KALW and KUT Leaders Speak About Guiding Stations in a Moment of Change

leadership, diversity & inclusion, COVID-19

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As organizations wrestle with the question of whether or when to return to in-person workspaces, public media leaders are aware of the seismic changes that have taken place since their teams filed out of buildings in March, 2020. Some employees have endured great hardship and loss. Many have altered perspectives on work-life balance. There may not be consensus about what constitutes a safe return. And our nation’s wider public consciousness about race and racism demands our attention. 

We spoke with two system leaders, Tina Pamintuan, general manager of KALW in San Francisco, and Debbie Hiott, general manager of KUT Public Media in Austin, Texas to learn about their approach to leadership at this moment in time. 

Greater Public: Have you settled on plans to return to in-person workspaces?

Tina Pamintuan: After we sheltered in place for much of 2020 and into 2021, we put out a survey to understand what was positive about working from home and what had been hard. We’re developing a plan from that feedback. We will likely return to work with a hybrid situation because we know that people do want to see each other, and being in the same space makes a difference. 

We want to accommodate people’s comfort about returning; they want to know that the other people in their workspace are vaccinated [for COVID-19]. We will require that volunteers and staff be vaccinated, but there are conflicting opinions about how to work with interview guests.

We are also going through intense cultural change right now which has its very real challenges, especially when working remote. Still, in many ways, we have a happy workplace, where people celebrate each other’s successes. Spontaneous dance parties occasionally break out—even on Zoom. Our newsroom has a barbeque that is well-used when we are on-site. 

Debbie Hiott: We made plans to come back in September, and then pushed that back. Then our [affiliate] university required that we come back by September 16, which we have been able to change to October 1. We’re part of a state agency and our [state] government doesn’t want things shut down. Legislation was passed in Texas that forbids us from asking about people’s vaccine status and we can’t require mask-wearing. Our university went to a flex work system, which is something I’d been wanting to do at KUT even before the pandemic, in part because our content floor is bursting at the seams. Both our music and news teams have experienced a lot of growth over the past five years. 

Flex work allows for people to coordinate working outside of the office on some days, so we’re setting up hoteling desks and the team is excited about having that flexibility. I think [whether or not we return fully in-person] is a business continuity issue. The Delta variant has shown us how precarious things can be. I’m [at the station] a few days a week and about 50% of students [at affiliate University of Texas at Austin] are wearing masks. The vaccination rate in our county is about 67%, but that doesn’t capture the rate among students who come from other areas in Texas whose rates can be lower than 50%. We try to stress to our university that we need to protect our on-air staff. Even though they’re vaccinated, illness could take them away from their jobs for days.

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WBEZ Takes Chance on Sustainer-Focused Digital Campaign and Wins

Membership, pledge drive, COVID-19

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After its spring 2021 pledge drive, Chicago’s WBEZ-FM realized it had a problem. Although the station was making its goal for one-time donations, it was missing the mark for sustainer memberships, a factor that could be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Revenue from sustainers is critical. At WBEZ, it accounts for more than $7 million of its $13 million annual membership budget, representing more than 60% of its donor base. Amy Wielunski, vice president for WBEZ Membership, could see that a sustainer downturn was starting to persist over time, something the station could not afford to ignore. 

“During the pandemic, we noted that pledge drives were effective in generating one-time donations,” says Wielunski. “We were meeting our budgetary goals for our drives, but were falling short in the number of sustainers per pledge drive. We knew we had to do something about it.”

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How the Pandemic Prepared Public Media to Build an Audience-Centered Culture

leadership, Audience Engagement, COVID-19

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Over the past year, I’ve watched public media organizations meet the challenges of the pandemic by creating ways to serve audiences that would have been previously unimaginable. 

From COVID help desks to the most creative examples of virtual — and newly accessible — live events, the pandemic challenged many of our organizations to set aside some of the well-worn ways we do things in order to ask a single essential question: 

“What does our community need from us right now, and how can we best provide it for them?” 

The process of asking and answering that question is how we develop an audience. Continually repeating this process while embodying and rewarding the skills required to meet audience needs is how we build an audience-centered culture.

