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September 2002

In the past decade, public radio's audience and fundraising have increased dramatically. In fact, the overall profile of public radio has been on the rise, with its personalities and programs becoming more widely known despite a glut of media choices for Americans. Given public radio's increasing significance in American society, some public radio professional and lay leaders are examining an area that has been seemingly off-limits for many years - governance. Governance influences every aspect of station operations, yet stations have, in general, not been able to create governance structures that fit the mission and needs of their organizations.

Governance for any non-profit can be defined as the structures, traditions and processes that determine how power is exercised, how decisions are made and how the public interfaces with the organization. It is through its governance structure that a public radio station is held accountable for the programming it presents and the dollars it collects and spends. The boards of trustees who hold the licenses of public radio stations are the custodians of the station's fiscal reputation and editorial integrity; they are held responsible for meeting regulatory requirements and for ensuring the station management meets its stated goals. Ideally, these trustees should represent the people served by the station - the listeners and donors of the community of license.

As public radio has matured over the years, many stations have chafed under governance structures that have been barriers to their success. Their gains in audience and fundraising have come despite the constraints imposed by their governance. History shows that governance changes tend to happen when there is a crisis, such as severe budget cuts by the license holder. There are some examples, though, of changes that have occurred as a result of agreements negotiated between the station and the license holder. For most stations, however, the governance structures present at the formation of the station remain in place.

Over the past several months, discussions with a wide range of station leaders operating under many types of governance structures show that there is a consensus about the work ahead for stations on governance:

Our core task is to align our governance with our public service vision.

The mission of the station and the mission of the license holder should align.

The focus of the station should be the business of radio and serving the public rather than the mission and needs of the licensee.

To gain a greater understanding of the status of public radio governance, let's look at the overall picture of license types:

As you can see from the graph, about 55% pf CPB grantees are university licensees and about 35% of CPB grantees are community licensees. There are many fewer stations licensed to local authorities or state agencies.

These broad categories don't really tell the whole story of license types. There are many variations on a theme when it comes to governance. Here are a few examples:

Capital Public Radio in Sacramento is a 501(c)(3) that manages five stations licensed to two universities. The universities hold the licenses, but the professional staff makes all management decisions. The General Manager reports to a community board.

KUOW in Seattle is operated by Puget Sound Radio, a 501(c)(3), but the license remains with the University of Washington. The transition from the station being part of the university to a separate entity was a multi-year process that the GM calls a "win-win" for both parties.

WABE in Atlanta is licensed to the school board, but the manager of the station reports to a separate community board that reports to the superintendent of schools.

KUSC is licensed to the University of Southern California, but the GM is building a strong advisory board that includes members of the USC board of trustees. The station has a great relationship with the university, but the board could also act in the future as a community board if needed.

Each license type has its pros and cons.

University licensees
Many managers see the success of university licensees as dependent on personal relationships with administrators. Managers often put it this way, "we're one administrator away from disaster." Some managers spend hours each week attending to their bureaucratic duties, while others consider ways to address the benign neglect of their institutions. The issue of governance is rarely approached, especially in situations where institutional support continues at significant levels and managers don't want to rock the boat.

Successful university licensees learn to leverage the weight and resources of their license holders.

Joint TV/Radio licensees
Managers in joint licensees often say that radio can be a "stepchild" to television when it comes to attention and resources. Revenues from radio are sometimes directed to non-radio activities, and radio managers sometimes aren't given the same access to the licensee board as television managers. But the reach of TV can be an advantage in gaining community support and visibility.

Community licensees
Managers at community licensees believe their governance model gives their stations a stronger connection to the community and the ability to tap more major donors. Less time is spent on bureaucracy and more on management.

Community boards require substantial maintenance, however, and successful community boards require giving civic leaders power and authority.

Regardless of licensee type, almost every station has a board of some kind, whether it's an advisory board, a fundraising board or a governing board. Boards have to be managed properly to reach their highest potential. Station leaders must pay attention to:

  • Recruitment of good members
  • Engagement of and meaningful involvement for members
  • Board members' role in fundraising, including personal giving
  • Appropriate pace of turnover
  • Boundaries between board and management
Many managers expressed a need for training to help make the most of their boards. There are many resources available for board training. A few managers also said there's an opportunity for station boards to learn from one another. Experienced board members could travel to other stations to share their stories or there could be some kind of networking opportunity at one of public radio's annual conferences.

Having a board is not the solution for every station seeking good governance. There are many paths to good governance, but defining good governance is one activity that will help shape the future of public radio. What can stations achieve with good governance that they can't achieve otherwise?

There are some goals in process that managers say could be achieved with good governance.
  • Responds flexibly and quickly to opportunities and challenges - shortens length of decision cycle
  • Evaluates risks in a broadcast and public service context
  • Encourages entrepreneurship
  • Focuses management on station performance, not on bureaucracy
Good governance facilitates certain outcomes.
  • Greater public service - seize opportunities to reach audience; increase quality and quantity of programming that informs and enriches audience; program decisions are radio driven
  • Control of destiny - what's good in the short and long term; not at the whim of the license holder; focus management on station
  • Stability and sustainability - station not dependent on one person but attached to a body and structure that will perpetuate the station and its mission
  • Successful fundraising - greater community involvement; greater ability to tap the resources of the community
  • Business-like operations - working with systems designed to facilitate station activities, not bogged down in systems created to serve a larger institution; control over budget; make personnel, budget, programming, purchasing decisions according to needs of station
  • Community significance - increases station's ability to tap into community resources and raises profile of station as institution
  • Heatshield - acts to preserve and protect editorial independence of station
  • Management accountability - holds station leaders accountable for decisions and actions
The importance of establishing these processes and achieving these outcomes is obvious as stations strive to build and strengthen their positions as significant community institutions. There is no "one size fits all" solution to improving governance, but more work is needed to refine the definition of good governance and examine the existing models of governance in the public radio system. SRG will continue to probe the issue of governance and provide stations with the tools they need to strengthen their governance structures. When governance and public service are aligned, stations will increase their ability to provide significant programming to significant audiences and deepen ties to the communities they serve.

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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