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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University’s Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM’s research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

On a recent chilly night in downtown Manhattan, about 130 fans of WNYC’s Radio Lab chuckled at quips exchanged between show hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich in the station’s new event space.

The performance wasn’t part of the public radio show’s on-air lineup, but was instead a live event for which the audience members had paid $25 per ticket. This is just one way New York Public Radio, which comprises WNYC and other operations, is reaching out to the community — and in the process making a few bucks.

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New York Public Radio has in recent years developed a lot of ways to, in the words of CEO Laura Walker, “diversify revenue streams.” It has increased its member base, used new fundraising techniques, attracted new grants, conducted capital campaigns to buy radio licenses and build new offices and studios, made financial investments, developed new sponsorships, increased web revenues, rented out its event space and more.

“What we have done is been a leader within the public media industry in applying both traditional and non-profit fundraising techniques,” Walker said in a telephone interview. “We’re taking the best of the non-profit world, the best of the public media world.”

While it has the advantage of being situated in the largest U.S. city — a financial and artistic hub Walker says is “at the center of the creative world” — the station also provides lessons in how public media can try to improve, even in difficult financial times.

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Laura Walker

Walker took charge in 1995, when WNYC was owned by the city and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was looking to sell it. Some of Walker’s first tasks were to launch a campaign to raise $20 million to buy the FCC license and to negotiate a deal to stay in the city offices for a few more years, rent-free.

She later worked to diversify the programming and sources of income and to develop a five-year plan to bring more news and information to an audience that grew swiftly after the 9/11 attacks that occurred just blocks from their Municipal Building offices.

Growth in Audience, Staff, Funds

In 1995, the station’s operating budget was $8 million, and “there was no endowment to speak of,” Walker said. Today, the budget is about $55 million*. In fiscal 2009, which ended in July, NY Public Radio, as the operation has been known since this March, raised $56.2 million in revenue and support, according to its financial statement [PDF]. It has more than $16 million cash on hand, and a staff of about 252 people, including 31 news reporters and producers, and 13 salespeople at the national and local levels. A spokesperson said $54.9 million was raised in 2010.

WNYC’s audience has grown more than 40 percent since it became independent to 1.2 million people weekly, a spokesperson said, for its two stations, one each on AM and FM.

Members to the stations in fiscal 2010 gave the largest share of contributions, $15.4 million of the $33 million received. Major donors, who gave $1,000 or more each, contributed $2.4 million. About $3.25 million, 6 percent of the station’s yearly operating budget, comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, according to the spokesperson.

The CPB also is expected to donate more than $1 million to help support “The Takeaway” morning news program, which WNYC produces in partnership with Public Radio International.

Fundraising Activities Raise Millions

To bolster its ability to create programming and keep expanding, the station has launched campaigns that in the last several years raised $62.9 million, Walker said. Members of the board, which include many New York media and society luminaries, have donated close to $22 million. Thirteen individuals or family foundations have given $1 million or more each to help support the station and its shows, she says.

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WNYC partners with NPR, PRI and American Public Media to produce or distribute shows such as “Radio Lab,” the “Studio 360” arts and culture show, “On the Media,” “Freakonomics” segments for the Marketwatch business show, and “The Takeaway.” Costs and revenues are shared with the partners.

For local audiences, WNYC launched “Financial 411” segments that explain economic issues, “Mainstreet NYC” to explore how the economy affects New Yorkers, and the Peabody award-winning “Radio Rookies” that gives teenagers, often from less privileged communities, a voice, among other shows, programs and events.

Last year, WNYC moved its operation to new headquarters that include the performance space, which was created with the help of a $6 million gift from the Jerome L. Greene Foundation. State and City agencies gave another $10 million last year toward the move out of $14.1 million they’re to contribute overall.

The Greene space, as it’s known, has hosted cooking demonstrations, concerts and readings, and is accepting applications for a second “Battle of the Boroughs” talent quest in which performers compete to host a concert and perform during the summer at Central Park’s Summer Stage. The space is working to become self-sustaining financially, said WNYC’s Indira Etwaroo, who runs it.

The recent 11th-annual gala, a glittering event hosted by station friend and listener Alec Baldwin and Ira Glass, host of Chicago Public Radio’s “This American Life,” raised close to $1 million. Baldwin, star of the hit TV show “30 Rock,” not only donated his time, but also starred in a number of humorous radio spots used for the recent fundraising drive.

NY Public Radio is raising another $15 million to purchase and operate WQXR, the nation’s most-listened to classical music station, from the New York Times this year. (Of that, $11.5 million is to purchase the FCC license, and $3.5 million for operations.) Classical music programming has since moved from WNYC-FM to QXR. WNYC-AM and -FM now concentrate on news and talk.

It all adds up to a station that has become a big fundraising presence in New York, bringing in dollars that support current activities and allow for new ones that, in turn, attract more interest and generate more revenue.

Walker Is Station’s Highest Earner

By public media standards, Walker has been well-compensated for her efforts. According to the station’s tax return for 2008 [PDF], the most recent provided, her compensation was $512,870, with $150,000 of that amount as a bonus. She was the top earner at WNYC, with former “Takeaway” co-host Adora Udoji coming in second at $332,147 (the other co-host John Hockenberry received $265,595). Dean Cappello, chief content officer and SVP was the third-highest earner, garnering $309,341.

Not everyone, of course, has been happy with everything Walker and the station have done. Last year, amid a decline in membership dollars, the station laid off four staff members, eliminated 11 unfilled positions and cut senior staff pay by five percent. Like any station, WNYC gets complaints when it changes programming or schedules, but because it’s in New York, those complaints can come from highly visible individuals.

While the station has diversified its audience to better match the multi-ethnic and racial mix of New York, some believe it could do more. Maxie C. Jackson III, was the station’s senior director of program development until a year ago. He is now president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, and thinks the station’s fundraising should reflect “a greater diversity.”

“There needs to be a focus on generating revenue from communities of color,” he said of WNYC and other public media.

Walker said the next phase for the station is “about doing innovate, creative programming in New York” and also “building out new revenue sources.”

“I think we are uniquely positioned because we have diversified revenue streams, unlike our traditional non-profit brethren that often have less” and have to rely more on government and foundation support, she said.

While WNYC does have some unique advantages by being in New York, their efforts may hold lessons for ways in which public media can grow, prosper and expand its mission in the years to come.

A former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA, Dorian Benkoil has devised and executed marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk. He and his wife, residents of New York, support WNYC as members.

  • NOTE: A previous version of this story referred to the overall budget as applying to WNYC. The budget is for New York Public Radio, which includes the WNYC and WQXR stations and other operations.
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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University’s Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM’s research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.