WUSF Public Broadcasting

By Chris Rish


Introduction

In this project, I will investigate the largest of the four public broadcasting outlets in Tampa Bay, WUSF Public Broadcasting. I have some experience with this broadcaster, having worked for WUSF-TV between 1994 and 2000 first as an undergraduate production assistant and then as a producer. I also freelanced radio news on WUSF-FM newscasts through the same period. Since then, many of my colleagues have left their jobs, transitioned into others, or sadly, passed away. Radio’s management team has taken over all broadcast operations, including the television station and new TV studios have been built. The business model has changed and Digital Television (DTV), High Definition (HD) radio channels and online podcasting have entered the marketplace. WUSF now sends content on two radio channels, four television channels and the Internet. I intend to explore the ways that the media landscape is changing as well as how they’ve remained the same since my tenure in public broadcasting. What is the emerging business model for non pay-tv? How will public broadcasters stay alive? Is the business of non-profit radio news and local Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) still viable in the new media landscape?

Overview

WUSF Public broadcasting is a local, non-commercial, public broadcasting corporation operating from the University of South Florida - Tampa Campus (USF-Tampa). General Manager JoAnne Urofsky oversees all operations via station manager Tom Dollenmayer. WUSF is licensed to USF as an educational, public broadcaster and so WUSF Public Broadcasting operates two non-commercial broadcasting entities, WUSF-TV (DT) and WUSF-FM 89.7 radio.

Broadcasting on UHF channel 16 since September 12, 1966, WUSF-TV was originally a National Educational Television (NET) affiliate and has been a PBS affiliate since 1970. It ended Analog service on June 12, 2009. WUSF-DT now operates on channel 34 (590-96 MHz) at an intensity of 475 kW. WUSF broadcasts from an antenna in Riverview, FL with an approximate line-of-sight broadcast radius of 60 statute miles (85km) or approximately 11,310 square miles (@22,698km2 ). That approximates a circular range from Spring Hill, FL south to Sarasota along the gulf coast and east to Lake Wales, FL.

WUSF-DT's reach encompasses the entire Tampa Bay area and therefore broadcasts to the 13th largest media market in the United States. WUSF currently operates four digital television channels. 16-1 is the main channel and transmits both first run and repeat mainline PBS as well as locally produced programs in both standard definition (SD) and HD service.

This main channel shows programs that include AM yoga and fitness, USF student productions, BBC News, Deutsche Welle and PBS NewsHour programming in the evenings, travel shows in prime time and concert films and classic movies overnight and on the weekend. 16-2 is currently WUSF Kids and programs mostly children’s shows from the PBS Kids service. These include standard PBS children’s fare like Arthur, Between the Lions, Dragon Tales and Sesame Street. 16-3 is PBS’s Create service, broadcasting many how-to, do-it-yourself, cooking, travel and similar instructional programs. 16-4 is filled by the Florida Knowledge Network and shows local, county and state school districts’ productions for grade school audiences, as well as the Annenberg Foundation and USF Tele-courses for adult learners. Students can receive college credit for regularly tuning in to WUSF programs and engaging with that content. At other times, state governmental meetings and public affairs programs are shown on The Florida Channel in a statewide fashion similar to the national C-SPAN network.

WUSF-FM Radio is the dominant public radio station in the Tampa Bay region. A National Public Radio (NPR), American Public Media (APM), and Public Radio International (PRI) affiliate, WUSF-FM broadcasts 71,000 watts of non-commercial news, classical music and jazz in stereo at 89.7 MHz. A hybrid broadcaster (with both digital and analog services), WUSF has one FM analog and one HD digital channel and has been broadcasting since 1963 from the then brand-new campus of the University of South Florida.

WUSF radio’s broadcast sphere is slightly smaller than WUSF-TV’s but serves largely the same area. WUSF programs its FM analog station (89.7-1) with NPR and local news in the audience-heavy morning and evening drives and plays classical music (9 AM to 4 PM) throughout the weekday. After 10:00 PM weeknights and on the weekend, 89.7-1 plays a wide variety of live and recorded jazz music. Saturday AM they play the popular Car Talk and Wait, Wait. . .Don’t Tell Me live national call-in shows. Weekend evenings are reserved for This American Life and A Prairie Home Companion.

Their digital HD station, WUSF (89.7-2) “broadcasts all news and public affairs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and offers a rich schedule of talk programming including: “Talk of The Nation,'' “Fresh Air,'' “Day To Day'' “On Point," “On The Media,” “The Infinite Mind'' and “Only A Game." These are programs with news, interview, quiz shows and public affairs in balance to the more traditional public radio mix of classical music/jazz/news content on 89.7-1. 89.7-2 gets most of its programming from the BBC, APM and PRI and currently offers at least ten hours of news programming in every 24 hour cycle, including the BBC World overnights from 11:00 PM to 5:00 AM each weekday.

