I’ve been following the recent news where Western Illinois University has directed budget cuts at Tri-State Public Radio’s three radio stations and it’s Audio Information Services (AIS) as of March 1, 2019.
It’s not a small sum. The university pulled all their financial support from the radio, which serves as outreach service of the College of Fine Arts and Communications at WIU. The university’s funding represents $454,000, which is about half of the radio group’s annual funding. The rest comes from financial contributions and grant money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
General Manager Jonathan Ahl has hosted several outreach forums in the past four weeks, including one at the Fort Madison Public Library on Thursday evening in front about a dozen advocates. TSPR staff has been holding the forums since the announcement was made this summer.
The removal of funds not only puts the radio station in a precarious position, it also follows a trend of reducing staffs that are charged with gathering local news. Most area newspapers have downsized their news staffs in an alarming trend that should be of greater concern than whether or not we’ll have “Wait…Wait Don’t Tell Me” on Saturday morning. (Which we must keep. That’s my favorite Saturday morning radio time when I’m traveling.)
Ahl said it’s very likely that Tri-State Public Radio, which serves all or parts of 20 counties in western Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri, will have to cut their staff in half by July 1. He said staff salaries are guaranteed through June 30. He also told the group that TSPR has no intention of stopping programming or halting service.
The TSPR stations include WIUM at 91.3FM which covers predominantly west-central Illinois and Burlington, WIUW at 89.5FM which is heavy in Lee County and extreme northeast Missouri and just across the river in Illinois; and WVKC at 90.7FM in Galesburg. Ahl told the group due to budget cuts, the Galesburg office may close, but the signal will still be carried.
Our local on-air reporter Jason Parrott is no stranger to hard news and peeling back the layers of government. He knows how to build, and has built, solid relationships with area sources and gets at the news. He keeps us abreast of what’s happening in our courts, during our elections, and in our schools. Parrott’s been with TSPR for some time and it’s only speculation as to whether he would be a part of the remaining staff. But I can’t think of any source I know or work with that would be happy seeing Jason not doing what Jason does.
It’s never been more apparent to me that readers look to media to solve some of their problems. After all, we’re the one’s who know how to dig, right? And although I don’t agree that we should be the only ones keeping an eye on public officials…that is part of the gig.
With WIU pulling the strings and not providing any real information as to why they are doing it in this fashion, rather than a more manageable step down of say, five years, perks up the sensations of this friendly neighborhood reporter.
Ahl is in a tough bind because WIU is technically still his employer, but officials have said they want the radio station to be self-supported. Surely WIU officials would see that a stepped-down approach, if even required at this point, would be better than literally trying to pull the table cloth and leave the dishes.
The other head-tilting issue is that Ahl and TSPR officials had prepared a three-year cost-cutting plan to present to WIU President Dr. Jack Thomas, but not only were they not invited to any meetings, they were not allowed to attend any meetings. So either the administration was done discussing the idea and slammed the door, or costs weren’t the only reason they were cut.
Ahl told the Fort Madison group, the radio station filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the university for all emails and any formal and informal documented conversations with administration officials regarding the stations’ funding. He said documents have been received and the staff is pouring over them now for some indication of what transpired.
Newspapers locally, regionally, and nationally are cutting news staffs like we’re the cancer of their economic woes, and our ability to continue to keep local residents apprised of news is getting harder and harder by the day. Don’t think for one second these people don’t realize that. We have issues in Fort Madison right now that are working their way through state agencies because it is our job to shine a light on how our schools, cities, and counties are being run locally. It’s even more critical on a state and national scale.
Ahl won’t tell you that a well-worded letter to the administration is a good idea. He can’t. I will. Our readership doesn’t go too deeply into Illinois so taking advantage of an election year probably is not served properly here, but for Illinois residents it would certainly be worth letting candidates on the east side of the river know your displeasure at this very moment with what’s going on in Macomb.
Dr. Jack Thomas, 209 Sherman Hall, Western Illinois University, 1 University Circle, Macomb, IL 61455. Western Illinois University – (309) 298-1824; J-Thomas2@wiu.edu.
Also, donations to the university through alumni or other programs can be targeted to specific programs where they must be used. Maybe your donation should now just go to Tri-State Public Radio. News is a commodity as far as I’m concerned. It has a targeted value to each individual reader and that value is based on consumption. Maybe for a while anyway, your money is better spent on that commodity. And you get “Wait..Wait…Don’t Tell Me!”.
In full disclosure, I graduated from WIU. Folks like Deckle McClain, Don Black, and Rick Clemons taught me to be a journalist. I wonder where they’d come down on this.
Oh, and back in the city limits, a couple great things happened this week. A group of steadfast volunteers pulled the Mexican Fiesta out of the ashes and packed the two-block area on Avenue Q this weekend with authentic food and music for the 97th year. It had been listed as canceled as late as July 18th. In another demonstration of will, FMCSD Activities Director Jeremy Swink, former FMHS track coach Timm Lamb, current coach Brian Mendez, and Fort Madison Middle School Principal Todd Dirth salvaged the Timm Lamb Cross Country Invitational Thursday evening. The event was set for its traditional home of Rodeo Park, but heavy rains last week had the grounds in insufficient shape for the run. A makeshift course (that may not be so makeshift going forward) was mapped out to make the event a reality. Kudos.
But that’s Beside the Point.