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ideastream's Virtual Asks of Major Donors

Major Giving, COVID-19

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Last year, we were looking for ways to connect with major donors in a manner that would inspire them, allow us to make solicitations, and also be safe given restrictions presented by the pandemic. We developed a two-pronged effort designed to first connect with major donors through a virtual event and then deliver an ask based on the donor’s particular passions and interests.

We started our engagement with an exclusive virtual event aimed at our Idea Leaders at the $1,200+ giving level. We called the event “Inside ideastream.” Each subsequent event had a different topic.

The inaugural one-hour virtual presentation hosted by ideastream’s president and CEO, Kevin Martin, was attended by about 60 donors. Kevin shared a behind-the scenes look at our strategic plan and highlighted some of the various ways we were advancing our mission to serve the community.

After the event, I collaborated with our board chair to identify those who had attended the virtual event whom she also had a relationship with. Then she reached out to those individuals to invite them to attend an individual special presentation. We planned five individual presentations based on what we felt the donors’ passions and interests were, including election 2020; community issues; and arts and culture.

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How to Pivot Corporate Support to Meet This Year's Challenges, Part 3

sales strategy, Corporate Support, COVID-19

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Greater Public CEO Joyce MacDonald recently sat down again with Paul Jacobs, VP/General Manager of Jacobs Media, for the third in a series of conversations about disruptions to the public media corporate support landscape (go back and read Part 1 and Part 2). The discussion was designed to take stock of where we are a little over a year into the pandemic and to offer advice for sales teams working towards recovery: 

First the good news: things are better than they were this time last year … 

But, to state the obvious: they are still messy! 

Here are a few tips from the conversation to help you continue to navigate through the uncertainty, keeping this guiding principle top-of-mind:

Just because things are beginning to resemble “normal” life, we are not going back to the way things were. If you are looking at 2021 through a 2019 lens, you are in trouble. 

Consider:

Digital Acceleration

The shift to digital marketing that was taking place prior to the COVID-19 pandemic is now accelerating. This is primarily because many local companies had to learn digital as a survival tactic to literally keep their businesses open during lockdown. In doing so, here's what they learned:

  • Digital marketing is not as hard as they thought, in fact it is pretty easy.
  • Digital marketing offers direct communication with customers, which they like.
  • Digital marketing makes tracking and testing possible, which allows for flexibility of messaging and spend in an uncertain business environment. Again, something they like. 

As a result, they will continue using digital moving forward.

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Finding Ways to Meet Sponsors’ Needs During a Pandemic

event sponsorship, Corporate Support, marketing, COVID-19

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Greater Public spoke with Joyce Cotton, director of marketing and community partnership at WEDU/PBS TV. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Cotton has relied on many of the techniques she’s honed over decades in the industry, combined with inspiring new ideas for how to serve sponsors, her station, and the community. Here are some of the practices - old and new - that have helped her meet sponsors’ needs in valuable ways. 

Lean into Sponsor Relationships During Hard Times

Over the years, I have been involved in the Tampa Bay community which has given me the opportunity to have a greater understanding of the issues that are of concern in the local community. At the start of the pandemic, I realized that this was going to be a time of change and uncertainty for everyone. I was a natural at adapting and adjusting to change. We have a relatively small underwriting team and I handle most of the arts venues which were shut down immediately. So, maybe two thirds of my business was impacted. I reached out to each community partner in an email. I said, “I understand your situation, if you need help with something, just let me know. We are all in this together.”

Because of the relationship that I have with my clients, some of them reached out to me, including an area restaurant that’s long supported WEDU. They asked if we could produce a spot to let their customers know that, although the restaurant was closed, their chef was preparing family dinners for curbside pick-up. A family-owned catering company changed their on-air message to encourage the donation of catered meals to the doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers who were caring for COVID-19 patients in area hospitals. 

I am fortunate to have developed ongoing community partnerships. For example, since the opening of the Glazer Children’s Museum 10 years ago, we, along with our education department, host bi-monthly “Free Tuesday” events on-site that include PBS Kids activities, character appearances, mobile labs with iPads featuring PBS Kids games apps, take-home educational resources for families, and free books for the kids. We have 2,000 - 3,000 people at each event. The museum recently reopened with a Wild Kratts exhibit in March [of this year] and will have the Daniel Tiger exhibit opening in the summer. Although we are not hosting the “Free Tuesday” events due to the limited capacity, the marketing director contacted me about this natural tie-in to continue our partnership and the museum is recognizing WEDU PBS as a sponsor of both exhibits. They have committed a $10,000 cash underwriting schedule to promote the reopening and assure families that they can come back safely.

