Governance Overview

Community Advisory Boards – Successful Models

Gov-o-Metrics 2 Results
April 2004

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By Kathy Merritt
Director, Public Media Strategies

In the past 18 months, issues surrounding governance of public radio stations have gained prominence and visibility at the station and national level. Governance issues have been discussed at conferences and put on priority lists for a range of organizations. Governance – the structures, traditions and processes that determine how power is exercised, how decisions are made and how the public interfaces with the station – has always been a topic of concern. But the issue is pushing its way to the forefront now for several reasons:

  • The public radio system is maturing – For many stations for many years the focus was was getting on the air everyday. While that’s still true for some, most stations have moved to a new level of operations that requires attention to long term planning and thinking.

  • Increased public support calls for increased public accountability – Stations are now asking their communities to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars – or millions – in their work. As the role of community-based funding steadily increases, it is more important than ever to have well-established channels of communication between the organization, its donors and the public it serves. And the sad corollary is that the missteps of others in the nonprofit sector have made many donors more cautious and more demanding of those to whom they give.

  • Signal expansion changes dynamics – Stations serving new areas have a new interest in making strong community connections a part their governance structures. Issues surrounding financing of a new signal can bring about questions of who is in charge, on whose behalf, and in what capacity. For example, bond-issuing authorities want to know who is responsible for paying back debt.

  • Licensees are re-thinking priorities – In light of severe budget cuts in recent months, university licensees, in particular, are reassessing their core mission and sometimes asking if public radio is part of it.

  • New models of governance are emerging – Stations and licensees are finding ways to re-structure relationships so that everyone gets more of what they want. Organizations such as KUOW and Capital Public Radio have created new models in which university licensees retain control of the license, but stewardship of the station and its programming services is the province of a board made up of civic leaders.

Perhaps the most compelling reason why it is capturing so much attention is that governance matters. Getting governance right leads us to better public service and the ability to run better public service businesses. Effective governance allows public radio stations to build stronger community connections, increase their value as community institutions, tap into new funding sources with the help of high-level community volunteers and concentrate on public service.

As we look at governance issues, one challenge is central to all that we do. An organization functions best when its governance aligns with its public service vision. The focus of the station should be the business of radio and serving the public. In the best of all worlds, that mission matches the mission and needs of the licensee. The place to start is not with governance, but with the public service vision. Define the vision and you can start exploring what models of governance can support it.

Narrowing the focus
Governance is a huge area entailing operational, financial, and control issues . At SRG we want to put our time and energy where we think we can have the most significant impact and where we can collaborate effectively with the other organizations – including National Public Radio and the University: Station Alliance – that are also working on this issue. SRG is targeting civic leadership as our current focus within the broader arena of governance. We think there are many benefits to making more connections with the people who listen to and support public radio. The end result is enlarging the capacity of public radio to provide stronger and deeper public service.

The results from SRG’s first Gov-o-Metrics survey helped guide us to our focus on civic leadership. The goal of the on-line survey was to get a better idea of how governance is perceived by leaders in public radio. The survey tested 15 attributes of effective governance by asking respondents to rate the importance of each attribute and their station’s performance on each attribute. We found that performance correlated closely with importance on most attributes.

According to the respondents, attributes related to fiscal control and operations were most important:

  • Financial controls are in place
  • Station personnel control basic business functions
  • Programming decisions are made without intrusion
  • Station is stable in times of change
  • GM is able to make decisions with flexibility and speed
  • GM’s interactions with governing body are productive

A second group of attributes related to big-picture thinking was rated as somewhat important:

  • Station has a meaningful mission statement
  • Public service underlies all major decisions
  • Long term planning is the rule

Respondents rated as least important the attributes related to board functions and community outreach and fundraising:

  • GM is encouraged to be entrepreneurial
  • Board sets policies, staff carries them out
  • Board makes decisions as a whole
  • All board members make personal donations
  • Station has a board that is a direct link to the community
  • Board members are willing to visit donors

(For a detailed report on the survey results, please click here.)

The survey results led us to several conclusions. First, what’s top of mind for the participants relates to the process of ownership.

  • Good fiscal management
  • Clarity, flexibility and stability in the relationship with governing body
  • Continuity of leadership

These attributes of effective governance are internal and real-time. They are about the transactions that need to take place to manage a station well on a daily basis.

What’s “bottom of mind,” if you will, are the attributes related to the intersection of the station and the community.

  • Input and ideas
  • Relationships
  • Resources

These attributes are external and long-term.

Defining outcomes
The results from the survey convinced SRG that there are opportunities to make the intersection of station and community more meaningful and productive, to try to raise the bar on the attributes that are now taking a back seat. Performance is strong on attributes related to fiscal control and daily operations and should remain so. But when we look at successful non-profit organizations outside of public radio, we see a high level of civic engagement. Most public radio stations have not achieved a level of civic engagement that brings significant returns to their organizations.

In order to help stations advance their relationships with civic leaders, SRG is developing outcomes in three areas that will guide our work.

First, more and more meaningful civic engagement. We want to help stations go beyond the typical “dog and pony show” community board meetings to find ways to:

  • Build relationships
  • Solicit input
  • Gain outside perspective
  • Add new skill sets

Another set of outcomes would address tapping community resources. Resources include:

  • Access
  • Influence
  • Money

Civic leadership can give a significant boost to fundraising efforts. Consider that individual support amounts to $216 million a year for public radio stations. Suppose stations asked their civic leaders – those engaged with the stations in meaningful ways – to raise another 10 to 20 percent. That’s the typical lift that non-profit organizations see from major giving programs. That would add up to another $20-40 million a year for stations. To put that in perspective, CPB’s budget for radio is $70 million a year. Stations invest $55 million a year in NPR. An additional $20-40 million a year could fuel new growth for public radio.

SRG is developing outcomes for a third area – organizational transformation. In other words,

  • Alternative public service business models

Think about how public radio stations have evolved. Not so long ago, many stations were supported by their institutional licensees to the tune of 30, 40, even 60 percent of their operating budgets. Now, most stations rely on community support for 30 percent, 60 percent, or more of their operating budgets. Licensees, meanwhile, may give little or no direct support or may even ask for indirect costs back. Stations have turned their faces outward and it makes sense to consider business models that recognize where support is coming from – while being respectful of the work and money given over many years by the institutional licensees. Stations have more listeners, and they are raising more dollars from listeners, local businesses and foundations. These people all have a stake in the stations they support, so a transformation to a new business model seems appropriate in some cases.

Consider an analogy. Twenty years ago, if you had asked people in public radio to evaluate on-air programming – how do you know if it’s good – the “top of mind” answers would probably have been:

  • It has high production values
  • There is a diversity of voices
  • It provides in-depth analysis

People were looking inward, trying to improve the product on the air.

“Bottom of mind” answers would probably have been:

  • Audience cume is increasing
  • TSL is comparable to competitors’
  • Programming is the first choice in certain demos

There was little emphasis on what the audience was doing. But then, something happened. A few people in public radio set an ambitious goal – to double the audience. That goal - and the research, discussion, and actions it prompted - changed the way everyone thought. If you’re going to double the audience, you have to start measuring the audience. You have to learn new things and start looking at programming from another perspective, a more external perspective.

In achieving the goal of doubling audience, public radio learned to build on significant programming to create significant audience.



That’s where we are with governance today. We’re in the early stages of changing our whole way of thinking about governance.


civic leadership

We believe that significant civic leadership can help change the landscape of public radio by bringing additional resources, ideas and skills to bear in the on-going effort to build stations into significant community institutions providing significant public service.

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.