NONPROFIT BRANDING: PubRadio Stations VS Budget Predators

iStock_000020206588XSmallSecond in a series. The first post expressed this unspoken heresy, this insight into the secretive world of senior administration: despite self-serving claims by university leaders, higher education budgets are driven by political constituencies, not by institutional priorities. This budget circus is an adverse environment for the radio station without a strong internal constituency. (Missed that post? Try here.)

Now we explain how to protect your stations from the Budget Clowns who become predatory when in the financial planning mode – and look covetously at your revenue or your budget allocation or your physical space.

Your station needs to have its brand supported by a robust group within the university. Begin with a simple process of acknowledging the institution in ways that don’t challenge your journalistic ethics. Consider the following steps:

FIRST STEP – UNDERSTAND: There are two reasons you need to re-position your brand internally to accommodate the way the budget game is played.

• Reason #1:  your station is not essential to the higher education enterprise. Nearly everything else in the budget is more important to the institution’s mission than your programming.

• Reason #2:   the mission of every public radio station is focused on the external public.  EXTERNAL! That focus causes most stations to pay insufficient attention to the internal environment of the host institution. This lack of internal focus creates political vulnerability.

SECOND STEP – THINK ABOUT STRATEGIES: Remember that the budget process is a political exercise. Remember that it is an attempt to satisfy the iStock_000015044277Smallappetites of constituencies gathered at the money-trough. Remember that you are not well-positioned at the trough.  So, pull back and think about the landscape and the opportunities it presents Think about initiating minor but effective interactions with the university’s internal constituencies.Consider strategies like these:

Scatter Goodies: Every station has mugs with station and program logos left over from prior fundraisers. Scatter them around campus. Put some in the student government offices. In the faculty senate offices. In the alumni office, the development office, the faculty lounges. Don’t allow leftover mugs and other branding products be wasted by sitting in your premium closet. Put them to work within the university. Because institutional budgeting is political, your goal is to make members of the university community think of your station as their station. THEIRS!

Mention The Home Team: Many stations feel uncomfortable about reporting on university activities. That attitude is nonsense. Report on your licensee. Do it properly. Do it modestly. AND do it for this journalistic reason: within your broadcast reach is a vast network of groups that are centered on and/or affected by the institution. They want the university news you can deliver.

Those constituencies include faculty, employees, students, families of students, suppliers to the university, sports fans, local business people, area media, neighbors and many other groups. They combine a media market of size, complexity and interest. That means covering news generated by your licensee is surely not journalistic pandering. So suck it up – report on athletic scores, cover the newest flare-up in the faculty senate, mention the actions of the board of trustees, broadcast an excerpt or two from the president’s annual State of the University Address. Because institutional budgeting is political, your goal is to make members of the university community think of your station as their station. THEIRS!

Play Host: You sometimes arrange tours for your listeners. Go out of your way to offer tours to any university group above 8 or 10 people. Periodically invite faculty, staff & students – & even Trustees – over for a 20 minute tour of your studio plus a 15 minute Q&A session about your public service mission and how you accomplish it. Because institutional budgeting is political, your goal is to make members of the university community think of your station as their station. THEIRS!

Admit Your Parentage: Your station is not an orphan. As a former university vp, I have wondered for 30 years why so many stations express concern about mentioning the university in their station ID.  You always existed in an arena of political budgeting, the uncertainty of which is today compounded by the pressures of financial austerity. Given that context, how can there be resistance to minor steps that build the value of your brand within the university?

Turn this proposition around. What will members of the university community think about the station if it disassociates itself from the university which is its licensee – and which is also their own employer or their own alma mater? Because institutional budgeting is political, your goal is to make members of the university community think of your station as their station.THEIRS!

Emerge From Your Studio; See If You Cast a Shadow: Look at the president’s daily workload – a telephone argument with the governor, an unsettling meeting about faculty complaints, a too-long phone call from the chairman of the board, an intense review of defense pleadings in a lawsuit against the institution, a meeting with contractors over the escalating cost of roof replacement on the north campus and thoughtful analysis of memos asking for reallocation of institutional resources in favor of a petitioning department….all that before lunch!

Yet the president will still find time to light the campus Christmas tree and give the first toast at the faculty awards dinner and march in the founder’s day parade and speak at the honors convocation and attend the Phi Beta Kappa reception and stop in at the secretary appreciation luncheon. True enough?

So ask yourself – why does the president, swamped by complex issues of substance and working 70 hours a week, make an appearance at these low-impact events?  Because your president understands those events are important to the university’s constituencies – constituencies that operate in a highly political governance and budgeting environment..

In these difficult times I suggest this:  if the president can acknowledge these constituencies and their events, so can your station – even if it only sends an intern to do a couple interviews that never reach air. Because institutional budgeting is political, your goal is to make members of the university community think of your station as their station. Theirs!

There are many ways to build a constituency within the institution. Fail to take those steps, fail to realize that you operate in a swamp of political budgeting, and you increase your peril at the hands of senior administrators who can become budget predators because they do represent internal constituencies. They have the power that evolves from that representations – powerful constituencies who might eat your lunch if you are not careful.



2 thoughts on “NONPROFIT BRANDING: PubRadio Stations VS Budget Predators

  1. Pingback: For PubRadio Stations – Coping With University Budget Clowns | Nonprofit Branding Blog

  2. Regarding “mentioning the home team,” a university-owned station reporting on its parent university is rarely as simple as described here.

    Unless there is a specific agreement and rules in place to govern how and when a station will report on its parent institution, the campus Communications/Marketing Office will usually regard it as a “cardinal sin” for the radio station to report on ANYTHING related to the parent university…no matter how small…unless it has been completely vetted by the Communications staff first. That may be both unethical and, in the case of state-run schools, possibly unconstitutional, but that’s how it’ll play. And in most institutions, Communications holds a tremendous amount of political power.

    And sometimes it’s not the Communications office; sometimes it’s a Trustee or a major donor who has some connection to the story and doesn’t want to see it get media attention. Such people usually have a lot of money, a lot of power, and are unaccustomed to being told “no, you can’t have your way.”

    In this day and age, a station cannot afford to wait until there’s a story to deal with this problem. Inevitably, there will be a school shooting, or a date rape, or a sports scandal, or a death of some kind…no matter how sensational or prosaic…that the station will feel is “newsworthy” and someone else at the University or College (someone with power) will just as soon pretend never happened and will demand the station toe the company line of “no comment.” That is not the time to pick a battle with an already-stressed-and-in-the-spotlight University president about journalistic integrity.

    Every university-owned station needs a clear policy, backed up with the President’s/Chancellor’s signature, that spells out exactly what “journalistic independence” means for it and for the university. The University-Station Alliance has several good sample agreements on this front.

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