When public-radio station KUNI finished last month's "Drive to Survive" having raised $106,000 over five days, it didn't see the total as a failure even though it fell far short of the massive budget cut it was about to endure.

The budget of the Cedar Falls-based station had been cut by the University of Northern Iowa by $250,000 for the fiscal year that began July 1, but Director of Broadcasting Doug Vernier said that total wasn't a realistic goal for the emergency fundraiser. "We didn't really expect to make that," he said.

Instead of looking for more than $100,000 to cut from his budget, he views the emergency fund drive as a reprieve - essentially operating as if the cut weren't going into effect until January 1 next year. "We've got six months of grace," he said. After a special fundraiser this December for operating expenses, KUNI will evaluate whether it can make it through the fiscal year without making cuts to staff or programming.

And so for the time being, people who rely on the station for their fix of National Public Radio programming or rock music that doesn't get airplay on commercial stations can rest easy. KUNI - the largest public-radio operation that can be heard in the Quad Cities - isn't getting gutted right now.

But the issues facing the radio station might be more serious - and long-term - than a one-time budget cut. There's the very real possibility that the university won't restore the $250,000 it cut from the 2002-3 budget in the 2003-4 fiscal year. (That amount represents more than 10 percent of the station's annual budget. For perspective, the station typically raises $140,000 in each of its two annual 10-day fundraisers.) And the cut suggests that the University of Northern Iowa doesn't see KUNI as an integral part of its educational mission.

Vernier said that in his 30 years in public radio, "I have never seen cutbacks or problems like this."

KUNI's wildly diverse programming is certainly one of its chief charms; the station is largely alone among commercial and public-radio stations in playing a range of rock music from Bob Dylan to The Flaming Lips. But that variety is also a fundraising handicap, because the station tends to turn over its audience pretty regularly. (People listening to morning classical music generally aren't tuning in for rock in the evening, and Vernier said there's a big audience turnover when the station shifts from news to music programming, or vice-versa.)

Vernier doesn't seem too concerned about the current funding issues; he expresses more worry about next year and thereafter. When asked if he was concerned that special fundraisers in addition to spring and fall drives would dry the well of audience generosity, he replied, "Yes, absolutely."

But that wouldn't be much of an issue if he had confidence that this was a one-time cut. "Our greatest fear is that the university will give us the cuts next year" instead of restoring money, he said. The reasoning: If KUNI can make up the difference this year, why wouldn't it be able to every year?

There's certainly reason to think that future cuts could endanger KUNI's survival. That station is already in the odd position of competing for public-radio listener contributions in its eastern-Iowa urban areas with stations at the University of Iowa and Augustana College. And those stations, because they focus on one or two types of programming, are more likely to draw a loyal listenership, which makes fundraising easier.

KUNI's strongest area is its dedication to less-commercial rock music in the evenings. But even in that realm, it has some competition from St. Ambrose's student-run KALA.

One could make the argument that KUNI is doing little more than duplicating services offered by other stations with similar geographic coverage, especially considering the built-in disadvantage of its format. Yet KUNI isn't looking at any radical changes in its programming to maybe find a unique niche in the eastern-Iowa public-radio market. "We're trying to keep KUNI as close as possible to what it is now," Vernier said.

And Vernier said cuts to programming would only hurt the station. Dropping National Public Radio programming - such as the news shows Morning Edition and All Things Considered or the popular Car Talk - would save $160,000, Vernier said, "but then we'd lose $250,000 in fundraising. The answer isn't to make cuts."

Institutional Support

The cut from the University of Northern Iowa was a major blow to KUNI, and it helped create an understanding that in the context of higher education, a public-radio station ranks low on the list of priorities. The radio station sustained a larger cut than educational units of the university, Vernier said. "They recognize greater needs," he said of the university.

Vernier said it might be wise for university-based public-radio stations to wean themselves off the public dollar. In major urban areas, there are public-radio licenses attached to the community rather than educational institutions.

But Vernier doesn't expect public-radio stations to break away from their institutional hosts, even though in the long run it might be healthier for the stations. (In tight times, as KUNI has discovered, radio broadcasting doesn't fare well against educational goals in the university budget.) "I don't think that it's the best place for" public-radio stations, Vernier said, "but that's where they are and that's where they've been historically."