Audience

WUSF’s mission is: “provide meaningful and relevant content that enhances our community’s quality of life.” Its potential audience is the greater Tampa Bay Community, the 13th largest media market in the United States with a total of approximately 4,000,000 potential viewers and listeners in the greater metropolitan area. As a community broadcaster, WUSF Public Broadcasting tries to serve a complete cross section of the local population, offering non-commercial news, education and entertainment programming with the goal of appealing to the widest possible of all demographics of any broadcaster in the region.

WUSF-FM has a weekly cumulative audience of approximately 300,000 unduplicated listeners who tune in at least once for five minutes or more per week. Those listeners account for a share of 3.7 or approximately 3.7% of the radio listeners in the Tampa Bay area at any given moment. Although that may sound small, these listeners are important to program underwriters, as they are substantially higher educated and have more disposable income than the average radio listener in the area. This is due to their high quality, very sophisticated product of news, public affairs and classical music.

Similarly, WUSF-DT claims that Public Television has a very influential audience. According to the WUSF Web site TV audience page, 61% of viewers are more likely to have a home valued over $500,000, 75% are more likely to be a CFO and 46% are more likely to be the owner or president of a company. Public television’s prime time ratings are as high or higher than any major cable networks’ and its viewers are likely to be affluent, educated, major decision-makers. Any network would likely be very happy to have the kind of demographics PBS broadcasters like WUSF-DT can boast about.

Competitors

WUSF competes with another public television station, WEDU, in the Tampa Bay public television market. They rival one another for viewers (and members). WEDU is one of the highest-rated public broadcasters in the United States, with approximately 40,000 members. WUSF has long played second violin behind the more influential ‘EDU. WEDU has first right of refusal for local premiere of new PBS programs and takes the lion’s share of first-run showings on PBS’s higest-rated shows. WEDU also competes head-to-head politically with WUSF for grant and community dollars. Indeed, WEDU recently scored a significant coup over WUSF when it lobbied successfully to have its channels kept on basic cable over WUSF’s, which were demoted to digital channels on several Bay area cable services, through its argument that it is the PBS station of choice in the bay area, thereby reducing WUSF’s total potential viewing households substantially while protecting its own.

Similarly, WUSF-FM competes in the news market with WMNF-FM 88.5MHz. Traditionally, ‘MNF is the second public radio station in the market but skews younger and has a more diverse base, as they program much more widely and have been making steady inroads into WUSF territory with their own, competing nightly newscast combined with a heavy dose of counter-programming. WMNF plays public affairs through the mid-day when WUSF is programming classical music, and eclectic music during drive time when WUSF reads the news.

Economics

WUSF has the simultaneous privilege and curse of being a non-commercial public broadcaster. It is a privilege in that their two stations do not have to make programming decisions based entirely upon what the largest number of viewers will watch or listen to at any given time. They are not slaves to ratings nor do they kowtow to advertisers. It is also a curse because the business of broadcasting is expensive, even the power bill for digital transmission could put smaller stations out of business as it is astronomically expensive.

For example, my household Progress Energy bill last month was $104.01 for 665 KwH billed at 5.57 cents/KwH. Not counting the large and substantial bills to power WUSF’s studio facilities, staff offices, engineering equipment and computers, which the university provides and funds from its own operating budget, the electricity to power the one analog radio transmitter and one DTV transmitter in Riverview for the two stations could bankrupt a small duchy. In back of the napkin calculations (72Kw/Hour Radio + 475Kw/Hour DTV = 547Kw/Hour.) 547Kw x 24H x 30D = 393,840 KwH/Month, just to keep the signal on the air. At the residential rate of 5.57 cents/KwH that would mean a power bill of $21,934.66/Month. The station gets an industrial rate and the physics of broadcasting are not as straightforward as I have made them out to be, but it is significantly more expensive to broadcast DTV than the older analog signals. In fact, WUSF had a working digital transmitter installed for over two years, but did not turn it on except for testing because it was cost prohibitive to broadcast both analog UHF and DTV signals simultaneously.

Since it is so expensive to operate a TV station, fund the programmers, managers, traffic specialists, camerapersons, producers and editors, the station has to raise a large amount of money every year to cover its operating expenses. WUSF radio and TV have a sales team that sells underwriting which, for all intents and purposes, is advertising. Although the amount of underwriting content is significantly less on public broadcasters than on their commercial counterparts, and often relegated to the time between programs, the underwriting spots look and sound almost identical to the messages found on commercial stations.

