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Difficult decisions help ensure future of Illinois Public Media

Mark Leonard, the general manager of WILL, says that recent changes to the public broadcasting stations will enhance Illinois Public Media╒s mission, while working within the confines of state budget cuts.
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L. Brian Stauffer

Survival mission Mark Leonard, the general manager of WILL, says that recent changes to the public broadcasting stations will enhance Illinois Public Media╒s mission, while working within the confines of state budget cuts.

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INSIDE ILLINOIS, May 6, 2010  | Anna K. Herkamp, Assistant Editor | 217-333-5491

Like other state-funded entities, Illinois Public Media is learning to do more with less. It’s also investing in programming changes that will help ensure its future.

Changes that have taken place this spring were intended to better serve the current audience of the public broadcasting television and radio stations as well as draw more listeners and support, said Mark Leonard, the director of broadcasting and general manager of WILL.

Pie chart illustrating the breakdown of Illinois Public Media's 
$9 million budget
Funding breakdown of Illinois Public Media's
$9 million budget

Perhaps the most visible change was the announcement of nine staff layoffs, which includes the phasing-out of the weather department. “The nine positions that were eliminated were the result of position consolidation and a roll-back in work in some areas,” Leonard said.

Weather staff members are still working for now and are reporting the weather on a reduced schedule. “The weather-reporting duties will move to the remaining news and on-air staff,” he said.

Moving forward

Last month, WILL-FM became a dual-format radio station, adding news programs from National Public Radio to its classical music lineup. NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” are now broadcast on the FM station, as well as WILL-AM.

Other changes will include adding a morning radio show host — a position the station has put off filling for some time — and moving FM host Vic Di Geronimo’s classical music show to later in the morning.

WILL is currently interviewing for the morning host position, which has been filled with substitutes since former radio station manager Dan Simeone retired, Leonard said.

The station also has added a web developer and a membership support staff person.

WILL added the new staff positions with regard to its strategic plan, which emphasizes the need to invest in online media as a growth area, as well as to enhance areas that generate the greatest increase in audience and support.

“The membership support position is the final step in completing an internal reorganization that started a year ago,” Leonard said.

Many WILL listeners and sponsors have expressed disapproval of these adjustments over the last few months, Leonard said.

But the cutbacks and programming modifications were necessary, according to Leonard. For example, the full-service weather programming cost $140,000 each year to produce, and only $40,000 of that was covered by business underwriting.

“It’s difficult to tell members,” Leonard said. “They feel they have a stake (in the success of the stations).”

He and others have tried to explain that they’re not happy with the changes either, but as resources diminish, the station must be a good steward of the funding it does have.

Although creating new revenue sources is a challenge, one thing WILL and other public broadcasting stations have on their side is the uniqueness of their product, he said.

“People trust us as a news organization,” he said, pointing out that NPR’s “Morning Edition” is second in ratings only to the Rush Limbaugh show.

Locally, WILL has its own strengths.

“We’re a very large, robust joint licensee,” he said, referring to WILL’s television and radio stations.

“That puts us in a special category. We’ve always produced more (local programs) than most of our peer stations. We’ve always set the bar pretty high, and the community values that.

“We have done a limited amount of production for national distribution in the past. We are exploring ways to increase that as a source of new revenue in the future. The challenge is to make sure that national production is fully funded and is profitable for the station and not a drain on its current resources,” Leonard said.

One way the stations are trying to remain effective resources to the community is to enhance their technological initiatives through education outreach efforts.

A new program that will be tested soon will allow teachers access to Internet clips of educational programs such as “NOVA” for use in the classroom.

Leonard also hopes to add more programming that credits the achievements of the university, or to “tell the story of science.” “It’s not self-serving to tell our story,” he said of the research and discoveries taking place at the UI, as well as the history and stories of the region.

Leonard also wants WILL to continue its efforts at public engagement and to promote programs that benefit the local community.

“We are using public engagement as a tool for increasing IPM’s relevance to its communities,” Leonard said. “This requires us to know our communities and focus on addressing areas of need. Social media provide many new tools in that effort, augmenting IPM’s traditional abilities in broadcasting and production. We can be a convener of conversation, a catalyst between organizations and a storyteller of those efforts. We have done some of that in our efforts surrounding hunger in our communities, the local impact of the economic meltdown, children’s dental health and childhood obesity.”

Funding woes

Illinois Public Media has suffered from a gradual loss of Illinois Arts Council funding. Five years ago, council funding totaled $518,000. Now, that funding has dwindled to some $208,000, with payment of that from the state of Illinois in question.

Illinois Public Media began the current fiscal year with a balanced budget; however, Illinois Arts Council cuts were announced in October creating a deficit of $110,000.

Previous changes at the station had involved staff reduction through attrition and cuts in operations and support positions.  (Currently the stations employ 53 full-time employees, down from 74 four years ago.) 

“The audience didn’t see a lot of change,” Leonard said.

“The last round of cuts was pretty dramatic. The goal is to not have to do more.”

In addition, the station has been under pressure to hold back some of its funding from the university.

“As with the state funding its university obligations, there is increased uncertainty about the state honoring the remaining $208,000 to IPM as well as uncertainty about next year’s support from the state,” Leonard said.

Illinois Public Media

is a not-for-profit public media service of the College of Media, which broadcasts public television and radio programs, produces local content for broadcast and the Web, and works with community partners.

WILL-AM 580 offers local and regional news coverage as well as two local talk shows, agricultural news and coverage from NPR and the BBC.

WILL-FM 90.9 offers classical music along with local news and NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”

WILL-TV blends a core of PBS programming with locally ptroduced documentaries and programs that focus on Central Illinois.

WILL Online provides live streaming of WILL-AM; downloads and archives of news stories, local talk shows and agricultural market reports; and a WILLKids site for children and parents.

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