According to the Biennial Report on University Radio Stations that's prepared for the Iowa Board of Regents, KUNI has been more dependent on university funding than its counterparts at the state's two other public universities. Including in-kind support such as facilities, utilities, and services, Iowa State provided its radio stations (WOI-AM and WOI-FM) with 36.8 percent of their revenue, the University of Iowa (WSUI-AM and KSUI-FM) 47.9 percent, and the University of Northern Iowa (KUNI-FM and KHKE-FM) 51.7 percent. (The University of Northern Iowa's Fiscal Year 2002 public-radio budget of $2.26 million is between Iowa State's $3.14 million and the University's of Iowa's $1.48 million.)

A higher percentage of state funding translates into increased vulnerability to cuts. The smaller the level of institutional support, the less a funding cut will affect the station.

But the share of institutional support isn't the only factor. KUNI's budget situation reflects the university's priorities during this time of belt-tightening, a result of lower-than-expected state revenues.

At Iowa State, public radio has essentially been protected from the vagaries of state funding. The university shifted the source of funding to a trust, meaning that although the public funding of WOI-FM (a classical station) and WOI-AM (a news station) is still controlled by the university, it's no longer tied to Iowa's State's state appropriation. "The station wouldn't be subject as much to state-appropriated funding," said WOI Station Manager Bill McGinley.

That might be because public radio is part of Iowa State's extension mission as a land-grant university, McGinley said. Public radio is an integral component of the university's community outreach.

But even radio stations affiliated with higher-education institutions don't necessarily get an annual appropriation from their schools. Augustana's WVIK has a budget ranging from $750,000 to $800,000 a year, and it receives only in-kind support from the private college. That contribution of services and space amounts to less than $100,000, said Station Manager Lowell Dorman - or less than 15 percent of the total budget. "It's always tight" in public radio, Dorman said. The station ran a "slight" deficit in the last fiscal year, he said.

Yet even though it's got a much smaller budget, WVIK whips KUNI - its chief public-radio competition in the Quad Cities - in the ratings, Dorman said, typically by at least a three-to-one margin in its coverage area.

KUNI has made efforts to tap into the Quad Cities market, adding one correspondent who files periodic news reports from the area. And the organization still plans to start a full-power station in the Quad Cities to expand its reach farther into Illinois.

Dorman said WVIK's dominance might be a function of its local focus - with more local news and programming that reflects the area's classical-music heritage. While most public-radio stations have their highest ratings during Morning Edition or the afternoon news program All Things Considered, WVIK's audience peaks with classical music at 2 p.m.

That's not difficult to explain. In the Quad Cities, fans of classical music are more likely to listen to WVIK than KUNI because the programming is not nearly so fractured; they'll be able to hear classical music all day between the bookend news programs. (And news junkies probably tune into WSUI for National Public Radio talk programming throughout the day.)

McGinley suggested that KUNI might continue to struggle with its fractured format. The station is a "classic example of a block eclectic format," he said; KUNI follows morning news programming with classical music, and precedes afternoon-drive-time news programming with folk music. Evenings feature contemporary rock and world-beat music that doesn't have an outlet on commercial radio.

While that diverse mix attracts a wide audience, "you can only go so far with that format," McGinley said. "That's just really hard to build a loyal, supportive audience."

Vernier acknowledged that KUNI loses listeners with its format. "You're turning over an audience," he said. "It's part of our eclectic persona."

But that trait puts it at a competitive disadvantage. If McGinley is correct that more focused stations are more successful, KUNI is competing against news-heavy programming (WSUI) and classical-heavy (KSUI, WVIK) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and the Quad Cities. And because of the dominance of rural area within KUNI's reach, it will be crucial for the station to make inroads into urban areas.

"Their programming has not changed much," McGinley said, while other stations have sharpened their focus. In that context, it's possible that its current budget shortfall is just the beginning of its troubles.

Support the River Cities' Reader

Help Keep the Reader Alive and Free Since '93!


"We're the River Cities' Reader, and we've kept the Quad Cities' only independently owned newspaper alive and free since 1993. Now we find our ability to continue providing all the features you love in serious jeopardy without the financial support of our readers.

So please help the Reader keep going with your one-time, monthly, or annual support. With your financial support the Reader can continue providing uncensored, non-scripted, and independent journalism alongside the Quad Cities' area's most comprehensive cultural coverage." - Todd McGreevy, Publisher