager and several department heads work directly with the council.

What works The examples show the variations of community advisory boards, from carefully structured bodies with well-defined rules to informal discussion groups. The style and approaches may vary, but these groups have elements in common that they believe lead to success.

  • A clear mission – The statutory language addressing CABs says they are to be “solely advisory in nature” and “in no case shall the board have any authority to exercise any control over the daily management or operation of the station.” It’s important that CAB members know from the start that their role is not to govern or manage the station but to advise the station. With that knowledge as a backdrop, all the station staffers interviewed stressed the importance of clearly defining the purpose and role of the group. For stations required to have community advisory boards, CPB’s current guidelines state that their duties must include reviewing programming goals, station services and significant policy decisions. Stations need to fill in the blanks as to how CABs fulfill their duties. The stations represented here say that the more specific the tasks are, the better the outcome for all concerned. Without specifics, boards can take paths unexpected and unwanted by station management. Dave Edwards, General Manager of WUWM, says, “Figure out what you want them to do, and how are you going to support what they’re going to do. So they don’t quickly feel you’re wasting their time or do things that will hurt more than help.” Having documents such as a statement of purpose, an outline of roles and responsibilities or board job descriptions is beneficial because they convey consistent, clear information and establish procedures for how the board functions. Some boards go beyond the scope of program and policy review, and those duties should be defined as well, particularly if board members are expected to donate money themselves or fundraise from others.


  • Strong recruitment – Finding the right people is critical to the success of the CAB. Diversity is called for in the statutory language on CABs, and the stations represented here underscore the value of diversity on their boards. Diversity comes in many forms – gender, ethnic, geographic, age, sexual orientation, career paths, CEOs and people just starting out. Board members also bring a diversity of talents and resources to the table, from financial expertise to experience with capital campaigns to valuable contacts in the community. Casting a wide net to recruit new members, not just asking people already involved in the station for nominations, can result in a board with a spectrum of experiences and opinions. Hearing different perspectives enriches the discussion at CAB meetings and can sensitize the staff to the worldviews of the many people within their listening communities. The common trait for board members should be an interest in, if not a love for, public radio. The goal is not to create a board that rubber stamps all station decisions, but to invite a group of people who already have an affinity for public radio (and TV) to spend their time and energy making it better. Once nominations are in hand, most stations do their homework – interviewing candidates, reviewing their resumes and community contributions, making sure the person is a good fit for the station. The general managers and other staffers who work with CABs invest significant amounts of time building relationships with board members, so the selection process should bring forward people who will be valuable to the station and worthy of the investment.


  • Member succession plan – It may be tough to get the right people on the board, but it can be even tougher to get them off if there is no mechanism in place. All of the boards represented here either started out with term limits or have subsequently implemented them. The lesson is that some board members can overstay their welcome and even those who serve well should give way to people with fresh perspectives. Al Bartholet, station manager of WKSU, says his CAB has decided to limit members’ years of service. “We realized we needed to have terms. If someone came on, they knew there was a beginning and end. There are also no political ramifications if there’s a mechanism.” Most boards allow multiple terms but do have a limit on the number of terms.


  • Commitment from staff – The station leaders interviewed all consider their community advisory boards to be valuable and are fully engaged with the boards’ activities. Their commitment inspires other staffers to view working with the board as a positive experience, rather than a chore that takes them away from their “real” jobs. Margie Yamamoto, Director of Community Program Initiatives at WGBH, says management has to set an example. “We have the top decision makers at the stations attending the meetings. . .that signals other employees. People on staff are eager to participate.” General managers are often the point people for community advisory boards, and their willingness to invest time and effort contributes greatly to the success or failure of a board. Commitment to the CAB also means dealing with board members in an open, honest, respectful manner. Rob Gordon, President and General Manager of WPLN, says, “I always give them information back on how their advice was acted on or not acted on. There’s integrity to our relationship.” Community licensees that also have governing boards stress the importance of treating the advisory board with the same respect the governing board receives.

  • Change is good
    There is one other universal element of the CABs we’ve researched – all of them have evolved over time, changing to fit the needs of the stations. Most have become more structured, developing by-laws or other documents that define procedures and member responsibilities. Many have gone through a period of inactivity or conflict, but through station intervention or collaboration between station and board leaders, they have emerged as stronger bodies. One of the tasks of station and board leaders is to recognize when boards have lost their energy or become confused about their role and act to reinvigorate the group.

    At their best, community advisory boards can play an invaluable role for stations by acting as a conduit for information, bringing it from corners of the community staff members don’t normally access and taking it back to a network of friends, colleagues and co-workers who might not hear about public radio otherwise. By providing input on programming, CABs can enhance stations’ efforts to connect with listeners. And for some stations, CAB members are lending expertise in a variety of areas that are helping stations build their reputations and increase fundraising. The case studies that follow give more detailed insight into how stations are using and benefiting from CABs.


    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 © 2004 Station Resource Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.