WPLN formed a community advisory board when the station became a community licensee in 1996. According to President and General Manager Rob Gordon, the station’s governing board thought it represented the community and saw no need for an additional board. A formal advisory board was formed, however, in order for WPLN to be in compliance with CPB requirements.
The first community advisory board proved to be not useful to the station and confrontational over time. Several years ago, Gordon dissolved the board and created a new one using a different approach. Gordon took the advice of Colorado Public Radio’s Max Wycisk and decided to treat the board like a focus group, without a formal structure. The group is called the WPLN Advisors. Gordon thought the group should be self-regulating and not have terms, but over the years, members did not voluntarily rotate off. This year, Gordon suggested limited terms and board members agreed that some fresh perspectives were needed. The Advisors group will now have two-year terms beginning in July 2004. Nine members will stay on the board while the rest will leave. The size of the board will gradually increase as new members come on.
Gordon describes the Advisors’ role as very simple – providing a source of independent advice and criticism for the station. The group talks about WPLN’s programming, image in the community, mission and purpose. Gordon says the Advisors have helped the station sharpen its marketing message and shared insight into how programs and services are used by listeners.
Gordon says the members are very supportive of the station, but he urges them to be objective. “If somebody comes who has a complaint, the group gets protective. I tell them, don’t defend us. It’s your job to hear this. I don’t want them to be a rubber stamp.” Gordon says a few Advisors hold strong opinions on certain programs, but their opposition does not undermine his or his staff’s confidence in their decision-making.
Meetings usually have an agenda with one topic, for example, local news or fund drive messages. The station asks the Advisors to discuss what they hear and how the station could do better. Gordon gives them context for the discussion and also passes along information about the station that he thinks they should know.
Gordon describes the atmosphere at the meetings as “healthy and happy.”
He says, “Almost without fail, the meetings have been good. Sometimes we’ve brought up a topic that doesn’t catch fire. For the most part, they get very excited about the agenda items. They have a whole lot to say. We have to cut it off.”
Meeting summaries are prepared by a member of the group and distributed to all.
Selection of members
Candidates for the Advisors come from staff and from the group. The staff looks at the list of donors and volunteers. Gordon says “We've never been short of names.” He says they choose people who are supportive. “We don’t want people who just have an ax to grind. I interview them ahead of time and make sure they are supportive of public radio. I don’t spend as much time interviewing this group as for the governing board.”
Most Advisors are all members of the station, some at the major donor level.
Gordon says what works for him and for WPLN is the informal nature of the Advisors group. He makes sure that the members receive updates on how the station has used their advice. “I always give them information back on how their advice was acted on or not acted on. There’s integrity to our relationship. We’re not trying to inoculate ourselves against criticism.” Gordon says while some managers see CABs as a chore, he looks forward to his meetings with the WPLN Advisors.
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.
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