NONPROFIT BRANDING: PubRadio Stations Coping With University Budget Clowns

This is a peek behind the university budget curtain, based on my experience as university VP. And then ratified by other higher education professionals who reviewed these comments.

CONTEXT: Senior college and university administrators claim their annual budget process is a thoughtful data-based review of institutional priorities and resources – an exercise in collegial, collaborative, analytical and even-handed stewardship.

That’s baloney! 

Believe that nonsense and you may have a tough time protecting your station in this brutal – and worsening – economic and political climate within higher education.

In this post I will expose the budget reality that threatens your station, recall a tough lesson and then suggest a constructive internal marketing approach. We will offer suggestions about handling the institutional budget process in next week’s post (Revisiting the University Budget Clowns). 

INCIDENT:  One year, when I was a university vice president and secretary to the board of trustees, we ran into heavy unanticipated expenses. The big one was $300,000 to replace a failed ventilation system in one of our chemistry labs.

imagesCAH748YJThe Senior Officials convened. Budget discussions began. In the middle of the three-month process the academic vice president stunned me by turning budget predator. He recommended that we eliminate the university’s subsidy to the public radio station. He also wanted to require the station to pay rent for space it had occupied for a couple decades  without charge.

This was during an era of austerity in state government. University appropriations were downsizing. Under the fiscal lockdown, and with no capital funds, we had to find money for the chemistry lab and other urgent needs within dwindling university-wide resources. 

The station reported to me. The academic guy and I went to war over the budget. I won. And gained insights to share with you.

REALITY: Despite what administrators claim, at most institutions the budget process is a political game – little more than the annual feeding frenzy of  constituencies jostling for position at the university budget trough. 

Here is what really happens: the process begins with position papers and budget reviews and policy statements and other show business. Then the president and vice presidents ignore the process and allocate resources strategically. Their overarching goal? To harvest as much peace as possible from the constituencies. There are winners. There are losers.  The game goes on. The game is political. Another budget cycle is down the road.

RESULT: I was able to protect the station’s finances. Why? Specifically because it broadcast to a loyal upscale audience of nearly 100,000 listeners. How many chemistry majors were on campus? A few hundred? 

Constituencies rule in the arena of political budgeting. Even though we were in business to serve students rather than to run a broadcast operation, the money to protect student health and safety would not come from the station. (Postscript: the station has since left the university to become one of the nation’s great community-based stations. And I came to regard university politics as an ethical swamp which I navigated with success, but not with any sustainable pride in the achievement.)

LESSON: Since most university stations face the same risk, you need to understand why the academic vice president thought the station budget was a target he could attack. Driven by its public service mission, station management paid full attention to the external community reached by its broadcast signal. So, like most stations, it never saw a reason to cultivate an internal constituency. Conversely, the academic vp was quite properly focused on internal university matters – students, research, faculty. He could see that the station was not important to internal power centers like student government, major university organizations, the council of deans, the faculty senate, etc.

So, under budget pressure, and needing to put the chemistry lab back in action – the academic vp pounced.

imagesCAI544ZATAKEAWAYS: Your institution is more than your license holder and original funding source – it is your host, a complicated and factional host that requires certain accommodations and courtesies. The game is political. Refuse to play that game and you put your station in peril.

Even some of pubradio’s national leaders have failed to see this reality. One luminary, a GM who won the CPB’s prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award, used to brag about refusing to “…let the university administration play radio…” (actual quote). That attitude was not just shortsighted – it was dumb. VERY dumb. It is also one reason this manager’s career in public radio came to an unexpected end at the hands of the people she refused to cultivate.

If you have a place in the institutional budget, either a cash allocation or gift-in-kind like free office space or postage, acknowledge the university wherever you can do so without pandering – and then find ways to make internal constituencies aware of that acknowledgement.

At the top of your station’s administrative structure is a VP or dean who participates in budget negotiations at the highest institutional level.  You need to help equip this executive to protect your station during the next budget cycle. This requires adopting a dual marketing focus. Attempt to develop within the institution the kind of  traction and credibility you have developed within the larger community. That’s how you strengthen the position of your advocate as he or she operates in the highly political process of institutional budgeting.

In the next blog post I will outline several techniques that will help you do this – and still let you sleep at night.


VALIDATION: Over dinner I was musing about budgeting being such a fiercely political process at the three institutions where I had been vice president.  I wondered aloud if my colleagues at those places had just been a bunch of unprofessional clowns. My dinner companion laughed. He said I had a good grasp of reality – the political budget performances I had witnessed were the standard at nearly every institution in the nation. (Formerly one of the top higher education attorneys in the nation, at the time of our conversation he was a major consultant, having served presidents and boards of trustees at a couple hundred institutions.)

3 thoughts on “NONPROFIT BRANDING: PubRadio Stations Coping With University Budget Clowns

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