Public broadcaster WFYI is counting on its listeners and viewers to open their wallets in a big way this fall.
And there’s little reason to doubt they’ll pull through before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. Last fiscal year, when state support fell 50 percent and corporate sponsorships dried up, individual giving rose slightly, to $3.38 million, despite the weak economy.
“Individuals that can support WFYI recognize we need them more than ever,” said CEO Lloyd Wright, 57, who’s
led the organization since 1989.
The TV and radio broadcaster will ask more of that loyal audience in the next year, as it gears up for a campaign to grow its endowment well beyond its current $2.2 million. Wright declined to state how much WFYI might go after, but said, “We would like to grow that dramatically.”
The radio station, FM 90.1, has 115,000 weekly listeners, who, according to Arbitron, listen for an average of one hour per day. The TV station, Channel 20, reaches farther geographically, so its audience is about three times greater.
But across the country, public radio is enjoying the greateer growth. The national audience for public radio has grown from 20 million to 35 million in the past 10 years, said Tom Thomas, co-CEO of the Station Resource Group, an association of public radio stations in Takoma Park, Md.
“The principal driver is news and information programming,” he said.
During the recession, public radio audiences generally maintained their giving level, or increased their support, said Helen Kennedy, president of Portland, Ore.-based Lewis Kennedy Associates, which advises several public broadcasters on fundraising.
On the other hand, public television stations have struggled with high costs, an issue that troubles commercial television, too, Kennedy said.
Public radio listeners are an educated, affluent, left-leaning group, according to the Station Resource Group, and they apparently find NPR’s drive-time shows indispensable.
“They are essentially supporting what they use every day,” Kennedy said.
Individual donors are the largest source of revenue for most public radio stations, Thomas said. At WFYI, the $3.4 million executives expect to raise before closing their fiscal year on Sept. 30 will represent more than 35 percent of a $9.15 million budget.
Development Director Theresa Tetrault said WFYI still needs to raise about $300,000 to reach the $3.4 million. As of the end of July, the pace of fundraising was 4 percent ahead of last year.
WFYI says 40 percent of its members choose to support both TV and radio, 35 percent support only television, while 25 percent select only radio.
The next-largest category of support, about 25 percent, is corporate sponsors.
“We’ve had some encouraging signs in recent weeks, but it’s been a challenge,” Wright said. “Corporations often don’t know what to make of WFYI.”
Paying for programs
The local broadcaster pays PBS about $1 million a year for its programs, which make up about 70 percent of the television schedule, and about $700,000 a year to NPR. The national radio network provides drive-time shows such as “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”
Adding more local content is a key part of the strategy WFYI is drawing up to support its endowment push.
“That’s the most expensive part of our operation, creating local content from concept to completed program,” Wright said. “Yet at the same time we think it’s an extremely important part of the mission.”
WFYI produces shows such as “Indiana Week in Review,” a political roundtable that airs on both television and radio.
The conversion from analog to digital technology in late 2007 created new TV and radio channels. WFYI is working with other public TV stations in Indiana to fill one of the channels, 20.3, with Indiana-centric programs.
The stations will introduce a three-hour block in late October and hope to see it evolve into a 24/7 Indiana channel. The block may include the show “Around Indiana” and arts and public affairs programming.
But much of the growth in local content will probably be on the radio side, Wright said, because production costs are lower.
Many public radio stations use local hosts during the national programs, as does WFYI, but few public television stations can afford to put together their own news broadcasts, Kennedy said.
WFYI radio recently launched a public-affairs talk show, “No Limits,” hosted by Franklin College journalism dean John Krull.
“We’re really proud of the radio station and trying to localize it more,” Wright said.
Local content has been a boon to some public radio stations, Thomas said.
“When that’s done consistently and done well, that produces higher listening and higher giving,” he said.
Just two years ago, WFYI’s audience supported the move into a larger headquarters at 1630 N. Meridian St.
The broadcaster paid $8.5 million for the 110,000-square-foot former headquarters of Indiana Energy and spent $11.6 million to equip it. The move hasn’t added significant operating costs because WFYI leases nearly half the space to office tenants.
WFYI also was fortunate to receive a major grant that closed out a $20.3 million capital campaign that October, just as the stock market tanked. But the plan also counted on the sale of WFYI’s existing buildings at 1401 and 1433 N. Meridian.
The first building sold last year for an undisclosed amount, but the latter is still on the market for $700,000. Wright hopes the next campaign will help eliminate the remainder of a $1 million bridge loan.
WFYI shed about $800,000 from its budget in January 2009 because of anticipated losses in donor and government support. The stations cut 10 of its 83 staff members and management salaries 5 percent.
The organization ended in the red in 2009, and executives blame steep cuts in state funding. Because of the state’s own budget crisis, Gov. Mitch Daniels cut all public broadcast funding in half. WFYI’s share fell from about $500,000 to $240,000.
That was enough to leave WFYI with a $140,000 deficit, Tetrault said.
WFYI reported a larger loss—$525,000—in a filing with the Internal Revenue Service. The not-for-profit used different accounting standards—including factoring in depreciation on equipment—in that report. Combined with the preceding year’s budget gap, the organization had a two-year operating loss of $1.5 million, the filing said.•