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Rocky Mountain PBS, I-News and KUVO radio merger puts local news first

by: Sally Duros |

Independent local news from start up I-News in Colorado is the jewel in the crown of a merged public media company headed by Rocky Mountain PBS  and including public radio station KUVO (89.3 FM) in Colorado.

 "Historically, Rocky Mountain PBS had been operating in the arts and culture space, but we needed to be in the public service space," said Doug Price, a top bank executive who retired early in 1999, only to take the reins as CEO of of Rocky Mountain PBS.

“Strategically we had to look at who our partners were going to be,” Price said. “For public media, collaboration is the new competition.” 

The merger highlights a local content coupe for Rocky Mountain PBS and KUVO. I-News current report “Losing Ground” is generating kudos, media buzz and public awareness around previously unreported socioeconomic trends in Colorado. The report documents growing job, education and income disparities between Colorado’s white population and its black and Hispanic populations.  Almost every daily newspaper, and just about every public radio station across the state has picked up the special report, said Laura Frank, Executive Director of I-News.

 “It has gotten huge play,” Frank said. “It’s exactly the kind of work we have been wanting to do.”

Community foundations have been essential for the life of I-News. The newsroom’s first grant came from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, and Frank said the Community Foundation Serving Boulder County, was instrumental in bringing a Knight Community Information Challenge grant to I-News. Without these early sizeable commitments, I-News wouldn’t have had the capacity to commit to in-depth investigative work like “Losing Ground,” which takes months of researching and reporting time.

The merger has significant upside for all three partners.  

The three outlets fortify each other, creating a robust system for delivering in-depth local news across TV, radio, online platforms and physical place that can serve all media in the state, including commercial outlets like newspapers.

In return for its reporting, I-News gains a ready-to-go fundraising and membership drive engine.

 “I-News is the newsroom of this merged entity. We will be still focused on public service journalism. And this merger will give us an immediate membership infrastructure that would have taken us years to build, ” she said.

Frank said she hadn’t thought beyond foundation grants when she founded non-profit I-News in 2009, but after a fellowship with the News Entrepreneur Boot Camp at Knight Digital Media at USC Annenberg in 2010, she has increasingly focused on the business side.

The usual impediment to these kinds of partnerships and mergers are differing strategic visions or competition for the audience. In this case, Rocky Mountain PBS and I-News were simpatico.

 “As an independent nonprofit news service, our mission has been to produce public service journalism that other newsrooms would have trouble doing themselves” Frank said.  “Rocky Mountain PBS has always been our fiscal sponsor. They began to see the impact of our mission so they said, “We want your mission to be our mission too.”

The merger is part of a broader view to bring television, radio and service to print outlets altogether in one package. 

“This is really a new way to do public media. We are bringing all of our partners with us.  So it is now public media serving other public media outlets, and some commercial outlets as well,” she said.

“More and more public TV stations are starting to look back at their communities to see whether there is an opportunity to gain some differentiation, to build audience and to increase their value to communities by covering local news,” said Steve Edwards, Deputy Director of Programming for the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago and former program director for WBEZ Public Radio Chicago.

“Producing high-quality local programming can be very expensive. If you do it well you hope the investment in those programs can also bring in tremendous upsides when it comes to member donations, when it comes to community foundation grants and when it comes to corporate support,” he said.

It is exactly that in depth local reporting that Rocky Mountain PBS gains, as well as KUVO’s diverse Hispanic and African American audience, Price said.

The result will be lower operating costs so more can be invested in local storytelling. And when the are done, those stories will benefit from greater amplification.  It is, what Price calls, a “rational distribution system” that will “garner more exposure for each of the pieces created.”

It is also why Rocky Mountain PBS is merging with one radio station and simultaneously creating content sharing agreements with three others.

The thoughts for a merger were planted a year and a half ago when the Rocky Mountain PBS board put together a strategic plan and a group of partners to win support from the Gill Foundation for a new media center building, the Tim Gill Center for Public Media.

The strategic plan identified three coverage niches: arts and culture; public service journalism; and education, which includes lifelong learning.

Price’s board thought deeply about those niches of content. They thought about how that content would play out on air, online and in person. They also looked deeply at their community, examining who must be served economically, demographically and ethnically.

And, most important, they looked at geography.

Price says that nearly everyone who lives in Colorado has access to Rocky Mountain PBS. The station spends three to four times its government subsidy to ensure every house in the state of Colorado gets its signal. “99% of the residents of Colorado can get an over the air signal from Rocky Mountain PBS without having to pay a cable or satellite company,” Price said.

The station’s refined digital strategy comprises three components. First is an archive of digital content that can be accessed at any time by the audience. Second is applications, which provide access in a concise way to the key things the station does. And finally, social media is the tool for building community online.

But most important, everything will be geotargeted. 

Price says the new broadcast outlet can thank KUVO for a diverse majority minority board.

“We did it as a merger of equals,” Price said. “Our board was incredibly humble and management was incredibly humble - with my personal exception–  I get to remain CEO. But Laura had to abdicate a level of control, Carlos Lando at KUVO had to abdicate a level of control so we could work together to serve a community of color.”

“We wanted to serve that audience because it is the audience of Colorado in 20 years. It is the audience of America in 50 years.”

Price says that the merged broadcasting system plans to produce three-to-five in-depth reports per year.

The FCC must approve the merger for it to go through, but that process is expected to be uneventful.

Benefits from the merger are already evident. Rocky Mountain PBS had 47,000 members two years ago; 63,000 members last year and will have 70,000 with the addition of the radio station. 

Meanwhile, the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation just awarded I-News a fourth grant, for $100,000, Frank said. This will be a challenge grant for the first membership drive on behalf of I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS.

Frank said she is most excited about the next phase for their “Losing Ground” report. To foster community engagement in IRL  (in real life) they’ll be following up by doing eight community events with partners to address the findings of  “Left Behind.”

Sally Duros

Sally Duros is an independent journalist and digital communications strategist. You can connect with her on Google+ and on Twitter at SaDuros. She also
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