To cover their operating costs and to fund the stations year over year, many PBS and NPR stations like WUSF choose to do at least two annual membership drives. During this time, they interrupt regular programming, come on air and ask viewers in their community to support the station by donating money in the form of a station membership. Although station memberships do little to add to the quality of programming during the pledge drive, they do keep the stations on the air, and perhaps viewers do feel better about consuming the station’s products when they know that they have played a part in funding them as public television members. WUSF sells memberships at $35, $250, $1,000, $5,000 and $10,000 annual levels. They seek corporate sponsorships, accept estate and asset gifts and even have a vehicle donation program. Obviously, it pays WUSF to come up with creative ways for people to give them money.

As these efforts by themselves are not sufficient to cover the overhead of operating a television station, WUSF has many ways of making ends meet. First of all, the University itself maintains and powers their physical facilities, saving the stations hundreds of thousands in operating expenses annually. Furthermore, the station airs USF-related programming and tele-courses, many of which come attached to federal and state grant funding that covers other production and engineering expenses at the stations.

In addition, WUSF has created a private, wholly-owned subsidiary, Intellis Media as its production company within a TV station. Intellis serves as the manager of WUSF-DT’s studios and is either directly the producer or contracted to provide services for much of the production that occurs at WUSF. Intellis is a for-profit company, and was established with the goal of renting out the studios and providing other valuable production services to the larger community that could generate revenue for the station. Intellis’ was created with the goal of subsidizing other, loss-creating activities at the station. Particularly since the large Federal Corporation for Public Broadcasting grants dried up in the late 1990s, PBS stations across the country have been looking for revenue streams to help them stay in business. Intellis Media is WUSF’s answer to that dilemma.

News Investment

Both WUSF-DT and WUSF-FM have significant investments in news and information. The entirety of morning and afternoon drives are dedicated to news on the radio via NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered national programs. A reporting staff of three radio reporters and two anchors adds local flavor to a largely Washington, New York, Los Angeles focus on ATC. Even more to the point, WUSF 89.7-2 is completely dedicated to news and information with its all-talk, all-the-time programming. The second channel’s audience skews younger and helps it stay relevant with a more tech-savvy audience who may not be as interested in classical music. HD2 plays more than 10 hours of news programming in every 24 hours of program schedule.

WUSF-DT gives over the news-crafting to USF students with an opportunity to report for “Florida Focus,” part of the USF School of Mass Communications’ Broadcast News undergraduate curriculum on the Tampa campus. Each week, students write, produce, shoot and edit a 2:30 TRT newscast that is inserted in a break in national news programs on WUSF-DT. Clyde McCain, former production manager at WUSF-TV supervises along with faculty from the school. The students receive class credit and the station provides a valuable service to both the students still learning to produce news and the community-at-large who get local stories they might not otherwise encounter. Mass communications students also produce two other programs for the station, Talk of the Town a studio public affairs program and The Spectrum Project, a single topic half-hour documentary project that airs each semester on WUSF-DT.

Along with these educational news opportunities, WUSF-DT also airs an international weekday news block from 5 to 6:00 PM, when it airs the BBC production Worldfocus, followed by Deutsche Welle’s English-language service, The Journal. For nighttime viewers, the BBC World News airs at 11:30 PM. WUSF do not have their own local television news staff, and do not produce any local news outside of the technical assistance they provide to the USF student productions. WUSF-DT’s own local television production is Florida Matters, a topical public affairs studio program that rolls in field packages to preface on-air discussions.

Ownership

The University of South Florida, via its office of communications and WUSF Public Broadcasting is the holder of both WUSF broadcast licenses. Each of these stations is re-licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) every four years. Technically, the station belongs to the University, which has a Board of Trustees and they, in turn, are overseen by the Board of Governors of the State University System and ultimately, the State Governor. Technically all Floridians own the station, but practically, WUSF operates largely as an independent organization. JoAnne Urofsky, the General Manager, reports directly to Michael Hoad, Vice President for Communications and Marketing at USF. He reports to Judy Genshaft, USF President. Mr. Hoad files the FCC Quarterly Reports and would therefore be the only person outside the immediate WUSF organization involved in official broadcasting activities at USF.

Multimedia

WUSF has a very well developed Web site that serves as its online portal for converged media. You can listen to all of their channels’ live audio programming both streaming and as archives. (Audience members I talked to prefer to listen on the Internet while at work or at home, especially as radio reception is susceptible to atmospheric interference.) Viewers can see and hear all of WUSF’s locally-produced sound and video content online through wusf.usf.edu. The news department has its own page with local and national headlines and the up-to-the minute NPR news headlines and hourly newscasts available at a click. The rule seems to be that anything WUSF-produced or USF Student produced is available on the web as archives and/or podcasts. National programs are more likely to be available through the program producer’s Web site.

Anyone can donate money and become a WUSF “member” online. The program schedule for each channel is posted and up-to-date. The WUSF Web site has direct advertising that “underwriters” can buy to promote their products that helps fund WUSF. Courageously, the WUSF web portal has everyone in management’s name, e-mail and direct phone number, a first in my book for a TV and Radio station. Don’t like something you’ve seen or heard, the station manager’s phone number and e-mail are right there.