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Boost Staff Motivation One Year into the Pandemic

Corporate Support, General Management, COVID-19

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The question on everyone’s lips just a month ago was “how do I keep my staff motivated one year into the pandemic”?

Due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses have had to overcome so many extra challenges, boosting employee morale and keeping employees motivated when they’re working remotely.

We’ve become a Zoom society. Working from home almost daily, we’re Zooming with our sponsorship prospects and clients, our coworkers, and station managers. It’s not always easy. Zoom meetings bring technical glitches, dropped connections, and interruptions from our pets or family members which can be an embarrassing situation. And there’s the often-heard, “you need to unmute yourself.”

Trying to motivate employees after months of being away from an office environment can be challenging. We're so focused on rebuilding relationships and revenue streams that a mental health break is in order. Without time to blow off some steam, a person can become bored, frustrated, and unmotivated.

Here are some ideas to lift your staff's spirits and morale, or offer them a break from their challenges and struggles.

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Why Confronting Ethics in Fundraising Matters Now

Major Giving, COVID-19

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Americans tend to place more trust in nonprofit organizations than they do in many other structures. But if any organization abuses that trust or defies the ethics of philanthropy, it paints us all with the same mistrust. 

When some nonprofit hospitals across the country recently allowed their major donors and board members to “skip the line” and receive the coronavirus vaccination early or through special invite-only arrangements, it understandably angered not just the general public but most of us inside fundraising. 

The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) released an unambiguous rebuke of the practice. “The idea of hospital systems, or any charity, ignoring protocols, guidance or restrictions—regardless of origin—and offering certain donors and board members the opportunity to ‘skip the line’ and receive vaccinations ahead of their scheduled time is unethical, inequitable and antithetical to the values of philanthropy and ethical fundraising.”

While we in public media are not subject to concern over vaccine distribution, it would be unwise to ignore this opportunity to examine our own ethical responsibilities to discover where we need to shore up our practices.

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Corporate Support Strategy in the Coming Year: Growing and Diversifying Audience

Corporate Support, COVID-19

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After a recent lively one-on-one conversation with Greater Public CEO Joyce MacDonald, Vice President and General Manager of Jacobs Media, Paul Jacobs, answered some additional questions from station colleagues across the system about corporate support efforts in the wake of challenges from the past year.

Q: What are some best practices for operating public media outlets?

Jacobs: While I don’t have best practices to offer specifically, I can tell you that what used to be a much simpler task has grown significantly more complex in the past decade. The onset of digital, the aging of the core audience, the diversity of America, and new competitors all make operating a public radio significantly more challenging. Given this, I offer these suggestions:

  1. Embrace younger, diverse staff members. All media outlets, including public radio, tend to rely on old experienced hands (like me). But we know Millennials and even Gen Z have much different experiences and outlooks. To position your station for the future, get them into the conversation.

  2. Research the audience. One of the greatest things about digital platforms is that conducting ongoing audience surveys and Zoom focus groups is a lot easier. I find too many public radio stations don’t take the time to get real input from their audience and miss opportunities to serve.

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How to Pivot Corporate Support to Meet This Year's Challenges, Part 2

sales strategy, Corporate Support, COVID-19

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After their first conversation about disruptions to the public media corporate support landscape due to COVID-19, Greater Public CEO Joyce MacDonald sat down again with Paul Jacobs, VP/General Manager of Jacobs Media to learn about his best advice as we move into the new year. 

Where we are: the wild ride continues

The roller coaster of a year has continued for businesses, consumers, and media companies alike. Last fall brought more uncertainty with colder weather, a rise in COVID cases and more restrictions. At the same time, the promise of a vaccine is a bright light taking us into 2021, and there is hope that by Q2 business and marketing may start to come back to an operational “normal” (although things will never be as they were).

Consider these trends and their long-term impacts, which are still unknown:

  • Consumers are moving out of big cities.
  • Two million women have voluntarily left the workforce.
  • Many small businesses - including those that are the bread and butter for public media - probably won’t make it.
  • Working from home is likely to be a part of business operations for the foreseeable future.
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