Arizona Public Media General Manager Jack Gibson dropped a bombshell on employees of the organization in an all-staff meeting Thursday. The UA has plans to dramatically cut funding to AZPM by fiscal year 2019 and will slash their contributions significantly year-to-year until that date. According to an internal memo sent by Gibson, AZPM “received an appropriation of approximately $2.6M” for the fiscal year 2014, and the “cumulative reduction” in the level of funding set to total two million dollars by 2019.
According to an internal memo from AZPM Community Advisory Board Chair Chris Helms, negotiations have been ongoing with AZPM and the university for the last two months, but fairly early in the process AZPM contends UA representatives showed no real interest in reaching terms that would continue to benefit the media outlet’s current financial realities.
“Several of us met with Senior VP Teri Thompson in April. It was an unsatisfactory meeting,” The Helms memo said. “Teri Thompson was either unwilling or couldn’t answer many of our questions. She did say, however that President Hart told her she was disappointed with some of AZPM’s ‘content’ which in Hart’s opinion didn’t contain enough coverage of the U of A.
“After the meeting with Thompson I requested a meeting with President Hart. That meeting was scheduled then cancelled with a request for us to work with Thompson to mitigate proposed cuts by asking for extension money from the U of A Department of Agriculture. No answer has come to us regarding that funding which incidentally would make little difference in the big picture. Several of us have come to the conclusion we’re being stonewalled.”
Helms may argue the decision is of little meaning to the UA as a whole, but it’s clearly a significant blow to AZPM, which has relied on that source of funding since its inception. While it may not be a lifeline, it obviously puts the PBS and NPR affiliate in a quandary as to how to make up the difference. Options include further negotiations with the UA to try to change the university’s perception of the media outlet’s value, and naturally figuring out ways to improve the private donation stream, which would include attempts to increase the number of overall donations and finding either major individual or corporate contributions, perhaps not unlike what the university’s athletic department has been able to generate for some of its larger facility improvement endeavors.
“UA leadership is working with AZPM management to identify potential sources of new earned revenue for the organization,” the Gibson memo said. “AZPM stations are some of the best-watched and listened to in the public media industry. The organization will become increasingly more reliant on the generosity of area business through their program underwriting support, and on individual viewers and listeners for a larger stake in its operation.”
Meanwhile, the Helms memo appears to be the first salvo in an effort to generate community outcry toward the UA’s decision.
“The CAB’s job is to communicate with the public, and particularly with AZPM’s members and supporters, to tell our story and relay feedback, good or bad, to management. If there has ever been a time to get a message to our constituents it is now,” the Helms memo said. “The proposed budget cuts by the U of A would eventually destroy all of the progress AZPM has made over the past few years. It is no exaggeration to say AZPM is one of the most successful PBS/NPR operations in the country. To allow AZPM to become a mediocrity for a mere two-million-dollars a year is a travesty.
“I urge you as members and past members of the CAB to contact everyone you know who can influence President Hart, particularly large donors, and ask them to help make our case.”
Some within AZPM are concerned the move mirrors what occurred with PBS affiliate KAET TV in Phoenix once Arizona State decided to limit funding a few years ago. Some insist that loss of revenue dramatically affected the station’s nightly news program, Horizon, and another program entitled Arizona Stories, and led to layoffs within the organization.
By media standards, AZPM went on something of a hiring spree during the last year, and added a number of voices on the radio side with aims at enhancing local programming, a proposal that still remains in the discussion stage. On the television side, KUAT TV 6 recently launched a local public affairs program, Metro Week, hosted by Andrea Kelly. Arizona Week with Lorraine Rivera airs immediately afterward on Fridays and Sundays. Arizona Illustrated (most recently referred to as AZ Illustrated), the nightly news program that began airing on the PBS affiliate in 1980, has been shelved for the summer with a visually intensive retool scheduled to debut in September. The plan with the new Arizona Illustrated is to air it at various times throughout the week, as opposed to the former approach where it aired weeknights at 6:30.