Challenges

Unfortunately for the television station, many of the broadcast licenses for the national programs they air do not allow for rebroadcast on the Internet, for live streaming or podcasting of content, so WUSF-DT’s Web site is not nearly as media rich as the radio portion of their Web site. They do make sure that all relevant video content to which they own copyright is online, but that’s only a tiny fraction of what they show on their station. Since WUSF does not produce that much content, this portion of the Web site is lacking. It could also be a much larger problem in the future, as this kind of media outlets can best serve its local community when its has more home grown content, particularly as a media outlet that caters to the local and educational community in Tampa.

Furthermore, the business model of membership web sites has had limited success in the online environment. Time will tell as the media landscape continues to move into the online distribution of content. Radio seems like it’s on more solid financial ground for the long term than does TV, as people still choose to listen to the radio in their cars. Broadcast television is in the process of becoming irrelevant as it is eclipsed by Internet delivery of video content. What happens next is in the realm of conjecture.

Discussion

The future of public broadcasting seems always to be in question. Without a commitment from the Federally-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting to provide year-over-year baseline funding to stations, or barring that, a substantial independent foundation endowment, local PBS and NPR stations are always begging for money. Even though public broadcasters are overwhelmingly popular with their audience and dollar-for-dollar spent, win more awards for quality than similar producers of content, they are faced with the same problems of funding poverty again and again. The real issue seems not to be the stations themselves, but with their government-legislated business model.

By fundamentally forcing PBS and NPR stations to be non-commercial, non-profit organizations but not simultaneously providing for the real expenses that similar-sized, for profit broadcasters have in manpower, engineering and facilities, the public stations must compete against their commercial neighbors with one arm tied behind their backs. Congress either needs to cut them loose and help them become their own profit-making machines, allowing each station to merge and/or ally themselves with other stations, let the big fish grow and the smaller ones wither on the vine in a true capitalistic model, or we need to give them the baseline funding they need to stay in business. This is not a reinvention of anything, but a mirror of how non-commercial broadcasters operate in the rest of the developed world (Britain, France, Canada, Germany and Japan, for example, all operate broadcast services that are underwritten by the government).

WUSF is in the fortunate position of being associated with a major national university (8th largest in the US, by enrollment) who pays many of their bills while also helping give them a strong, statewide identity. They are also strong because their brand crosses medium, which none of their competitors in their local market have. If they could unseat WEDU as the dominant PBS station in Tampa Bay, they would be in very good shape. But WEDU’s stature in the community, as evidenced by the Bright House Cable situation, currently prohibits that.

WUSF needs to grow the locally produced content part of their business, as that will carry their brand farther into the very important Internet medium, serving the local audience with even more local news and information. This strategy seems to be one of the ways TV and radio stations are staying relevant on the Internet, by taking skill sets and audineces they already posess and extending them onto the new marketplace. Especially since the larger producers of content don’t need a TV station to deliver HD programming directly to their viewers anymore, the station will have to work hard to re-establish itself as a community resource, otherwise who needs it? Perhaps by having fewer national programs, more locally produced news content, and more tele-courses, WUSF could grow its online presence and insure its longtime survival into the very exciting future of these new media.

REFERENCES

Federal Communications Commission:

Station Search Details http://licensing.fcc.gov/cgi-bin/ws.exe/prod/cdbs/pubacc/prod/sta_det.pl?Facility_id=69338

accessed 12.02.09

Federal Communications Commission:

Video Division http://www.fcc.gov/fcc-bin/tvq?call=WUSF-TV

accessed 12.02.09

Service Area http://www.fcc.gov/fcc-bin/FMTV-service-area?x=DS635025.html

accessed 12.02.2009

WUSF-FM 89.7 MHz http://www.radio-locator.com/cgi-bin/info?call=WUSF&service=FM

accessed 12.02.2009

About WUSF http://www.wusf.usf.edu/about/about_wusf

accessed 12.04.2009

The WUSF Radio Audience http://www.wusf.usf.edu/support/wusf_radio_audience

accessed 12.04.2009

The Public Television Audience http://www.wusf.usf.edu/support/wusf_tv_audience

retrieved 12.04.2009

WUSF Is Carried In Digital-only Format http://tampabay.brighthouse.com/wusf/default.aspx

accessed 12.07.2009

ATTENTION! BRIGHT HOUSE VIEWERS http://www.wusf.usf.edu/html_docs/announcements/brighthouse.html

accessed 12.07.2009 Hoad, Michael. FCC Form 388 1-09. “DTV Quarterly Activity Station Report.”

WUSF Web site http://www.wusf.usf.edu/

accessed 9.12.2008